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California - Southern District Drug Threat Assessment
December 2000


Map of the Southern District of California, showing California-Mexico border and POEs at Andrade, Calexico, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro and Tecate.

This report covers the Southern U.S. Attorney District of California, which comprises San Diego and Imperial Counties, both of which share a border with Mexico.

Fast Facts

Southern California
(Southern U.S. Attorney District)
(statewide data marked *)
Population (1999) 2.9 million
Median income (2000) San Diego County-$41,443
Imperial County-$22,201
*Unemployment rate (2000) 5.0%
Land area 8,379 square miles
Shoreline 76 miles
*Capital Sacramento
Principal cities San Diego, Chula Vista, Escondido, El Centro
Number of counties 2
Principal industries San Diego County-Biotechnology, financial services, seafood, manufacturing, ship building, and telecommunications.
Imperial County-Agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications, trucking, and warehousing.

The California-Mexico border accounts for approximately 7 percent or 145 miles of the Southwest Border and about 18 percent of the drugs seized there. Southern California has five ports of entry (POEs)--Andrade, Calexico, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro, and Tecate--which continue to be among the busiest on the Southwest Border (See Map 1). Since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994, commercial trade with Mexico has increased 115 percent, significantly affecting the number of border crossings between the United States and Mexico. Table 1 indicates that over 31 million conveyances (trucks, buses, vehicles, trains, aircraft) and more than 18 million pedestrians transited the California-Mexico border in 1999, an increase of about 13 percent since 1995. Truck traffic increased 36 percent, the number of railcars increased 35 percent, estimated bus crossings increased 66 percent, and foot traffic rose 15 percent. U.S. Customs (USCS) further reports that the total number of individuals--pedestrians, drivers, and passengers--crossing the California-Mexico border in 1999 exceeded 95 million.

Table 1. Border Crossings*
  1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 Amount of Change % of Change


698,692 694,697 815,568 881,157 949,651 250,959 36


91,816 110,297 128,677 138,702 152,722 60,906 66

Passenger Vehicles

27,323,722 25,193,443 27,606,400 29,628,019 30,330,013 3,006,291 11

Rail cars

7,484 9,810 8,104 7,798 10,135 2,651 35


0 6,986 8,831 8,509 8,567 1,581 23
Pedestrians 15,969,973 19,177,856 18,942,208 18,096,532 18,427,324 2,457,351 15
TOTAL 44,091,687 45,193,089 47,509,788 48,755,941 49,812,443 5,779,739 13

*Totals do not include vessels cleared by airport-seaport inspectors.
Source: United States Customs Service, unofficial statistics.

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In addition to the land POEs, two large bays--San Diego Bay and Mission Bay--provide maritime access to the region. Figures from Customs for 1998 and 1999 show a 6 percent increase in the number of commercial vessels and passengers cleared and a 41 percent increase in the number of private aircraft and passengers cleared at the port of San Diego. (See Table 2.) The San Diego Port is also used by an increasing number of private watercraft. San Diego County has about 76 miles of coastline and the area between Tijuana and San Diego is mostly beachfront, open to maritime drug smuggling.

Table 2. Conveyances and Individuals Cleared - Port of San Diego
Type 1998 1999
Commercial Aircraft 1,793 1,621
Commercial Air Passengers/Crew 144,126 119,145
Private Aircraft 86 121
Private Air Passengers 32 552
Vessels 2,274 2,160
Vessels Passengers/Crew 158,609 149,060

 Source: United States Customs Service.

Air transport services--passenger and cargo--are supplied by a number of airports in the area. San Diego, Tijuana, and Mexicali each have an international airport and smaller commercial and private airfields are located on both sides of the California-Mexico border.

San Diego County has two main interstate highways running north and south, I-5 and I-15. (See Map 1.) Interstate 5 extends south from San Diego to the San Ysidro POE on the California-Mexico border. It also extends north from San Diego to the U.S.-Canada border at Blaine, Washington, the busiest land POE in the Pacific Northwest. It passes through six major metropolitan areas between San Diego and Blaine including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Highway 15 extends from San Diego to Alberta Province at the U.S.-Canada border. This route passes through sparsely populated as well as metropolitan areas such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Great Falls, Montana.

In Imperial County, Highways 111 and 86 also run north and south originating in the border area at Calexico, California, across the border from Mexicali, Mexico. The four highways intersect with I-8, an east-west route which parallels the Southwest Border connecting San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, Arizona, and points east. Interstate 8 eventually intersects with I-10 in Arizona. Interstate 2 is an east-west route in northern Mexico that parallels the border connecting Calexico, Tecate, and Tijuana, where it intersects with Mexican Highway 1D/1 west and Mexican Highway 15 in Sonora. Highway 1/D1 extends from Tijuana south to La Paz, Baja California Sur, almost the entire length of the Baja Peninsula. Highway 15 runs from Nogales, Mexico, across the border from Nogales, Arizona, south into Sinaloa, Mexico.

Map 1. Transportation Map

Link to map showing major highways, railroad lines, and border crossings along the Southern California border.
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Railways also provide access to the region. A freight railway connects San Diego to Tijuana and a Mexican railroad extends north from Mexico City along the western gulf to the Southwest Border. This railroad interconnects with U.S. railroads at several interchanges including Calexico, California. USCS estimates that 10,135 railcars crossed the border between Mexico and California in 1999, an increase of 26 percent since 1995.

Rail Transport

Agreements among U.S., Canadian, and Mexican rail companies have created an intermodal transportation system that stretches from Canada to Panama. This rail system has the capacity to move 4 million freight cars a year, about 364,000 of those across the Southwest Border. Railroads have a larger cargo capacity than any other form of transportation. One boxcar has more than 5,000 cubic feet of cargo space and can accommodate over 200,000 pounds of cargo. In other words, a train containing 50 boxcars can carry 5,000 tons or 10 million pounds of cargo.

Rail transport also has intermodal capabilities. An intermodal transportation system uses more than one mode of transport to move cargo: ship-to-rail, rail-to-truck, rail-to-barge, and ferry-to-rail or truck. Containers are most often used for intermodal transportation, enabling cargo to be moved from one type of carrier to another without being repackaged.

Intermodal transportation is seen by many as an ideal solution to congestion at the border. As trade within the Western Hemisphere continues to increase, shippers likely will rely more and more on intermodal services.

Mexican drug traffickers have used the railroads to smuggle drugs to and through the Southwest Border since the 1980s. A system that links no fewer than eight countries and has intermodal capability and a larger cargo capacity than any other form of transportation will continue to attract smugglers of illicit goods.

Both the United States and Mexico continue to improve their highway and rail systems, ports, and airports to facilitate increasing commerce among countries in the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, the air-land-sea infrastructure that supports legitimate commerce between the United States and Mexico also facilitates the movement of illicit substances to, through, and beyond the Southwest Border.

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In San Diego and Imperial Counties, all drugs of abuse are readily available. Methamphetamine, black tar heroin, and marijuana supplied by Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are the drugs of choice. Although methamphetamine use indicators have stabilized, the amount of the drug seized increased 36 percent between 1996 and 1999, and law enforcement continues to classify it as a serious threat. Marijuana trafficking continues at high levels, and cocaine seizures and abuse are increasing after a period of relative stability. Heroin is a growing threat while other dangerous drugs, including ketamine, GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate), Rohypnol, and MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), commonly known as ecstasy, are of increasing concern to law enforcement, as is the diversion of prescription drugs such as hydrocodones, Valium, and clonazepam (Rivotril, Klonopin).

Virtually all of the drugs smuggled into Southern California are the responsibility of Mexican DTOs: the Arellano-Felix Organization (Tijuana Cartel), the Miguel Angel Caro-Quintero Organization (Juarez Cartel), and the Amezcua-Contreras Organization (Colima Cartel). The Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO), which claims Baja California Norte as its area of control, is often cited as having the most significant impact on the San Diego--Imperial County area. Current reporting suggests that the Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada drug trafficking group out of Sinaloa, which allegedly has ties to the Juarez Cartel, is challenging the AFO's control of the border narcotics market and creating havoc in Baja California Norte. The Zambada group is allegedly responsible for a series of high-profile killings there, including the murder of Tijuana Police Chief Alfredo de la Torre.

Mexican DTOs are the primary suppliers and distributors of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Local law enforcement describes a layered distribution system. The DTOs work through middlemen to supply local street gangs or independent dealers, mostly Hispanic. This marketing system has the advantage of insulating the major drug traffickers from the criminal activity associated with street-level distribution and law enforcement reaction to that activity. In December 1999 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies identified 139 drug groups operating within Southern California and the Tijuana and Mexicali areas of Mexico.

At the street level, polydrug distribution appears to be the norm, except for crack cocaine. Crack is almost exclusively distributed by African-American street gangs, which are not normally described as polydrug groups. Hispanic gangs, for the most part, distribute more than one drug, usually heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. Law enforcement estimates that street gangs account for 20 to 50 percent of all drug distribution at the street level. No fixed drug markets, crack houses, or shooting galleries were identified. Drug dealers are fluid in their methods, changing where and how they operate in response to law enforcement pressure. Once law enforcement identifies buildings, houses, or specific locations as drug areas, dealers simply move their operations elsewhere.

The Mexican Mafia (La Eme), a violent prison-based gang with 200-400 estimated members, controls a large portion of the retail drug trade in Southern California through violence, intimidation, and control of Hispanic street gangs that do its bidding. During a recent trial, one member of La Eme claimed to have authorized the execution of as many as 40 individuals. He also testified that the gang controlled drug trafficking within California's prisons and taxed street gangs for the right to sell drugs. Intelligence reporting suggests that La Eme also acts as an intermediary between street gangs and organized criminal groups operating from Mexico. The Arellano-Felix Organization is known to recruit members of street gangs as enforcers and contract hit men. In a notorious example, the Arellano-Felix Organization employed members of the San Diego Logan Heights street gang, known to be affiliated with La Eme, to murder a rival at the Guadalajara airport; Mexican Cardinal Posadas-Ocampo was mistakenly killed instead.

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Violence related to drug trafficking continues on both sides of the border. In April 2000, three Mexican law enforcement officers working with U.S. authorities were brutally murdered in Tijuana. Mexican law enforcement has attributed the murders to the Arellano-Felix Organization. Another crime that appears to have spanned the border is the assassination of Tijuana Police Chief Alfredo de la Torre. Investigating authorities have linked a vehicle reported stolen in Chula Vista, California, to the murder. The U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) reported several violent incidents in March 2000. In one incident two USBP agents on the California side of the border were fired upon from a building in Mexico. In another, the driver of a vehicle that had crossed the border at Grays Wells in the El Centro area of Imperial County attempted to run an agent down. On August 16, 2000, a Border Patrol agent was shot in the back as he checked power generators along the border near the New River in Imperial County. Luckily, he was wearing a bulletproof vest and was not hurt.

Another facet of drug-related violence involves the sale of weapons to drug traffickers. Two recent incidents highlight the challenge posed by the weapons trade. Authorities traced weapons used to murder 18 men, women, and children in the Mexican town of El Sauzal, to a gun dealer in Escondido, California. Weapons used in the 1996 slayings of Mexican soldiers in Zapopan, and in a shootout in Culiacan between Mexican officials and drug traffickers were traced to the same dealer. The dealer and several associates were arrested in April 2000. In August 2000, federal agents seized a cache of 800 automatic and semiautomatic weapons in El Cajon, California, some of which were traced to the same Escondido gun shop. Three individuals, identified as firearms traffickers, were arrested. One of those arrested told agents that he converted weapons for members of the Arellano-Felix Organization. In addition to selling weapons, one of the individuals also sold a pound of methamphetamine to an undercover agent.

According to a November 2000 article from the Cambio, a Mexican web site, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) tried to make a cocaine-for-weapons deal with the Arellano-Felix Organization. Mexican authorities intervened and the deal never took place.

Drug-related crime is increasing in the region. The San Diego Police Department reports that from 1998 to 1999, felony drug arrests increased 5 percent and misdemeanor drug arrests increased 4 percent (from 5,212 to 5,448 and 7,371 to 7,662 respectively). Countywide drug-related arrests increased 9 percent from 1997 to 1999 (23,658 to 25,674). In each of the last 3 years--1997 to 1999--10 percent of the homicides in San Diego County were drug-related.

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According to the National Institute of Justice 1999 Annual Report on Drug Use Among Adult and Juvenile Arrestees (ADAM), almost 64 percent of adult males and over 66 percent of adult females arrested in the San Diego area tested positive for drugs. This is down from 1997 when 73.4 percent of males and 73.2 percent of females tested positive for drugs. In 1999, male and female percentages were highest for marijuana at 36 percent and 29 percent respectively. Methamphetamine was also high at 36 percent for females and 26 percent for males. The converse of 1997 when the percentage of arrestees testing positive for drugs was highest for methamphetamine--42 percent of females and 39 percent of males tested positive for the drug. Marijuana was second with 38 percent of male arrestees and 24 percent of females testing positive for the drug. The high percentage of arrestees testing positive for marijuana in 1998 and 1999 may be a reflection of the high activity in marijuana trafficking in the San Diego area. On the other hand, ADAM statistics reflect a stabilizing or downward trend in methamphetamine abuse. Multiple drug use declined over the 1997-1999 period: rates dropped from 46 to 22 percent for males and 53 to 29 percent for females. During this same time period, the highest rate of positives for multiple drug use were recorded for the 26- to 36-year-old age groups.

Among juveniles aged 9 to 18 arrested in the San Diego area, 56.1 tested positive for drugs according to ADAM statistics for 1998. Similar to adult arrestees, more juvenile arrestees tested positive for marijuana (48.1 percent) than any other drug. This may simply be a reflection of higher levels of marijuana-related activity. Methamphetamine was second with 12.2 percent. The percentage of multiple drug use was 10.8 percent. In comparison, 1997 ADAM statistics show that 62.6 percent of all juvenile arrestees in the San Diego area tested positive for drugs and 60.3 percent of violent offenders tested positive. As in 1998, marijuana (52.6 percent) and methamphetamine (17.2 percent) were the most abused drugs, but in 1997, multiple drug use (20.7 percent) exceeded methamphetamine use. According to the 1999 ADAM report, 56.8 percent of male juvenile arrestees and 47.7 percent of females tested positive for drugs.

In Imperial County, 6 of 24 homicides during the period 1997-1999 were drug-related. The Imperial County Narcotic Task Force reported 85 percent of 422 arrests in 1999 as drug-related. Felony drug arrests increased 25 percent from 1998 to 1999 (192 to 247) but misdemeanor drug arrests dropped 20 percent (138 to 111). The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Report for Southern California reflects a 67.8 percent increase in drug offenses over the 4-year period 1995 to 1998. (See Table 3.) Although drug trafficking continues to be of primary concern, other crime statistics, as reported by various sources, are mixed. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) reports that overall crime in the San Diego region has declined every year since 1991: violent crime decreased 41 percent and property crime declined 54 percent. For the 1-year period 1998 to 1999, the FBI Index rate declined 12 percent. In contrast, the San Diego Police Department reports that, from 1998 to 1999, felony drug arrests increased 5 percent, from 5,212 to 5,448, and misdemeanor drug arrests increased 4 percent, from 7,371 to 7,662. Countywide, drug-related arrests totaled 25,674 in 1999 compared to 23,658 in 1997, an increase of 9 percent over the 2-year period. In each of the last 3 years, 1997 to 1999, drug-related homicides accounted for 10 percent of the total in San Diego County.

Table 3. Drug Offenses, Southern California
Offense 1995 1996 1997 1998 Amount of Change** %
of Change**
Cocaine 126 108 93 87 -39 -31.0
Crack 9 5 20 8 -1 -11.1
Heroin 57 56 41 29 -28 -49.1
Marijuana 513 541 785 1,210 697 135.9
Methamphetamine 140 98 95 79 -61 -43.6
Other Drugs 4 15 24 12 8 200.0
Total Drug 849 823 1,058 1,425 576 67.8
Total Non-Drug 1,090 1,328 2,065 2,026 936 85.9
Drug - % of Total 43.8 38.3 33.9 41.3 38.1  

**Represents comparison between 1995 and 1998. 
  Source: U.S. Sentencing Guidelines 1998.

The dichotomy in the reported crime rates is that, although the overall crime rate declined, drug arrests and offenses rose. The reduction in overall crime has been attributed to a combination of prevention and crime reduction strategies such as community-oriented policing and educational and peer court programs. Positive economic factors were also identified as a contributing factor. The increase in drug arrests and offenses could be attributed to a number of factors: an increase in law enforcement efforts to combat drug-related activity, tougher sentencing guidelines, or, most likely, a combination of those factors.


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