ARCHIVED To Contents To Previous Page To Next Page To Publication Page To Home Page
California Central District Drug Threat Assessment
The transshipment, distribution, availability, and abuse of powdered and crack cocaine are the primary drug threats to the Central District. Cocaine is widely available in the district; its purity and price remain stable. The primary smugglers and distributors of cocaine are Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and other Mexican criminal groups. Colombian DTOs are also involved in the smuggling, transportation, and distribution of cocaine, though to a lesser extent. Cocaine is smuggled overland across the Southwest Border and moved into the district inside trucks and passenger vehicles. Los Angeles remains a transportation hub for cocaine that is transshipped to many U.S. cities and Canada. Crack cocaine is the drug most often associated with violence in the Los Angeles area where African American and Hispanic street gangs distribute it at the retail level.
According to the California Alcohol and Drug Data System (CADDS) produced by the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, cocaine treatment admissions decreased 12 percent between FY1994 and FY1997, from 9,533 to 8,384 respectively. Following this decline, admissions increased 23 percent, from 9,112 in FY1998 to 11,246 in FY2000. These figures, however, may not be fully comparable because in FY1998, according to CADDS, modifications were made to drug terminology when compiling admissions data. (See Table 2.)
Table 2. Primary Drug Treatment Admissions, Central District of California, 1994-2000
*Note: CADDS made modifications to drug terminology beginning in fiscal year 1998. An "NA" indicates that data was recorded under a different drug category for that fiscal year.
Source: California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, California Alcohol and Drug Data System, 2000.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports the estimated number of emergency department (ED) cocaine mentions for Los Angeles-Long Beach increased between 1991 and 1999, from 4,901 to 6,772. However, cocaine-related deaths reported to DAWN decreased in Los Angeles between 1995 and 1998, from 545 to 425. Although the number of cocaine-related deaths may have declined, cocaine is still the second leading cause of drug-related deaths in Los Angeles.
The National Institute of Justice Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) Program identifies cocaine as the drug of choice for both male and female adult arrestees in Los Angeles. Between 1990 and 1998, the percentage of adult male arrestees testing positive for cocaine ranged from a high of 51.6 percent (1992) to a low of 37.6 percent (1997). Between 1990 and 1998, the percentage of adult females testing positive for cocaine ranged from a high of 62 percent (1991) to a low of 45 percent (1998). According to the 1999 ADAM Annual Report, 36 percent of adult male arrestees and 37 percent of adult females tested positive for cocaine in Los Angeles. Nationally, the percentages ranked Los Angeles close to the country's median rates of 34 and 38 percent respectively.
Cocaine remains widely available in the Central District. In FY1999, authorities in the Los Angeles HIDTA conducted 5,793 cocaine-related law enforcement actions, representing 38 percent of 15,245 drug-related events by law enforcement. Cocaine-related law enforcement actions increased 18 percent, from 4,890 in FY1998 to 5,793 in FY1999.
According to the Los Angeles HIDTA, cocaine purity and price have remained stable. In FY1999, the cocaine purity rate was 80 percent at the wholesale level and the price for multikilogram purchases ranged from $13,700 to $17,000 per kilogram. While the amount of cocaine seized by the Los Angeles HIDTA increased from 50,292.95 pounds in FY1997 to 71,744.49 pounds in FY1998, it decreased to 31,731.28 pounds in FY1999. The Los Angeles Police Department also has seen a decline in the amount of cocaine seized; the amount seized in 1999 is substantially lower than the amounts seized in years prior to 1998.
In contrast, between FY1998 and FY1999, U.S. Customs Service (USCS) seizures increased 93 percent, from 2,432 pounds to 4,690 pounds. However, through September 2000, USCS cocaine seizures declined dramatically from 4,690 pounds in FY1999 to 288 pounds in FY2000. (See Table 3.)
Table 3. U.S. Customs Service, Drug Seizures by Port (in Pounds), FY1998-FY2000
Source: USCS, Office of Information and Technology, Customs Officers Clear Arrest and Seizures Summary, FY 2000.
The U.S. Attorney for the Central District considers crack cocaine a serious and continuing threat because of its addictive properties and relationship to other criminal activity. Distribution predominantly occurs through street corner and crack house sales, creating violent and harmful environments throughout the affected neighborhoods. Various reports indicate that gang violence is decreasing in urban areas where increased law enforcement activity is evident, while increasing in smaller communities and rural areas as gangs establish new territories and markets.
The Mongols, an extremely violent outlaw motorcycle gang (OMG) that distributes cocaine, operates in the Los Angeles area. In a recent Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) undercover investigation, members of the Mongols were charged with murder and drug and firearm violations. As a result of the investigation, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and federal agents seized kilogram quantities of cocaine, stolen motorcycles, and dozens of illegal guns--including a Mac-10 assault weapon and a sawed-off shotgun. Members of this gang were also suspected of extortion and arson.
The Mexican Mafia (La Eme), a prison-based gang operating in the Los Angeles area, uses violence to control the drug trade. This group operates both inside and outside the prison system and, within each prison, the group usually has separate La Eme leadership. The Mexican Mafia organizational structure is similar to that of Italian organized crime; it is composed of generals, captains, lieutenants, and soldiers. La Eme is well organized; its members are disciplined and kill as a means of intimidation and to obtain respect.
A faction of the 18th Street Gang, known as the Columbia Li'l Cycos, also has a propensity for violence. This gang deals crack cocaine and operates primarily in the MacArthur Park area near downtown Los Angeles. The gang employs violence and intimidation to control its area of operations. Members of the Cycos were indicted and accused of three executions, several attempted murders, and numerous beatings.
The Sinaloan Cowboys, a violent Mexican group, supplies some Los Angeles street gangs with cocaine. It employs members of gangs to commit assassinations and provide security for drug transportation. Also known as the "Cartel Cowboys," group members are ruthless and have little fear of authority. Members are very loyal and would rather engage in a shootout than be apprehended. The Sinaloan Cowboys are responsible for a rash of killings south of the border. The killings are believed to be reprisals against individuals who turned against the group in the early 1990s. Group members dress in cowboy-style hats, long sleeve silk shirts, and white or beige pants with a leather patch on the right rear hip with the name of their hometown. They wear metal belt buckles inscribed with a marijuana leaf, an AK-47, or the initials WBP (Wet Back Power), expensive boots, and gold chains with a gold AK-47, or a gold cross with an anchor design.
Coca is not cultivated nor is cocaine produced in the Central District. Colombian criminal organizations produce cocaine in Colombia and ship it to the United States through Central America and Mexico. One of nine drug routes specified in a USCS FY1999 Threat Assessment, this route is labeled the "Cocaine Corridor" and is one of the most lucrative drug pipelines in the world.
Gangs in Los Angeles convert powdered cocaine into crack and either distribute the crack locally or transport it to other cities in California and nationally. Hispanic and African American gangs are heavily involved in the distribution of crack cocaine in the Los Angeles area.
Cocaine is transported into and out of the Central District by land, sea, and air. According to the DEA, most of the cocaine smuggled into the United States is moved through Mexico from Colombia and other source countries. Most cocaine moved into the Los Angeles HIDTA is transported overland across the U.S.-Mexico border. Interstates 5, 10, 15, 40, and 405 are principal roads used to smuggle cocaine, primarily in commercial and personal vehicles. According to the U.S. Attorney for the Central District, most of the cocaine entering the district is smuggled overland across the Southwest Border inside trucks and passenger vehicles. Traffickers perform "shotgun runs"--a technique designed to curtail large losses by using small trucks and personal vehicles to make frequent trips carrying small amounts--through various ports of entry (POEs) and on to the Los Angeles area. Once the cocaine is smuggled into Los Angeles, it is usually stored and eventually transshipped north to other West Coast cities and east to Chicago and New York and points in between such as Phoenix, Denver, and Detroit.
The DEA reports that in addition to transit by commercial vehicles such as tractor-trailers, shipments of cocaine--averaging 20 to 40 kilograms--are often concealed in hidden compartments of personal vehicles and transported across the U.S.-Mexico border. Shipments are then moved to Los Angeles or Riverside where the cocaine is usually placed in stash houses. The USCS Los Angeles Area Intelligence Unit considers Los Angeles a main storage and distribution center for cocaine transshipped to states across the country.
The Los Angeles HIDTA reports that drugs may also be transported by rail. Transcontinental and regional passenger rail lines and two major freight railways service the district. Many of the regional routes connect the district to San Diego, near the U.S.-Mexico border, while the transcontinental routes connect the district with other U.S. regions, Mexico, and Canada.
The Central District's 350-mile-long coastline, busy seaports, coves, and the proximity of major highways to the coast make maritime transport an ideal method for moving cocaine and other drugs into the area. The Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles rank first and second in the country in cargo transport as over 7.9 million 20-foot cargo container units moved into the two ports during FY1999. Mexican DTOs also use maritime routes to California--particularly the Los Angeles area.
Air transit is also used to move cocaine into and out of the Central District. One polydrug organization, in particular, used single and twin engine aircraft to move cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine into and out of Los Angeles. A number of organizations also hire couriers to fly on commercial airlines to transport cocaine. Couriers are known to "bodypack" the drug to avoid detection.
The DEA reports that large quantities of powdered cocaine controlled by Mexican and Colombian DTOs are transported into the Los Angeles area for local, regional, and national distribution. The availability of intermodal transportation allows drug traffickers to move drugs into and out of the district by several means. Mexican DTOs reportedly have smuggled cocaine shipments exceeding 1,000 kilograms into California. According to the FBI, Mexican DTOs typically transport an average of 300 to 500 kilograms of cocaine and store it for only a short period of time before distribution. The FBI also reports that Mexican DTOs sometimes smuggle multiple cocaine shipments of smaller sizes (40 to 50 kilograms) that are consolidated into larger shipments for distribution to other areas of the country.
Mexican DTOs and criminal groups are the primary wholesale distributors of cocaine in the Central District. In addition, Colombian cartels play a role in distributing cocaine. Both groups supply Hispanic gangs who distribute at the retail level. Midlevel Mexican criminal groups supply African American street gangs--such as the Bloods and Crips--with cocaine. Some OMGs, such as the Mongols, also distribute cocaine.
The Los Angeles HIDTA reports that cocaine consumption, storage, and distribution are widespread. While most of the 156 identified DTOs operating within the region are Mexican criminal polydrug organizations, 99 traffic predominantly in cocaine. The most prevalent cocaine smuggling organization is the Arellano-Felix organization.
In response to intense law enforcement pressure, DTOs have redesigned their operations and are storing bulk shipments of cocaine outside the district in towns along the Southwest Border. Although many DTOs have shifted some of their trafficking functions to locations outside the district, the organizations still maintain a presence within the area.
At the local level, the Los Angeles Police Department reports encountering smaller trafficking groups that operate in a similar manner. Once the cocaine is stored, these groups usually pick up only the amount of cocaine needed for a specific transaction. This reduces the chance that large quantities will be seized at one time.
According to Los Angeles HIDTA reporting, over the last few years Colombian DTOs have relinquished some control of cocaine distribution to Mexican criminal groups. However, an increased presence of Colombian groups recently has been noted. Colombians again are becoming more directly involved with major cocaine and money laundering operations. Colombian criminal groups are handling drugs and money using a single trafficking cell, whereas historically, each facet--trafficking, transportation, and money pickup--was the responsibility of separate cells. (See text box below.) One possible explanation for this resurgence is that the Colombian DTOs have come to realize that they relinquished too much control to the Mexican criminal groups and are attempting to recapture control of cocaine distribution. According to several published articles in Mexico and the United States, instability within the Arellano-Felix organization, a longtime partner of the Colombian cartels, may be another factor.
Over the past decade, Colombian DTOs have been paying Mexican DTOs with shares of cocaine shipments, sometimes as high as 50 percent, for smuggling the cocaine across the border. This arrangement allowed Mexican DTOs to distribute cocaine using their well-established drug networks. However, some Colombian DTOs are ensuring profits by selling cocaine at a reduced rate to Mexican DTOs in lieu of paying in-kind for transportation services. The Colombian DTOs also may be expanding their cocaine trafficking operations in the Los Angeles area to increase profits. In essence, the Colombians are seeking to maximize the return on their investment in cocaine and increase their market share.
The Sinaloan Cowboys, a midlevel Mexican drug trafficking group, supplies cocaine to Los Angeles gangs. According to the FBI, trafficking and distribution activities within the Los Angeles Field Office's jurisdiction are controlled primarily by the Arellano-Felix organization and, to a lesser extent, the Carrillo-Fuentes and Caro-Quintero organizations. Further, the FBI Los Angeles Division indicates that Mexican DTOs have surpassed Colombian DTOs in cocaine trafficking. The Mexican DTOs are mobile and rely on family members and close associates for drug transportation and transshipment services. The FBI estimates that Mexican DTOs are responsible for 70 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States.
The emergence of new encrypted digital communications presents a huge challenge for law enforcement. Cocaine traffickers use encryption devices, personal communication systems, cellular and cloned cellular telephones, and prepaid calling cards to conduct their illegal operations. With greater frequency, command-and-control elements are switching from standard telephones for daily operations to digital encrypted cellular telephones when placing key out-of-country calls. Both the USCS Los Angeles Area Intelligence Unit and the Los Angeles HIDTA report the use of encrypted communications equipment by Mexican DTOs. Some privately owned communications service providers are suspected of collaborating with traffickers by protecting their identities and notifying them of law enforcement inquiries.
In the Los Angeles area, cocaine is sold at the street level through a call-and-deliver system rather than open-air sales. Buyers order cocaine by telephone and distributors deliver it to the buyers' homes or other agreed-upon locations. The call-and-deliver system reduces the likelihood of large losses should law enforcement arrest a distributor. African American street gangs buy cocaine from midlevel Mexican criminal groups, such as the Sinaloan Cowboys. More often than not, African American street gangs use a nongang middleman to obtain cocaine from Mexican groups because of distrust between these groups.
Mexican criminal groups also supply Hispanic street gangs and the Mexican Mafia with cocaine. The Mexican Mafia is a ruthless prison-based gang with expanding drug distribution interests throughout Southern California and Arizona. The gang, composed of Mexican- Americans, originated in California more than 30 years ago but is active throughout the federal prison system. The gang uses extortion and violence to control its share of the drug trade. Some Mexican Mafia members are believed to be members of street gangs that have direct connections to Mexican criminal groups operating in Mexico and throughout the southwestern United States. The Mexican Mafia recruits street gang members to carry out retail distribution. This practice provides the gang with a means to extend its influence beyond prison walls.
The Mexican Mafia traffics in all drugs but focuses primarily on cocaine, black tar heroin, and methamphetamine. Law enforcement authorities report increases in drug-related violence in locations where the gang is attempting to take control of the local drug trade. The Mexican Mafia frequently delegates control of drug sales in certain neighborhoods to Hispanic street gangs and then demands tribute or taxes for this privilege. One such gang, the Columbia Li'l Cycos--a faction of the 18th Street Gang--operates in the MacArthur Park area near downtown Los Angeles. The Cycos gang distributes crack cocaine to independent street dealers and, in turn, exacts taxes for the right to conduct drug sales. The Cycos leader, who recently was indicted under the Racketeering and Influenced Corrupt organizations (RICO) statute, is also a member of the Mexican Mafia.
The DEA indicates that the street-level distribution of crack cocaine is being handled by Los Angeles-based gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, Bloods, Crips, and the 18th Street Gang. Los Angeles County has an estimated 1,350 gangs with 152,000 members. The FBI estimates that the 18th Street Gang alone has approximately 15,000 members. There are reports that the Crips and Bloods, rival African American street gangs, are joining forces to sell crack cocaine outside the Los Angeles area. This cooperation is attributed to the pursuit of drug revenues and is occurring most notably among older gang members. Moreover, gang violence reportedly is decreasing in urban areas while increasing in rural areas as these gangs migrate from cities in search of recruits and new markets.
End of page.