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Mexican Drug Cartels Are Operating in All But 12 States

We don't know much. But we know that they're here.

by Adam Clark Estes
May 2 2013, 8:45pm

If I had to make a list of things that I'm mortally afraid of, bloodthirsty Mexican drug cartels are pretty high up on the list, sandwiched somewhere between tornadoes and John Stamos. Violence related to the drug war in Mexico claimed the lives of an estimated 60,000 people in just six years, from 2006 to 2012. The cartels have become so infamously brutal that even the national police aren't immune to attacks. At one point, there were reports of cartel foot soldiers taking busloads of tourists hostage in Northern Mexico and forcing them either to join them or fight to the death.

"But they're in Mexico!" I always thought. "Mexico is so far away!"

No, it's not. And the cartels aren't just in Mexico any more. In recent years, the slow trickle of cartel operatives crossing the border and getting involved in the American drug market has turned into a relative torrent. Recent U.S. Justice Department data shows that there's some form of cartel activity in all but 12 states. If you live in Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, or Wisconsin, you're cool. Anywhere else, good luck.

View Cartel Penetration in the US in a larger map

It would be disingenuous to suggest that Americans should prepare for the scale of violence and bedlam that's been playing out south of the border for the past decade. But the invasion is very real. National Post recently published a terrifically detailed infographic that shows the flow of drugs from South America and Asia flow through Mexico, across the border and up to America's cities. As the cartels continue to secure their distribution channels, they're teaming up with gangs in American cities and reigning over all aspects of the drug trade.

Everyone who's followed this issue points to the Chicago mayor's recently naming Sinaloa cartel lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman as Public Enemy No. 1, a designation that's been out of use since the days of Al Capone. The head of the local DEA office told the press that "the Sinaloa drug cartel is so deeply embedded in the city that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are on the border." It's not just the big cities either. Cartel activity's been traced to cities in Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio as well as rural North Carolina.

Before you go running for the panic room, you should understand that we still know very little about what these henchmen are doing on the American side of the border. "We know astonishingly little about the structure and dynamics of cartels north of the border," David Shirk, a border expert at the University of San Diego, told the Associated Press. "We need to be very cautious about the assumptions we make."

That's not very comforting. So we don't know if drug lords are going to takeover small towns and send their lieutenants to behead rival gang members. We don't know if human trafficking is on its way to American cities or whether we should worry if police can handle cartels with military-level arsenals. We don't know much. But we know that they're here.