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California - Southern District Drug Threat Assessment
December 2000


Cocaine continues to flow into the San Diego-Imperial County area from Mexico. Law enforcement reports that Mexican DTOs are the major sources of cocaine. While the bulk of it is smuggled overland through and between the POEs, the San Diego Maritime Task Force and USCS Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center (AMICC) both reported an increase in cocaine-related activity in 1999.

Although most of the cocaine smuggled into the district is transshipped to Los Angeles and other areas, cocaine continues to be classified as a threat in San Diego and Imperial Counties. During the last quarter of 1999, federal, state, and local authorities in the two-county area conducted 185 law enforcement actions directly related to powdered and crack cocaine (also known as rock cocaine in Southern California). Local law enforcement reports that both powdered and crack cocaine are available in the area but that crack is more prevalent at the street level than powdered cocaine.


According to the California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, in FY1999, cocaine use indicators for San Diego increased. In San Diego County, most of those seeking treatment for cocaine/crack were between 26 and 45 years old but there was a notable increase in the 21- to 25-year-old group between FY1998 and FY1999. The number of males seeking treatment for cocaine exceeded the number of females in both years. Treatment admissions for cocaine/crack rose 12 percent over FY1998 in San Diego County but declined over the same period in Imperial County.

The most recent data from the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs indicate that overall cocaine use in San Diego and Imperial Counties may be stabilizing. In FY2000, treatment admissions totaled 1,310 compared to 1,331 for FY1999, a decrease of 2 percent.

Based on treatment data, fewer individuals sought treatment for cocaine abuse in Imperial County than in San Diego County, but the demographics of the users are similar. Both counties reported use among African Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics. In Imperial County the predominant cocaine abusers were African Americans and Hispanics, but in San Diego County the predominant abusers were African Americans and Caucasians. The largest user group according to age was 26 to 36, although users in the 21 to 25 age group increased from FY1998 to FY1999. Although cocaine use indicators were up over the 2-year period, local law enforcement classifies cocaine/ crack abuse as moderate.

The April 2000 DAWN Medical Examiner Data reported for San Diego shows cocaine-related deaths declined between 1995 and 1998. In 1995 there were 91 deaths; that figure dropped to 83 in 1998, a 9 percent decrease. (See Chart 4.)

Chart 4. Cocaine-Related Deaths, San Diego, 1995-1998Graph of total drug deaths and cocaine-related deaths.

Total drug deaths     Cocaine

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network, Annual Medical Examiner Data 1998.

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The supply of powdered and crack cocaine in San Diego and Imperial Counties has remained steady. While quantities of powdered cocaine are available, the more significant problem is the use of crack among the African-American population in the inner-city neighborhoods of San Diego. Price, purity, and supply remained relatively stable over the past 3 years, but price data revealed a marginal increase for the last quarter of 1999 and the first quarter of 2000. Cocaine seizures also increased during the same period. The March 2000 figures quoted by NIN for San Diego County show cocaine currently selling for $15,000 to $19,000 per kilogram with purity levels at 75 to 80 percent for ounce through pound quantities. This compares to $8,000 to $16,000 per kilogram in 1999. The current price for cocaine in Imperial County is $13,000 per kilogram and purity levels range from 40 to 55 percent. DEA at the San Ysidro Resident Office reports that multiple kilogram quantities of cocaine are available at $14,500 per kilogram.

Cocaine seizures are also increasing. CBAG reports that cocaine seizures increased in 1999 and continued to increase in the first six months of 2000. Seizures during the first six months of 2000 accounted for 24 percent of the amount seized on the SWB during that time period. They further report that there has been very little change in price and purity since 1995. The DEA San Diego Field Division reported that the number of cocaine seizures decreased in the July-September 1999 quarter, but increased in the first two quarters of FY2000. However, EPIC reports that amounts seized in the California arrival zone decreased from 8,250 kilograms in 1998 to 7,117 kilograms in 1999.



Transporters and distributors of cocaine use criminal alliances and violence to further their drug trade. Mexican DTOs are known to hire street gang members as enforcers and contract hit men to protect their market. Several years ago, the Arellano-Felix Organization contracted with members of the Logan Street Gang to assassinate a rival. In other instances gangs and drug dealers use violence and intimidation to protect their "turf" or to extract "taxes" from other distributors. Intimidation usually includes threats of violence against distributors' family members and, in some cases, law enforcement and justice personnel. In June 2000, authorities arrested a San Diego man who had been implicated in a plot to kill a judge, a prosecutor, and a sheriff's deputy. A Skyline Drive gang member, who is serving a life sentence for murder, allegedly ordered the killings from prison. In the process of executing a search warrant at the subject's home, authorities found 37 rocks of cocaine.

Another indication of the connection between crime, violence, and cocaine is the number of arrestees testing positive for cocaine use. According to ADAM, the percentage of male arrestees testing positive for cocaine in San Diego was 16.5 percent in 1999, this compares to 28 percent in 1995, an 11.5 percent decrease. Among female arrestees, 22.6 percent tested positive for cocaine in 1999, a 5 percent drop from 1995 figures. Among juvenile arrestees (ages 9-18), the percentage testing positive for cocaine remained almost unchanged over the 1995-1998 time period at about 4 percent, but dropped to 2.5 percent in 1999.



About 55 percent of the cocaine produced in South America is smuggled into the United States through Mexico. Colombians continue to control the worldwide supply of cocaine but there are indications that Mexican DTOs may be attempting to process cocaine base into cocaine hydrochloride. In May 1999, Mexican authorities intercepted a shipment of cocaine base in Mexicali and in December 1999, U.S. and Mexican authorities found a laboratory with equipment and chemicals used in the production of cocaine hydrochloride. Also, packaging and markings on bundles of cocaine seized along the Southwest Border indicate that the cocaine may have been packaged in Mexico.

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Most of the cocaine smuggled into the United States at the Southwest Border is transported overland through Central America and Mexico. Large cocaine shipments are brought to staging areas along the California-Mexico border by various modes of transportation, the most common being tractor-trailers, trucks, buses, and railcars. The shipments are usually brought to consolidation points along the border where they are divided into smaller quantities in preparation for transport into the United States. According to the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), the average shipment seized in the first quarter of FY1999 was 36.89 pounds but during the same period in FY2000, the weight of the average shipment rose to 44.9 pounds. However, DEA reports that the average shipment seized at the North San Diego checkpoint weighed 60 to 90 pounds.

Cocaine is usually smuggled into the United States through POEs, but seizures are also made between the POEs. Traffickers use a variety of means including cars, trucks, recreational vehicles, tractor-trailers, and couriers to move their product into Southern California. Once the drugs have been smuggled across the border, they may be left at predetermined locations to be picked up by different couriers or drivers and taken to their final destinations or to consolidation points for transshipment to other parts of the country. Intelligence indicates that most of the cocaine being smuggled into Southern California is destined for the Los Angeles area. In March 2000, Border Patrol agents intercepted a car carrying 44 pounds of cocaine at a checkpoint on Interstate 5 north of San Diego. The cocaine had been concealed behind a false dashboard. Two females, both Mexican nationals from Sinaloa, were arrested. The cocaine was most likely destined for Los Angeles. According to the DEA San Diego Field Division, most bulk cocaine seizures are effected by the California Highway Patrol during routine traffic stops.

Cocaine may also be smuggled in railcars coming into the United States from Mexico. In 1997, law enforcement in New Jersey seized 2,175.8 pounds of cocaine that had been hidden inside a transformer. The transformer had been shipped from Mexico, via San Antonio, on a railroad flatcar.

Smugglers are increasingly using private aircraft, according to the Customs Service AMICC. In 1999, the AMICC reported 9 suspect aircraft near the border in the Tecate and Jacuma areas of San Diego and Imperial Counties, 2 flyers within 25 miles of the border, and 11 low flyers. AMICC also reported 245 suspect aircraft targets in Baja California Norte--double the number detected in 1998. In 1999, total suspect air activity along the Southwest Border included 29 suspect border crossers, 26 radar suspects, 74 low flyers, and 1,138 suspect targets in Mexico. Electronic and human intelligence suggest that traffickers may be returning to airborne smuggling as a means of expediting drug shipments and reducing costs. Air transport is also viewed as a more secure method of smuggling. Cocaine smugglers also use maritime transportation to access the San Diego County area. Various intelligence indicators show that maritime smuggling in the eastern Pacific off the coasts of Mexico and San Diego is also increasing. In 1999, the San Diego Maritime Task Force seized 2,976 pounds of cocaine; this compares to no cocaine seized in 1998.

  Although the AMICC does not mention cocaine specifically, Amado Carrillo-Fuentes, once known as the "lord of the skies," used air transport to move multiton quantities of cocaine to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Another factor that impacts the San Diego area is the increase in mothership operations off the Mexican coast. In August 1999, the Mexican Navy seized 8.6 tons of cocaine from a fishing vessel off the coast of Michoacan; the crew was from Ensenada, Baja California Norte, the possible destination of the cocaine shipment. Authorities seized more than 31 tons (63,000 pounds) of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific in FY1999. In the first 6 months of FY2000, the Coast Guard seized 24 tons of cocaine.

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Most of the cocaine smuggled into the area is transshipped to Los Angeles for transport to other cities across the country. However, wholesale distribution of powdered cocaine in the San Diego- Imperial County area is usually controlled by Mexican DTOs. At the retail level, crack cocaine is seen more often than powdered cocaine. African-American street gangs usually control the street-level distribution of crack cocaine.

Law enforcement agencies, responding to a February 2000 NIN survey, identified 139 drug trafficking organizations operating in the NIN Southern California and Mexico Border Region. This compared to 106 in July 1999, 92 in January 1998, and 119 in July 1997. Of the 106 identified in the 1999 survey, 52 were linked to cocaine; in the February 2000 survey, 78 were associated with cocaine. NIN cautions that these figures may vary with the number of agencies responding.



Tijuana and Mexicali are considered source cities for cocaine smuggled into the region. The Arellano-Felix Organization, based in Baja California Norte, and the Miguel Angel Caro-Quintero Organization based in Sonora, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa, are major polydrug organizations responsible for smuggling ton quantities of cocaine into Southern California. Cocaine, like other drugs, is distributed through a layered network. Mexican DTOs deal with middlemen who work with known dealers--from gangs to loosely knit cells to individuals--who distribute cocaine at the street level. This system insulates major drug traffickers from law enforcement reaction to street-level criminal activity.

In a recent law enforcement action, federal agents arrested a San Diego resident who operated a widespread cocaine and marijuana trafficking network. The network extended from San Diego and El Paso to Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Boston, Nashville, and Atlanta. The organization was responsible for the transportation and distribution of multiton quantities of cocaine and marijuana. The drugs were brought into San Diego and El Paso from Mexico and then sent to Chicago via cars, tractor-trailers, and piggyback trains.1 From Chicago the drugs were sent on to the other cities.

Another case involved the arrest of 42 members of the Mongols Motorcycle Club in Southern California who were involved in the distribution of multikilograms of cocaine. Authorities seized the cocaine, $21,000 in cash, and more than 70 firearms including two machine guns and one shotgun. The group was also involved in motorcycle theft. The Mongols Motorcycle Club has chapters in San Diego, Tijuana, and 19 other locations.



Independent dealers, criminal groups, and street gangs that include Colombians, Mexicans, Caucasians, and African Americans distribute cocaine at the street level. African American, Jamaican, and Dominican criminal groups dominate retail sales of powdered and crack cocaine in San Diego. In Imperial County, cocaine is distributed by African-American gangs such as the Harlem-30s Crips. According to the San Diego Sheriff's Department, local street-level distributors convert 80 percent of the cocaine available in the area into crack. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department also reports that some of the groups involved in cocaine distribution are connected to the Arellano-Felix Organization.

Black Gangster Disciple Nation

A group of African-American gangs in the Englewood area of Chicago formed the Black Gangster Disciple Nation gang in the late 1960s. It is primarily engaged in street-level distribution of narcotics and is known to use extortion against rival drug dealers. The Black Gangster Disciple Nation has since extended its membership and influence to a number of other cities and states including California.

The Gangster Disciples gang is becoming more active in northern San Diego County. It is apparently trying to unite African-American gangs that operate in areas such as Oceanside and San Marcos under its control. These gangs, usually Crips, have an estimated membership of 300. According to law enforcement sources, the Gangster Disciples gang has been in the area about 1 years. Law enforcement has identified approximately 80 members of the gang and estimates its numbers at 200 to 250. The Gangster Disciples gang deals almost exclusively in powdered and crack cocaine, and it taxes other dealers who distribute drugs in areas under its control. The gang is also known to deal in weapons. 


End Notes

1Commercial cargo trailers are "piggybacked" or transported on train cars to a distribution point where they are offloaded. These trailers will then be picked up by a commercial tractor and driven to the final destination.


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