A growing partnership between the cocaine cartels of Colombia and the seven major drug families of Mexico is dramatically shifting the international flow of cocaine into Southern California and accounts for record seizures of the drug in Los Angeles during 1987, federal law enforcement officials said this week.
The increased use by Colombian cocaine smugglers of Mexico’s traditional heroin and marijuana drug shipment routes, known to authorities as the “Mexican pipeline,” was cited as one of the main reasons for a 700% one-year increase in cocaine seizures along the California border and a 400% increase by federal agents in Los Angeles.
An estimated 30,000 pounds of cocaine was seized collectively by federal agents and the nearly 50 local law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County, an overall 50% increase over the 20,000 pounds seized locally in 1986 and almost 50 times the amount of cocaine confiscated in the area just five years ago.
Among the most dramatic increases was a record haul by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which seized 8,605 pounds of cocaine in the Los Angeles region during 1987 compared to 2,231 pounds during the previous 12 months.
“The Mexicans have struck a bargain with the South Americans,” said the DEA’s Los Angeles spokesman, Roger Guevara. “Our intelligence indicates the Colombians started using the pipeline a few years ago, and are relying more and more on the old Mexican heroin routes because federal interdiction has been so successful in Florida.
“There’s no doubt they are beating us to death, and the situation is just expected to increase in 1988,” Guevara added. “They have struck up a hell of an alliance.”
The cocaine partnership with Colombia has become so important to the Mexican drug families, according to several sources, that it was the principal reason for the torture-murder of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena, who was allegedly killed by Mexican drug boss Rafael Caro Quintero in Guadalajara in 1985.
“They were just beginning to open the pipeline and Camarena was hurting them bad,” said one DEA source. “He was taking down millions in cocaine, and making some major cases. They were planning on expansion and they decided to eliminate him.”
Despite the increased use of Mexican shipment routes, officials said most of the cocaine transported into the United States is still arriving in Florida, where DEA agents seized 52,800 pounds of the drug during the last year. A DEA spokesman in Washington said, however, that the percentage of cocaine smuggled through Mexico is beginning to rival the Florida tonnage.
Good Part Via Mexico
“We estimate that 30% to 40% of all the cocaine entering the United States is now coming through Mexico,” said DEA spokesman Laurence Gallina. “That compares to a minimal amount only a couple of years ago when virtually all of it was moving through Florida.”
Besides the record seizures reported by DEA agents in the Los Angeles region, the flow of cocaine across the Mexican border by plane and track and around it by ocean routes led to a 300% increase in seizures by U.S. Customs Service agents in Los Angeles and a staggering 700% increase in Customs seizures at border crossing points.
“Not more than five years ago, there were very limited coke seizures on the West Coast. The shift began in the last four years, after we started a full court press on the Colombians in Florida,” said John E. Hensley, assistant regional commissioner for the Customs Service.
“In some cases the Mexicans buy cocaine directly from the Colombians, but more often they are paid protection to move it through their territory,” Hensley said. “In most cases, the Mexicans store it and guarantee the safety while the Colombians actually move it through Mexico and into the United States. A figure of about 10% of total volume is probably close to what the Mexicans charge.”
More U.S. Resources
Part of the increase in cocaine seizures was explained by Hensley as the result of increased federal resources provided to both the DEA and Customs during 1987. Another factor, he said, is a “glut” on the cocaine market in Colombia and Bolivia that has increased competition between the drug cartels and driven kilogram prices down from more than $60,000 in the early 1980s to as low as $10,000 in 1987.
“It’s the supply side in Colombia and Bolivia and Peru, not any increase in demand in the United States, where the user population has begun to stabilize,” said Hensley.
“It’s like the oil situation in the Middle East. There’s a glut on the cocaine market in South America. We’ve seen about a 10,000% increase in acres under cultivation in the last five years. We now have everybody and his brother in Colombia producing coca paste to make some extra money.”
Hensley and other federal officials said most federal cocaine arrests and prosecutions are of Colombian citizens, although an increasing number of those arrested are Mexican nationals. The number of arrests by Customs and DEA agents in the Los Angeles region reached nearly 1,500 in 1987, compared to 1,100 in 1986.
Not the Final Stop
According to U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner, Los Angeles is not the final stop for a growing share of the cocaine shipped into Southern California. He said the city has become a major storage and transshipment center for much of the rest of the United States.
“I can tell you from discussions I’ve had with U.S. attorneys in Chicago, Detroit and even New York City that the cocaine coming from Mexico to Los Angeles is showing up increasingly in those cities,” Bonner said.
“Typically these are the 50- and 150-pound caches that are moved out of the large stash areas here. We have a situation in which extraordinary amounts of cocaine are being stashed all over the Los Angeles area,” Bonner added.
Bonner said the new Colombian emphasis on shipping cocaine through Mexico is clearly the result of federal interdiction efforts in Florida, where there is a “natural ocean chokepoint” that permits authorities to seriously impede Colombian air and sea smuggling operations.
“The Colombians are suffering such significant losses in Florida that it has become more desirable to come up through the Southwest even though the route is thousands of miles longer and far more costly,” Bonner said.
“The Colombian cartels have moved both their distribution and money-laundering activities as a result,” he added. “It is now reliably estimated that $1 billion is being laundered out of the country by the Colombian organizations that have moved from Florida to Los Angeles.”
While the increased activity in Los Angeles by major Colombian cocaine rings resulted in a corresponding increase in federal drug seizures, there was only a comparatively minor increase in cocaine seizures by the Los Angeles Police Department, the most active local police agency in drug enforcement.
The LAPD, which seized only 358 pounds of cocaine five years ago, equalled its 1986 record haul of more than 13,000 pounds of the drug by the end of November. Complete figures for 1987 are not yet available.
Change in Routes
Chief LAPD spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said part of the reason for the contrast between the dramatically increased federal seizures and the relatively static LAPD statistics is that federal interdiction efforts in Southern California were increased substantially in 1987 because of the change in smuggling routes.
“I think there has been a tremendous increase in federal commitment throughout California and we’re thankful for it,” Booth said. “They have more resources now and they are seizing a lot more cocaine. In terms of the amount of narcotics being trafficked, of course, there’s still enough around to destroy us if not stopped.
“In Los Angeles, narcotics remains the No. 1 crime problem,” Booth added. “We are running close to 50,000 narcotics arrests a year now--and we estimate that 61% of the homicides in Los Angeles are related one way or another to narcotics.”