International Drug Trafficking:
Law Enforcement Challenges for the Next Century


The Honorable Thomas A. Constantine
United States Drug Enforcement Administration

(This article is adapted from a paper presented at the United Nations Drug Control Program Seminar in Vienna, Austria, January, 1999.)

(The author wishes to express his grateful appreciation to Terry O'Neill, J.D. of Albany, New York for his editorial and research assistance in preparing this work for publication.)


Thomas A. Constantine was appointed by President William Jefferson Clinton to serve as Administrator of DEA in March, 1994. Mr. Constantine began his career in law enforcement as an Erie County, NY deputy sheriff in 1960. In 1962, he was appointed a member of the New York State Police. Over the next thirty-four years, Mr. Constantine rose through the ranks of the state police, serving in every rank. While working full-time and supporting a growing family, Mr. Constantine completed his undergraduate studies at Buffalo State College. In 1971, he was among the first members of the state police to earn a masters degree at the Graduate School of Criminal Jusice of the State University of New York. Governor Mario M. Cuomo nominated him for the post of superintendent of state police on December 10, 1986. He was the first superintendent in over thirty years to have come up through the ranks. Mr. Constantine served for seven years in that post until his appointment to head DEA. As superintendent, he increased educational requirements for newly appointed troopers, established a masters degree program for members of the state police, created the Community Narcotics Enforcement Teams, established the Lt. Col. Henry F. Williams Homicide Investigation Seminar, and presided over an increase in state police narcotics enforcement activity that generated enough revenue in seized criminal assets to fund a new, state-of-the-art Forensic Investigative Center for the state police.


Terry O'Neill is a graduate of Albany Law School. For the past fifteen years, he has been involved in New York's criminal justice system in wide range of capacities. He has specialized in the creation of statutory programs and not-for-profit entities that address issues of crime and drug abuse prevention, crime against the elderly, missing and exploited children and the rights of crime victims. In the early 1990's he worked alongside Mr. Constantine's state troopers in a successful effort to organize an indigenous police force for the Mohawk Indian Nation. He is a former speechwriter to Governor Mario M. Cuomo and his Director of Criminal Justice. Mr. O'Neill is also the author of a children's book called Constantine's Circus inspired by the exploits of the man he refers to as "the world's greatest cop."


I was greatly honored to have been asked to contribute to a journal of this caliber. Although I have had the immense privelege of being one of the first in my profession to have been able to do graduate work in the field of Criminal Justice, I will not represent that I have yet time for the broader study and deeper reflection that other contributors to and readers of this respected journal have done. Nonetheless, I believe that I can speak with some authority for all of the law enforcement professionals in the United States and abroad who have been on the front lines in our common struggle against the metasticizing cancer of international organized drug trafficking and violent crime. Indeed, I believe I must speak on behalf of "practitioners" in our field to help build a bridge of commonality and cooperation between men and women of action and men and women of reflection and insight. The contributions of both are equally essential in developing the means of eventually controlling this terrible threat to our society, its institutions and our families.

My career as a law enforcement officer began in 1960, barely two years after the celebrated Appalachin organized crime raid in a tiny, rural village in upstate New York exposed to the American people for the first time the reality, scope, breadth, arrogance and frightening power of the criminal conspiracies that had become by then well-entrenched in American society. It also began at the very inception of the scourge of illicit drug abuse and trafficking that became established as an enduring and endemic social pathology during that turbulent decade. For forty years, it has been my professional duty to serve with the legions of brave and selfless law enforcement professionals on the front lines in our struggle against these increasingly intertwined evils and it came in time to be my privilege to serve in executive capacities where I played a role in designing and implementing the strategies necessary to defend our communities from them.

So, in this article, I am more accurately and personally "speaking memory" and reporting what the Drug Enforcement Administration and its federal, foreign, state and local allies have been experiencing in the field rather than making at this point in time a formal contribution to the body of scholarship that has made our relatively young field of Criminal Justice the fastest growing field of intellectual endeavor in contemporary Liberal Arts. I look forward to the day when I will be able to make my own contribution to the enduring literature of our field; but for now, I offer this dispatch from the front in hope that it will help all of us to put our challenges and our triumphs in perspective as we attend to the task at hand.

The world has been transformed during the past thirty years due to rapidly advancing technology, transportation, communications, and political and economic shifts. All of this became even more evident with the end of the Cold War, with the resultant dominant position of the United States and the transformation of the former Soviet Union from a monolithic power to a congeries of turbulent new nations that do not necessarily have control over their borders. Expanding trade and greater economic interdependence between the United States and the other nations of North and South America and the Caribbean have created new opportunities both for prosperity and crime, emphatically including drug trafficking. These conditions have created an international environment in which powerful international organized crime syndicates have flourished, establishing vast networks of production, distribution and laundering of illicit profits. (Flynn, 1993). For law enforcement, the conditions are the most daunting in history; but I will show, nonetheless, that there is ample precedent to support the argument that vigorous, sustained and well-coordinated law enforcement can have a major impact on international organized crime and drug trafficking, no matter how sophisticated, lavishly equipped and well-insulated it becomes, particularly when the top leadership of these syndicates is identified, isolated and neutralized. In fact, I will demonstrate that law enforcement has been empirically proven in very recent history to have had a major impact on controlling and reducing the communal violence that has become so closely associated with international organized crime and drug trafficking.

The American Mafia and Drugs Before 1970

Well before the advent of today's drug pandemic and the attendant infiltration of organized criminal enterprises into almost every American community, our policy-makers were deeply concerned about the impact that organized crime was having on our nation. Over the past eighty-five years, the United States government repeatedly initiated major studies or reviews to identify major organized crime groups and gain insight into how these organizations operated. The fact that organized crime controls the distribution of drugs has been substantiated repeatedly in the findings of U.S. Government inquiries over the past five decades.

During the 1950's, organized crime burst upon the scene in a historic series of Congressional hearings. United States Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee convened a Congressional committee in 1950 to investigate the links between interstate commerce and organized crime. (Moore, 1974). These hearings, at which the star witness was mobster Frank Costello, boss of the Luciano/Genovese organization, reached the American people through the new medium of television. For the first time, organized crime was graphically exposed. Television beamed into American homes the lurid spectacle of its involvement in prostitution, drug trafficking, extortion and public corruption.

In 1957, a starker and more chilling portrait of organized crime emerged in hearings sponsored by the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, chaired by Arkansas Senator John McClellan. Even as this committee was in the initial stages of its inquiry, the existence of organized crime, or the mafia, was most spectaculary confirmed by an investigation initiated by a New York state trooper, Edgar Croswell. Trooper Croswell uncovered a meeting of mafia leaders in the upstate New York village of Appalachin where mob leaders had met to carve up a variety of illicit enterprises, including the drug trade, and end a period of violent conflict among mafia families. (Tyler, 1962; State of New York, 1992).

During 1963, Senator McClellan sponsored a series of hearings which clearly exposed the vitality of the American mafia and documented its highly organized hierarchical structure and strict code of organizational conduct, violations of which were punished with extreme brutality and murder. (Hess, 1973). Joseph Valachi, a federal convict and an admitted low-level member of the Genovese crime family, testified in vivid and minute detail on his day-to-day life in organized crime in a first-time-ever public account of life as a soldier of La Cosa Nostra, including its rites of initiation. (Maas, 1968). These televised hearings brought home to average Americans the savage violence and intimidation routinely used by the mafia to further and protect its criminal enterprises.

The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Justice, established in 1967, arrived at a definition of organized crime as "a society in itself that seeks to operate outside the control of the American people and their Government. It involves thousands of criminals working within structures as large and complex as those of any business corporation." Despite the facts that this definition was written over thirty years ago and that the organizations then under investigation are today largely dead and gone, it still accurately describes the essential nature of the new organized crime enterprises that we face today. (Blumenthal, 1988).

As Government commissions delved into the inner workings of the American mafia, millions of average people learned how it was structured and how it operated. Critical to the success of the mafia was its tight hierarchical structure, held together by loyalty, fear and profit. At the top level was a boss, or head of the family; next, an underboss; then a consigliere, or an advisor; then a capo who oversaw the day to day work of the organization; and then an army of soldiers, who executed the commands of the bosses and carried out the criminal activities of the group. (Cressey, 1969). The American mafia was controlled by twenty-four families, all of whom lived and operated within the United States. Their day-to-day activities included racketeering, prostitution, gambling, drugs, murders for hire, intimidation and protection rackets. (Anderson, 1979).

To understand the scale of organized crime during the 1960's and 1970's, consider that New York's Genovese family alone employed as many as twenty capos and 450 soldiers. Violence and intimidation were a routine part of the mafia's inner workings, including the routine use of murder to protect the organization and assassination to cow and intimidate public officials. The role of violence and intimidation was well-illustrated at the 1963 McClellan hearings and amplified twenty-three years later by the 1986 President's Commission on Organized Crime. In its final report, the commission wrote: "Violence and the threat of violence are an integral part of the criminal group. Both are used as means of control and protection against both members of the group who violate their commitment and those outside the group to protect it and maximize its power. Members are expected to commit, condone or authorize violent acts."

The Commission also noted the propensity for organized crime to breed corruption and flourish in an environment of corrupt officials. "Corruption is the central tool of the criminal protectors. The criminal group relies on a network of corrupt officials to protect the group from the criminal justice system. The success of organized crime is dependent upon this buffer, which helps to protect the criminal group from both civil and criminal government action." Violence, intimidation and corruption continue today to be essential tools used by international organized crime ---particularly the powerful drug syndicates operating from Colombia and Mexico---to secure and maintain their dominant positions in the world today.

Organized Crime Involvement in Drug Trafficking

There came a time when organized crime and the pathology of abuse of illicit drugs converged with historic consequences. To fully grasp the nature and scale of this phenomenon, a brief overview of the history of America's drug problem is necessary. The United States began its efforts to control the abuse of narcotics and other drugs very early in the Twentieth Century in response to society's realization that addiction was a growing problem with serious social and criminal consequences. (Musto, 1973). At that point, no one knew its size. With government controls established, reporting began. Early on drug addiction was assigned at the federal, state and local levels to social service agencies. Gradually, as the nexus between drug abuse and criminal activity began to be recognized, federal law enforcement agencies became involved in compiling and reporting statistics on addiction levels. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), a predecessor agency of the Drug Enforcement Administration, gathered statistics on drug addiction during the mid 1950's. By 1957, the FBN estimated that there were over 44,000 addicts in the United States, although many experts believed the number was closer to 100,000.

In 1957, most addicts were African-Americans between the ages of 21 and 30. By 1966, the demographics of drug use had changed. Of nearly 60,000 addicts reported by FBN, half were white. Over 50% of these addicts lived in New York, 12% in California, 11% in Illinois and the remainder spread around the country.

A snapshot of the drug situation in Baltimore, Maryland in 1950 compared with 1997 illustrates how the drug addiction problem has exploded over the years. In 1950, Baltimore had 300 addicts out of a municipal population of 949,708; that is to say that one in 3166 individuals residing in Baltimore was a heroin addict. In 1997, 38,985 heroin addicts were reported in Baltimore -- one heroin addict for every 17 residents of the city.

While the type of drug used by these addicts was not specified in FBN reporting, the predominant drug of choice at the time was heroin. (Courtwright, 1982). Since the majority of documented addicts was in the New York City area, it is no surprise that the five mafia families of New York controlled the heroin market. In fact, their control included 20 major cities around the nation. Reporting on the heroin situation during the 1950's-1970's, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement in 1986 stated: "The LCN (La Cosa Nostra) controlled an estimated 95% of all of the heroin entering New York City, as well as most of the heroin distributed throughout the United States."

During the heyday of their control of heroin trafficking, New York's crime families obtained heroin from Corsican sources who conspired with French seamen to bring the heroin to the United States. Once imported, it was distributed by the organized crime families to dealers working in low-income, minority communities. At the time, that was the market. During the 1950's, heroin sold for $100-$250 per ounce in New York City. In those days, heroin was typically pure but diluted or "cut" with inert agents to increase the amount that could be sold on the street. The New York mafia paid their Corsican sources $3,000-$6000 per kilogram which then sold on the New York wholesale market for $12,000-$22,000. Today, high purity Colombian heroin sells for $75,000 to $125,000 per kilogram on the wholesale market and $6000 per ounce at the retail level. (Lamour, 1974).

Changes in the heroin trade between the 1950's and the late 1970's resulted in new sources of heroin available on the streets of the United States and paved the way for the introduction of cocaine during the seventies. After the French Connection was broken up and the American mob's source of supply diminished, New York was no longer the focus of drug trafficking activities. (Moore, 1969). In 1986, the President's Commission on Organized Crime reported that the mafia's monopoly on heroin distribution effectively ended in 1972 when, under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States, Turkey banned opium production and the Marseilles-based French Connection collapsed. Amsterdam replaced Marseilles as the center of European heroin traffic, and Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami joined New York City as major U.S. distribution centers. Other trafficking groups rose to compete with the LCN for heroin dollars not only in New York City, but now, increasingly throughout the entire United States. The new patterns of distribution reflected a corresponding rise in demand in places that had seen little drug activity before. At the time, that demand was for heroin. But having established a distribution network for that commodity, the conduits were in place for other illicit drugs that would shortly appear.

The Rise of Cocaine

When cocaine emerged on the American drug scene in the 1970's, no one could have predicted how radically this drug would change the nature and scope of the international drug trade. Social change in America during the 1960's prepared the way for this new drug epidemic. Within a very few years, the prevalence of illicit drug use in the United States increased dramatically. During the 1960's, less than five percent of the population had had an experience with illicit drugs. By the early 1970's, that percentage had doubled to over 10%, and by 1979, when drug use in America peaked with almost a third of the population having tried drugs during a lifetime, it was clear that millions of Americans viewed drug use as, if not normal, certainly not shockingly exceptional behavior.

Prior to the 1960's American drug abuse was limited to specific segments of American society ---artists, underworld elites, and individuals living on the fringe of society. When cocaine acquired the cachet of a chic and benign drug, many became convinced that it could be used recreationally without long-term serious consequences. Few people fully understood the addictive nature of cocaine and it was not until the crack epidemic in the 1980's erupted that American society appreciated how dangerous and destructive cocaine really was.

Cocaine alkaloyd or "crack," as it became widely known, a potent, cheap, smokeable form of cocaine, was first reported in California and Texas. Its abuse was considered a local problem until 1985 when it appeared almost simultaneously in virtually every state and created a national medical emergency and a crisis in law enforcement. (Massing, 1989). Crack was far more addictive than powder cocaine and was marketed as its low-price alternative, making it readily available to poor people in urban and rural areas. (Ansley, 1994). The intense competition that characterized its street-level distribution and the behavioral effect of the drug itself on many users generated a tremendous level of violence and contributed significantly to the escalating crime rates and social problems which plagued America during the 1980's and early 1990's. Between 1984 and 1993, when the crack epidemic raged, violent crime in the United States increased over 50% and murders increased by 31%.

But the most dramatic change wrought by the introduction of cocaine to America in the last twenty five years was the rise of the international organized criminal syndicates based in the nation of Colombia.

Organized Crime in the 1980's: Cocaine and the Colombian Mafias

At the epicenter of the modern drug trade, Colombian drug mafias grew and thrived in an atmosphere of violence, intimidation and corruption. (Bagley, 1986). They took advantage of their country's geography to build an empire of unprecedented proportions. Close to Bolivia and Peru, where the native coca plant had been cultivated for many centuries, Colombia had coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, giving traffickers ample routes to send their product to the United States and elsewhere. The first major cocaine organization to dominate the trade was based in the inland city of Medellin. The Medellin cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder, the Ochoa brothers and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, was organized along the model of a multi-national corporation with regional cocaine manufacturing and distribution networks controlled by mid-level managers who transported cocaine to the United States and Europe by air, land and sea. This organization also established complex international financial networks to launder its illicit profits.

In addition to their business acumen, some Medellin cartel members viewed themselves as revolutionaries who used cocaine as a powerful weapon to oppose the interests of the United States. Violence and intimidation were essential to the conduct of their criminal enterprises. The Medellin cartel employed an army of security forces to carry out acts of terror and assassinations. These private armies murdered hundreds of Colombian police officials, judges, journalists, and innocent people, including a Justice Minister and Presidential candidate. (Barr, 1990). One terrorist act carried out by the Medellin group included the bombing of an Avianca airliner in 1989, which killed 110 people and the bombing of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) headquarters in December, 1989, which killed 50 people and wounded 200. In a truly spectacular demonstration of its determination to intimidate Colombian society, cartel boss Pablo Escobar in 1990 engineered the kidnapping of ten prominent individuals, nine of them well-known journalists, in an effort to extort from the government its assurance that he and other traffickers would not be extradited to the United States. (Garcia Marquez, 1997).

The government of Colombia fought back valiantly and eventually, the Medellin cartel fell on hard times as its leaders were arrested or killed. (Sen, 1990). Carlos Lehder was extradited to the United States in 1987 and Rodriguez Gacha was killed in a shootout with Colombian authorities in 1989. Extradition, however, was outlawed by the Colombian Government in 1991. While this prompted the Ochoa brothers and Pablo Escobar to surrender to the Government to take advantage of the lenient sentences and prison conditions available to them, it removed the specter of the far harsher santions under American justice. As a result, in Envigado Prison on the outskirts of his home town and relieved of the deterrent threat of extradition, Escobar continued to run his lucrative cocaine business. After ordering the killing of a score of his own associates suspected of disloyalty, Escobar escaped from prison. After a lengthy manhunt by Colombian police officials, he was killed by police in December, 1993.

As the Medellin cartel's leadership was neutralized and its capabilities significantly degraded, the Cali mafia quietly coalesced and assumed power equal to its predecessor. Beginning as a loose association of five independent drug trafficking organizations, the Cali mafia employed many of the principles used by the traditional Italian mafia. Led by the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers, Jose Santa Cruz Londono and Pacho Herrera, the Cali mafia was far more sophisticated than the Medellin cartel and eventually established its control over all aspects of the cocaine trade. It evolved into a horizontally-organized enterprise that controlled production, transportation, wholesale distribution and money laundering. Whereas the Medellin cartel seemed to revel in the terror and violence that became its trademark---and ultimately contributed to its downfall --- the Cali leadership eschewed indiscriminate violence, further contributing to their image as legitimate businessmen. However, when the Cali mafia employed violence to attain its goals---and it frequently did---it was precise and exacting. In the aftermath of the arrests of the Cali drug mafia leaders by the Colombian National Police in 1995, Cali assassins killed more than a dozen suspected government informants. They also used violence within the United States when necessary, as evidenced in the murder of the journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, an outspoken critic of the Cali mafia who was murdered in Queens, New York in 1992. In May, 1996, John Harold Mena, who was in charge of the Cali mafia's New York operations testified in court that Jose Santacruz Londono had himself ordered de Dios' murder.

As with La Cosa Nostra, a key to the Cali mafia's success was its tight organizational structure. (Anti-Drug Effort in the Americas, 1999). Their vast responsibilities and their intricate distribution networks in the United States necessitated that the Cali mafia rely on a sophisticated system which ensured maximum efficiency and minimal risk. Drug trafficking organizations from Colombia had always controlled the cocaine trade from top to bottom. Within South America, the Cali mafia, and before it, the Medellin cartel, depended upon the acquisition of tons of coca products from Bolivia and Peru which was then converted into cocaine hydrochloride, generally in Colombia. These laboratories in Colombia ranged from primitive labs in sheds and apartments to lavishly equipped compounds capable of producing up to one metric ton of pure cocaine per week.

The traffickers also devised ingenious ways to deliver tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe over the years. Routes have changed and techniques have been refined over the past several decades. Today over half of the cocaine entering the United States is shipped from Colombia through Mexico. Maritime vessels are the primary means used by traffickers to smuggle cocaine from South America to Mexico, using the Pacific or Caribbean routes. Traffickers are also using the highways of Central America to transport tons of cocaine from Colombia into Mexico. For a period of time, it was customary for traffickers from Colombia to ship metric ton quantities of cocaine into Mexico by plane. The notorious trafficker Amado Carillo Fuentes grew so famous for his use of this method that he was known by the sobriquet Lord of the Skies. This method of transport has, however, grown less common in recent years. Whatever way the drug arrives in Mexico, once it is safely delivered to the traffickers, independent Mexico-based transportation groups subcontracted by the Colombian trafficking organizations arrange for the delivery of the cocaine to contacts within the United States.

Colombian Mafia Structure Within the United States

During its heyday, the Cali mafia relied on a complex distribution network within the United States. The system it set in place is still being used on a daily basis in many major U.S. cities. Using an intricate system of "cells" within the United States, the Colombian trafficking groups set up a presence in a number of geographic areas. Using the cell model employed by international terrorist organizations, the Colombian mafias carry out specialized functions such as the storage of cocaine, transportation, communications, money laundering, wholesale distribution, personnel and inventory which are all handled by employees of the cell. Each cell employs between 10-25 individuals who operate with little or no knowledge about the membership or responsibilities of other cells operating within the same or other cities. (International Organized Crime Syndicates, 1998).

Typically, the head of each cell reports to a regional director who manages several cells. This regional director, in turn, reports directly to one of the major drug lords of a particular organization or his designee, based in Colombia. Characterizing the way these groups operate is a rigid, top-down command and control structure where trusted lieutenants have day-to-day operating responsibilities, with the ultimate power residing in those leaders in Colombia. Upper echelon members of these cells are generally family members or long time associates who have gained the trust of the handful of mafia leaders running the empire. The cell heads are typically recruited for the mafia's overseas assignments from the criminal "talent pool" in the syndicate stronghold cities of Cali, Medellin or Bogota. Cells may also comprise other trustworthy individuals from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and other places.

Because the mafia bosses are headquartered overseas, they must maintain a highly capable communications system which protects the content of their communications and provides operatives with enough information to accomplish specific tasks. The cell members report on a daily basis to their bosses in Colombia using cellular phones, faxes, pagers and other communications methods. Additionally, the drug lords have employed an aggressive counter-surveillance system to thwart law enforcement, including the use of staged drug transactions on communications devices they believe are monitored; limited-time use of cell phones and pagers (generally 2-4 weeks); calling cards used at public telephones and encrypted communications devices. (Anti-Drug Effort in the Americasl, 1999).

The Colombian trafficking groups have traditionally concentrated their activities on the wholesale drug distribution level and have relied on an army of indigenous operatives within the United States to distribute drugs on a retail basis. Criminals from diverse ethnic groups including Dominicans, Mexicans, Cubans, Jamaicans, as well as African-Americans, are used by Colombian drug bosses to distribute cocaine, crack, and now heroin. The groups involved in drug retailing---including established gangs such as the Crips, the Bloods and Jamaican "posses"---are those groups predominantly responsible for the violence and murder that characterize the crack trade within the United States.

The Rise of Organized Crime Groups from Mexico in the 1990's

The influence and power of organized crime groups in Mexico, fueled by the enormous profits of the drug trade, has increased exponentially over the past several decades and shifted rapidly into high gear when they became involved in the cocaine distribution business during the late 1980's and early 1990's. When interdiction and enforcement activity surged in the Caribbean and South Florida area during the 1980's, cocaine traffickers turned to Mexico as a conduit for U.S.-based cocaine shipments. Because traffickers from Mexico had established themselves as capable poly-drug smugglers over the years, Colombian trafficking organizations found a solid, well-organized transhipment infrastructure and ample expertise to assist them in getting their drugs to market. (Organized Criminal Drug Trafficking Syndicates, 1999).

By the late 1980's, an estimated 50-70% of the cocaine available in the United States entered through Mexico. Today, Mexico remains the primary corridor for cocaine, as well as methamphetamine, a synthetic drug with effects similar to cocaine, that was being manufactured in Mexico. Beginning in the late eighties and evolving into the 1990's, the role of traffickers from Mexico began to change dramatically as traffickers from Colombia began to pay Mexico-based transporters in cocaine---sometimes as much as half of the load---rather than cash as compensation for their transportation services. Organized crime figures from Mexico began using their long-established contacts to emerge as major cocaine traffickers in their own right, especially after the arrest of the Cali mafia leaders in 1995. Today, the U.S. cocaine market is divided, with traffickers from Mexico dominating cocaine markets in the West, and increasingly, in the Midwest. Groups from Colombia and the Dominican Republic still control cocaine trafficking along the East Coast of the United States, although there are recent indications that traffickers from Mexico are becoming deeply involved in cocaine trafficking to places like New York. In the last two years, Mexican cells within the United States have grown in size and influence and are expanding their power in cocaine markets long dominated by Colombians, such as New York and Chicago.

In addition to seizing a prominent role in cocaine trafficking during the early 1990's, traffickers from Mexico, who had always been skilled in the production and trafficking of numerous drugs, committed themselves to large-scale methamphetamine production and trafficking during this same period. Methamphetamine, which had appealed to a relatively small number of American users, emerged as a major drug of choice during the mid-1990's. Traditionally controlled by outlaw motorcycle gangs, methamphetamine production and trafficking was now being entirely controlled by organized crime drug groups from Mexico, operating in that country and in California.

Statistics demonstrated that methamphetamine use and availability had dramatically increased in a short period of time. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) indicated that emergency room episodes involving methamphetamine increased from 4,900 in 1991 to 17,400 in 1997, an increase of 280%. The areas hardest hit by the meth epidemic were Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Concurrently, law enforcement seizures of methamphetamine and methamphetamine laboratories were also increasing. Seizures along the Southwest Border, the epicenter of the trafficking activities of organizations from Mexico, increased from 7 kilograms in 1992 to almost 1400 kilograms in 1998. During the same period of time, seizures of methamphetamine transported by Mexican nationals on U.S. highways increased from 1 kilogram in 1993 to 383 in 1998.

At the present time, methamphetamine trafficking and abuse are spreading across the United States at a frightening pace. With their primary methamphetamine production headquartered in remote areas of California, the surrogates of Mexican organized crime groups are also establishing a presence in cities in the Midwest, the Deep South and the East Coast in order to further their business interests.

Organized criminal groups from Mexico have not yet joined together and evolved into a monolithic entity like the Medellin cartel or the Cali mafia. Several powerful independent organizations exist and operate today from headquarters in a number of Mexican cities. The Carillo Fuentes organization out of Juarez remains one of the most powerful of the Mexican organized crime families despite the death of its leader, Amado in 1997. The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix organization, operates in Sinaloa, Jalisco, Michoacan, Chiapas and Baja California. This group orchestrates the shipment of multi-ton quantities of cocaine and marijuana to the United States, and is also responsible for heroin and methamphetamine production and trafficking. Assassins on the payroll of this organization operate on the streets of San Diego and are responsible for many violent acts in Mexico and the United States. (International Organized Crime Syndicates, 1998).

The Amezcua-Contreras brothers, operating out of Guadalajara, are major methamphetamine producers and traffickers, relying on their expert smuggling skills to obtain vast quantities of the precursor chemicals necessary for large-scale methamphetamine production. The other major narcotics organized crime family operating in Mexico today is the Caro Quintero organization out of Sonora, Mexico. It is responsible for marijuana production and smuggling, as well as heroin and cocaine trafficking. Most of the major organized crime narcotics traffickers in Mexico today have been indicted within the United States for their involvement in crimes or seizures in the U.S.

Like the mafia groups from the United States and Colombia that preceded them, organized crime syndicates from Mexico are extremely violent and routinely employ intimidation and the corruption of public officials to achieve their objectives. There have been numerous incidents which illustrate the ruthlessness of these organizations, including the recent gangland-style massacre of 22 people -- including eight children -- in Baja California Norte carried out by rival drug traffickers in September, 1998.

Heroin's Resurgence in the United States

Heroin did not disappear from America when the mafia's Corsican supply of heroin was eliminated in 1972. Over time, other sources of supply emerged from Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia and the Middle East and the American mafia continued to distribute heroin to a market of users concentrated in major cities. Through the 70's, 80's and 90's the number of heroin users continued to grow. (Inciardi and Harrison, 1998). However, the appeal of heroin was largely held in check over those decades in part because of its low quality, which made injection the only effectivemeans of ingestion, and in part because intravenous drug use became widely known to be a major vector for the transmission of the deadly AIDS virus. (Chaisson, Bacchetti & Osmond, 1989) The abundance of cocaine provided drug abusers with a ready and very attractive alternative.

The heroin problem that exists in the United States today is controlled not by American organized crime, but by a new group of international organized crime figures, again, from Colombia. In much the same way that their Medellin and Cali predecessors ensured their dominance over the cocaine trade in the 1980's, heroin traffickers from Colombia are employing savvy marketing concepts to successfully rebuild American users' interest in heroin. (Colombian Heroin Crisis, 1998).

Beginning in the early 1990's, independent traffickers from Colombia began to supply retail level outlets primarily in the Northeast United States with high quality, pure heroin. Colombian traffickers had spent several years cultivating opium and refining their heroin production capabilities, positioning themselves to take advantage of a gradually diminishing crack market. By supplying dealers with high purity heroin to give away as free samples, and by establishing "brand names" to garner customer loyalty, Colombian traffickers quickly gained a foothold in the burgeoning heroin market in cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. They also began using Puerto Rico as a major transit area to distribute their product to ports of entry such as Florida and New Orleans.

The Colombians were bringing something new and fatally seductive to the market. Their heroin was more attractive than competitors' supplies because of its low price---$75,000 per kilo in New York City. The new Colombian heroin was also of an unprecedentedly high purity. In the 1970's the purity of retail heroin averaged between 2% and 7%. According to the Domestic Monitor Program, the average purity for retail heroin in 1997 was 38.4%, over 5 times higher than it was only a decade ago. Because heroin of this purity can be smoked like crack or snorted like powder cocaine, it is appealing to a steadily growing market of new users.

Through a variety of monitoring programs DEA has put in place over the years, including the Heroin Signature Program (HSP), the dominance of Colombian heroin was confirmed. In 1997, HSP figures confirm that 75% of the heroin seized and analyzed by federal law enforcement that year came from South America. In contrast, as recently as 1989, 88% of the heroin analyzed was of Southeast Asian origin. (Colombian Heroin Crisis, 1998).

The Law Enforcement Response

America's long experience with organized crime over the decades necessitated the development and execution of an aggressive strategy to identify, target and incapacitate the leadership of these organizations. During the 1960's, United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy intensified law enforcement efforts aimed at the mafia. (Goldfarb, 1995). The successful result of this approach is evident in the current diminished state of the American mafia today. By establishing a program of nation-wide strike forces and sophisticated investigative strategies that ultimately broke the "code of silence" which protected the traditional mafias for so long, and by attacking and dismantling the command and control echelons of mafia organizations, U.S. law enforcement since the 1960's has successfully addressed the organized crime problem which had bedeviled America for decades. (Blumenthal, 1988).

DEA employs a similar, aggressive strategy against the leaders of international organized crime groups who are responsible for the distribution of narcotics into and within the United States. One key difference between this strategy and the one that guided law enforcement's efforts to dismantle the American mafia is a recognition that the leadership of today's international drug syndicates reside and operate in foreign countries. The American mafia leaders carried out all of their operations on U.S. soil and lived in American cities and communities, physically and jurisdictionally within our reach, so that U.S. law enforcement was ultimately able to apprehend them and bring them to justice.

DEA's approach is threefold. First, though they operate outside of our geographical boundaries, DEA targets the top leadership of these international organized crime syndicates by building solid cases against them and indicting them, often repetitively, in U.S. jurisdictions. Second, DEA attacks the surrogates of these international drug lords who operate on U.S. soil, represent the highest levels of the command and control structure of these organizations and are responsible for carrying out the orders of their bosses. Third, DEA goes after the leaders of the domestic criminal conspiracies that distribute drugs in local communities and are responsible for the vast majority of the violent crimes that are associated with their drug activities.

Accomplishing these goals is possible when a variety of investigative tools are used and when U.S. law enforcement officials have a sound and productive working relationship with their foreign counterparts. Within the United States, DEA employs complex wiretap and other communication intercept investigations to identify these organizations at all levels, and to obtain actionable information which can lead to the dismantling of these organizations. Drug seizures are also exploited to their fullest potential by gathering information gleaned during controlled deliveries that further identify important cell members and their modes of operation. Additionally, complex long-term conspiracy investigations are conducted to gain critical information on the way these organizations operate and to build solid cases against the leaders of these syndicates who presume they are"untouchable." Close coordination with other law enforcement entities within the United States and with foreign law enforcement counterparts also greatly enhances the potential and actual success of these investigations.

By employing the strategy set forth above, DEA and its numerous law enforcement partners around the world have achieved many notable successes. One recent example is the successful cooperative working relationship between DEA and the Colombian National Police (CNP) which led to the arrest and incarceration of the top leadership of the Cali mafia in 1995 and 1996. As has always been the case with organized crime, the Cali mafia members attempted to repeatedly thwart law enforcement's efforts to apprehend them through intimidation and corruption. Key workers within Cali cells in the United States faced violence and death if they were even suspected of cooperating with law enforcement in any way, a point that was illustrated by a Colombian job application that was seized by DEA during a raid in New York. The application specified the need for the applicant to list relatives living in Colombia in a clear attempt by the Cali mafia to gain human collateral to guarantee the loyalty and silence of their workers in the United States.

While the difficulties faced by law enforcement to dismantle the mafias in the United States and Colombia seemed almost insurmountable at times, they pale in comparison to those posed by current efforts to bring the leaders of Mexican organized crime groups to justice. The international organized crime groups based today in Mexico are extremely powerful, involved in a variety of diverse drug trafficking activities, and have closer geographic proximity to the United States than did their Cali mafia counterparts. The infiltration of criminals from Mexico into numerous U.S. communities including areas where organized crime does not usually operate further complicates the problem.

The criminal organizations in Mexico have become increasingly more powerful over the past five years. The Government of Mexico, after having determined that trafficking organizations had compromised virtually all of that nation's civilian law enforcement organizations, directed that the Mexican military would assume responsibility for targeting drug trafficking organizations until critical improvements in the law enforcement organizations could be made. Government of Mexico officials have stated that it will take years for Mexican institutions to gain the professionalism and integrity necessary to mount an all-out assault on organized crime and drug trafficking organizations operating in that nation. (Toro, 1995). The obstacles facing law enforcement are enormous in Mexico. Traffickers are used to operating in an environment where criminals routinely intimidate, bribe and corrupt officials, making it very difficult for law enforcement in the United States to share sensitive information without fear of its compromise-- with potentially deadly results. (International Organized Crime Syndicates, 1998).

There have been intensified attempts to improve the present situation facing U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, including the formation of specially trained and well equipped teams that have been screened to ensure the highest degree of integrity. However, to date, these initiatives have resulted in limited success and progress has been disappointingly slow.

Despite these obstacles, DEA believes that the consistent and determined application of aggressive law enforcement principles and techniques is the most promising way to dismantle international organized crime syndicates. We have seen the results. The dismantling of the traditional organized crime families in the United States stands as a powerful precedent. More recently, dramatically falling rates of violent crime in the United States over the past six years ---to levels not seen since the 1960's --- are, we are convinced, overwhelmingly attributable to this kind of aggressive law enforcement at all levels.

The New York City example is perhaps the most compelling illustration of this point. In the early 1990's, after three decades of rapidly increasing levels of violent crime which were exacerbated by the crack epidemic, the City of New York embarked upon an ambitious program to enhance its law enforcement capabilities. A massive infusion of resources mandated by the Safe Streets/Safe Cities Act enacted by the State Legislature enabled city leaders to increase police department manpower by 30%, adding 8,000 officers. Arrests for all crimes, including drug dealing, drug gang activity and quality of life violations which had been tolerated for many years, increased by 50%. The capacity of New York's state prison system was also steadily increased to accommodate the influx of criminals convicted of drug crimes that now carried newly enhanced penalties. The results of these measures were dramatic: the total number of New York City homicides in 1998---606---was less than the number of murders recorded in all of 1964. Over an eight year period the number of homicides was reduced from 2,262 to 606--a reduction of 70%.

DEA has also been aggressive in developing and implementing innovative tactical programs to reduce violent, narcotics-related crime. One enforcement program, the Mobile Enforcement Teams (MET), is DEA's conrtribution to community-based policing. MET lends support to local and state law enforcement agencies that are experiencing problems arising from violent drug related crime in their communities. The MET strategy capitalizes on the different capabilities of different levels of law enforcement, putting them together in flexible combinations that yield in results far more that the sum of their parts. The results of this program over the past four years indicate that cooperative and coordinated multiagency enforcement of drug laws does have a lasting impact on reducing crime and improving the quality of life for residents of communities across the nation. Statistics compiled by DEA indicate that in areas where DEA has deployed METs, assaults have been reduced by 5%, homicides by 11% and robberies by 13%.

Aggressive law enforcement that targets the command and control of organized crime groups and neutralizes mafias' abilities to intimidate and corrupt has worked in the United States and in Colombia, as was mentioned previously. There are other countries where this is also true. In Italy, experts proved that aggressive law enforcement was the most effective tool in that nation's efforts to eliminate the mafia -- an entity that had been entrenched in Italian society for many generations. The Government of Thailand also demonstrated the value of sustained law enforcement efforts when the top leadership of the Shan United Army, Opium Lord Khun Sa's powerful and until then "untouchable" heroin trafficking organization was arrested in 1994. Several members of this leadership were extradited to the United States where they faced justice for their crimes. (Lintner, 1994).


No government or society in the world today is untouched by the problem of narcotics trafficking by organized criminal enterprises. Wherever they may be headquartered, their tentacles reach into every part of the globe. In the forests of Bolivia, Indians who lived off the land for thousands of generations have been swept up into the cocaine economy as forced plantation labor. (Weil, 1995). Dirt farmers in the remotest regions of Mexico are being driven from their land by narco-traffickers who don't want them to see what goes on at their clandestine airstrips. The turbulence in Central Asia has created a gold rush atmosphere that has opened whole new channels of commerce for heroin. Drug profits are financing vicious civil wars, undermining democratic governments, and corrupting businesses and financial institutions in every nation. Addiction and diseases transmitted through behaviors related to drug use are creating a world public health disaster. From the slums of Karachi to the affluent suburbs of prosperous American cities, lives are being twisted and often snuffed out as a consequence of the worldwide commerce in dangerous drugs.

The international criminal organizations operating on a global basis today represent the gravest criminal threat that our nations have ever faced at any time in our collective history. But history has also taught us that consistent, aggressive law enforcement can and does work when resources and will are focused on eliminating the command and control structure of these organizations and eliminating the environments of intimidation, corruption and violence which allow them to flourish. The American mafia, the Medellin cartel and the Cali mafia each rose to immense power and then withered before the onslaught of governments determined to root them out and destroy them.

In the coming decades, it will be critical for all nations to make the strongest commitment to use every means at our disposal to fight international criminal organizations as they become more deeply involved in the global narcotics trade. We are facing an enemy who has great resources and even greater resourcefulness, an enemy who is wily and adaptable, an enemy who will unhesitatingly resort to violence and intimidation, who is constrained by neither constitution nor conscience, who will murder and corrupt, and who knows no remorse. As we craft our response to that enemy, we must resolve to match the traffickers' flexibility and resources. All of our governments must work together and apply the expertise of diplomats, political leaders and opinion makers in our mutual efforts to rid our nations of the evil influences of these criminal syndicates. As we have seen, they can be beaten and if we take inspiration from these precedents, their successors will surely meet the same fate.


America's Habit: Drug Abuse, Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime: Report to the President and the Attorney General. The President's Commission on Organized Crime. Washington, DC: United States Printing Office. 1986.

Anderson, Annelise G. 1979. The Business of Organized Crime: A Cosa Nostra Family. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Anti-Drug Efforts in the Americas and Implementation of the Drug Elimination Act: Hearing before the Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. House of Representatives. March 3, 1999.

Bagley, Bruce. 1988. "Colombia and the War on Drugs." Foreign Affairs. 67:1.

Barr, Cameron. 1990. "Colombia's Blodied Bench." The American Lawyer 12:2.

Blumenthal, Ralph. 1988. The Last Days of the Sicilians: At War with the Mafia: The FBI Assault on the Pizza Connection. New York: Times Books..

Chaisson, R.E., Bacchetti, P, and Osmond, D. 1989. " Cocaine Use and HIV Infection in Intravenous Drug Use in San Francisco." Journal of the American Medical Association 261:4:561.

Colombian Heroin Crisis: Hearing before the Commmittee on International Relations. House of Representatives. June 24, 1998.

Courtwright, 1982. David. Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction in the United States before 1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cressey, Donald. 1969. Theft of a Nation: The Structure of Organized Crime in America. New York: Harper and Row.

Drug Trafficking: A Report to the President of the United States. United States. Department of Justice. Washington, DC: United States Printing Office. 1989.

Flynn, Stephen. 1993. "Worldwide Drug Scourge: The Expanding Trade in Illegal Drugs." Brookings Review: 11: Winter: 6-11.

Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. 1997. News of a Kidnapping. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hess, Henner. 1973. Mafia and Mafiosi: The Structure of Power. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Inciardi, James A. and Lana D. Harrison, eds. 1998. Heroin in the Age of Crack Cocaine. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

International Organized Crime Syndicates and their Impact on the United States: Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, Narcotics and Terrorism. Senate. February 26, 1998.

Lamour, Catherine. 1974. The International Commerce: Opium from Growers and Pushers. New York: Pantheon Books.

Maas, Peter. 1968. The Valachi Papers. New York: Putnam's.

Massing, Michael. October 1, 1989. "Crack's Destructive Sprint Across America." The New York Times Magazine.

Moore, Robert Lowell. 1969. The French Connection: The World's Most Crucial Narcotics Investigation. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Moore, William H. 1974. The Kefauver Committee and the Politics of Crime. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

Musto, David F. 1973. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Organized Criminal Drug Trafficking Syndicates Based in Mexico: Hearing before the Committee on Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice. House of Representatives. March 4, 1999.

Sen, Sankar, 1990. "Drug War in Colombia." Police Journal 63:2 .

State of New York. Executive Department. Division of State Police. 1992. "The New York State Police: 1917-1992." Albany, New York.

Surrett, W.R. 1988. The International Narcotics Trade: An Overview of its Dimensions, Production Sources, and Organizations. Congressional Research Service Report No. 88-643-F. Washington, DC, Library of Congress.

Toro, Maria Celia. 1995. Mexico's "War" on Drugs: Causes and Consequences. Studies on the Impact of the Illegal Drug Trade. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner Publishers.

Tyler, Gus. 1962. Organized Crime in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

tyger jumping through hoop

Questions? E-mail Us!

PO Box 7223
Capitol Station
Albany, NY 12224-0223

518-465-3200 FAX