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Mexican drug gang sets up shop in Chicago

| Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, 7:52 p.m.

CHICAGO — A few miles west of downtown, past a terra cotta-tiled gateway emblazoned with “Bienvenidos,” the smells and sights of Mexico spill onto 26th Street. The Mexican tricolor waves from brick storefronts. Vendors offer authentic churros, chorizo and tamales.

Chicago's Little Village neighborhood is home to more than 500,000 residents of Mexican descent and is known for its Cinco de Mayo festival and bustling Mexican Independence Day parade. But federal authorities say Little Village is home to something else: an American branch of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel.

Members of Mexico's most powerful cartel are selling a record amount of heroin and methamphetamine from Little Village, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. From there, the drugs are moving onto the streets of south and west Chicago, where they are sold in assembly-line fashion in mostly African American neighborhoods.

“Chicago, with 100,000 gang members to put the dope on the street, is a logistical winner for the Sinaloa cartel,” Jack Riley, the DEA's special agent in charge of the Chicago field division, said after a tour through Little Village. “We have to operate now as if we're on the Mexican border.”

It's not just Chicago. Increasingly, as drug cartels have amassed more control and influence in Mexico, they have extended their reach deeper into the United States, establishing inroads across the Midwest and Southeast, according to American counternarcotics officials. An extensive distribution network supplies regions across the country, relying largely on regional hubs like this city, with ready markets located off busy interstate highways.

One result: Seizures of heroin and methamphetamine have soared in recent years, according to federal statistics.

The U.S. government has provided Mexico with surveillance equipment, communication gear and other assistance under the $1.9 billion Merida Initiative, the anti-drug effort started more than four years ago. But critics say that north of the border, the federal government has barely put a dent into a sophisticated infrastructure that supports more than $20 billion a year in drug cash flowing back to Mexico.

The success of the Mexican cartels in building their huge drug distribution and marketing networks across the county is a reflection of the U.S. government's intelligence and operational failure in the war on drugs, said Fulton T. Armstrong, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America and ex-CIA officer.

“We pretend that the cartels don't have an infrastructure in the U.S.,” said Armstrong, also a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now a senior fellow at American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. “But you don't do a $20 billion a year business ... with ad hoc, part-time volunteers. You use an established infrastructure to support the markets. How come we're not attacking that infrastructure?”

A reported 8.9 percent of Americans 12 or older — 22.6 million people — use illegal drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services — up from 6.2 percent in 1998. Demand for and the availability of illegal drugs are rising.

Charles Bowden, who has written several books about Mexico and drug trafficking, said policy failures have exacerbated the problems. “The war on drugs is over,” he said. “There are more drugs in the U.S. of higher quality and at a lower price.”

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