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South Texas Border and San Antonio Market Areas

The South Texas border area and San Antonio are the primary drug markets in the South Texas HIDTA region. The South Texas border area is a principal drug smuggling corridor between the United States and Mexico. San Antonio serves as a transshipment center for cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine smuggled into the United States from Mexico; the city is also a significant consumer market for these drugs.

South Texas Border


The South Texas border area extends from Val Verde County in the western portion of the South Texas HIDTA region to Willacy and Cameron Counties along the Gulf of Mexico. The population in the region is concentrated in three areas--Del Rio/Eagle Pass, Laredo, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The South Texas portion of the U.S.-Mexico border is extremely rural and contains long stretches of uninhabited or sparsely populated land that is often used by drug traffickers to smuggle illicit drug shipments into the United States. They also use these areas to temporarily store drug shipments before transporting them to larger towns and cities within the border area. A bustling cross-border economy in the region provides additional avenues for drug smuggling operations. Traffickers exploit the transportation infrastructure that supports cross-border business to transport illicit drug shipments to other areas of Texas and the United States.


Abundant supplies of illicit drugs produced in Mexico dominate drug markets throughout the South Texas border area, minimizing the need for traffickers to produce drugs locally. However, limited drug production occurs along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas. Cannabis is cultivated at small sites within the region, albeit infrequently because of unfavorable growing conditions. Small methamphetamine laboratories occasionally surface in the area, but such instances are decreasing because of the enactment of legislation regulating the sale of precursor chemicals and the growing prominence of Mexican ice methamphetamine. Retail quantities of crack cocaine are converted in the South Texas border area, primarily in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Webb Counties. However, most of the crack cocaine available in the South Texas border area is supplied by distributors in San Antonio and Houston.

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The South Texas HIDTA region is one of the most significant drug smuggling corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border. Seventeen border crossings are located within the South Texas HIDTA region; Mexican DTOs exploit the high volume of cross-border traffic at these crossings to smuggle illicit drugs into the United States. The South Texas HIDTA region also borders the most lucrative smuggling corridor along the U.S.-Mexico border--the Nuevo Laredo plaza--located directly across the Rio Grande River from Laredo at the Laredo POE. The Laredo POE is the busiest commercial POE in North America and, as a result, has been the focal point of violent conflicts between competing Mexican DTOs. In addition, the highest concentration of identified smuggling corridors is located along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas. Mexican drug traffickers base their operations in the cities of Ciudad Acuña, Piedras Negras, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Alemán, Reynosa, and Matamoros and use the areas as principal drug smuggling corridors into the South Texas HIDTA region. Traffickers transit the corridors using overland transportation methods such as private vehicles, commercial tractor-trailers, passenger buses, and trains. Traffickers also use the Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas, POEs to cross the U.S.-Mexico border into South Texas by rail. In addition to being the busiest commercial POE, Laredo also handles more rail traffic than any other Southwest Border POE; approximately 55 percent of all rail traffic crossing the U.S.-Mexico border enters the United States through Laredo. The Falfurrias and Sarita Border Patrol Checkpoints, located in Brooks and Kenedy Counties, respectively--both of which are Houston HIDTA-designated counties--and the Hebbronville Border Patrol Checkpoint, located in Jim Hogg County, are situated on primary transportation routes leading from the South Texas border area to interior distribution centers. U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agents assigned to these checkpoints seize significant quantities of marijuana and cocaine annually, further illustrating the role and importance of the South Texas HIDTA in domestic drug trafficking. For example, in June 2007 USBP agents assigned to the Falfurrias Checkpoint seized over 20,000 pounds of marijuana concealed inside a tractor-trailer.

Drug traffickers use the South Texas border area as a key storage center for drug shipments smuggled into the country from Mexico; they often store shipments temporarily in the South Texas border area, particularly in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Laredo, before transporting them to markets throughout the country. Traffickers use ranches, warehouses, residences, and trailers in these locations to store drug shipments pending future transportation and distribution arrangements.

South Texas is the most dominant entry point for cocaine within the Southwest Border corridor. More cocaine and heroin have been seized by law enforcement officials in the South Texas region than in any other area along the U.S.-Mexico border (Arizona, California, New Mexico, and West Texas). Significant quantities of marijuana and methamphetamine have also been seized in the region. However, recent law enforcement reporting indicates that significantly lesser quantities of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine are currently being seized than in the past; marijuana is the only drug for which seizure quantities have increased during the past year (see Table 2). While this trend is particularly evident in the South Texas HIDTA region, it is being observed by law enforcement officials along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. This development appears to be the result of a combination of factors, including U.S. and Mexican counterdrug operations, the continuing presence of National Guard troops as part of Operation Jump Start, the deployment of additional Mexican law enforcement and military personnel to northeastern Mexico, the stockpiling of drug shipments by drug traffickers, the difficulty that drug traffickers may be having in obtaining supplies, and--in terms of methamphetamine--traffickers' potential difficulty in obtaining precursor chemicals. The seizure of large quantities of precursor chemicals in Mexico may be limiting methamphetamine production in Mexico; this development is most likely contributing to a decrease in methamphetamine seizures in the South Texas HIDTA region. However, the decline in the quantity of cocaine and methamphetamine currently being seized in South Texas does not indicate that the role or importance of South Texas in cross-border drug smuggling is decreasing; the region continues to be a major illicit drug smuggling corridor.

Table 2. Illicit Drugs Seized in South Texas HIDTA Counties Bordering Mexico, in Kilograms, 2005-2007

County Cocaine Heroin Marijuana Methamphetamine
2005 2006 2007 2005 2006 2007 2005 2006 2007 2005 2006 2007
Cameron 889.14 918.19 1,306.38 8.79 14.22 19.57 9,717.82 12,341.49 16,079.49 103.56 95.52 4.40
Dimmit 0.12 NR 0.00 NR NR NR 707.44 2,267.14 1,572.10 NR 0.02 NR
Hidalgo* 4,140.09 7,155.14 4,834.31 19.43 21.59 16.73 42,787.77 74,772.44 97,425.68 340.95 231.15 41.19
Jim Hogg 137.69 0.04 75.02 9.79 NR NR 11,924.77 16,499.03 16,676.71 NR 2.72 0.86
Kinney NR NR NR NR NR NR 1,577.97 3,431.10 1,283.25 0.02 1.45 NR
La Salle 133.00 NR 1.80 NR NR NR 1,114.13 613.39 146.51 NR NR NR
Maverick 401.07 549.89 461.11 8.73 1.32 3.91 11,628.11 17,054.49 13,184.07 49.26 19.07 NR
Starr 371.36 635.56 545.53 NR 17.34 10.84 37,625.31 62,832.32 69,258.75 16.92 13.88 NR
Val Verde 41.02 97.03 73.71 NR 2.67 NR 7,085.80 15,338.55 13,574.86 8.91 47.20 NR
Webb** 4,399.53 4,193.18 2,432.41 55.63 111.29 23.29 76,328.12 62,842.12 47,894.11 281.64 89.59 66.50
Willacy 5.88 54.98 18.82 NR NR NR 481.12 2,122.47 1,352.74 10.31 1.18 3.72
Zapata 0.04 0.00 29.21 NR 0.22 NR 6,658.28 4,440.27 3,491.96 NR NR NR
Zavala 0.29 0.03 8.79 0.62 NR NR 16.27 994.18 72.21 NR NR NR
Total 10,519.23 13,604.04 9,787.09 102.99 168.65 74.34 207,652.91 275,548.99 282,012.44 811.57 501.78 116.67

Source: El Paso Intelligence Center, February 7, 2008.
NR = Not Reported
* The significant increase in the amount of cocaine seized in Hidalgo County in 2006 is most likely attributed to a temporary shift in cocaine smuggling operations from Laredo (Webb County) toward McAllen (Hidalgo County) as a result in high levels of violence occurring in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
** Three unusually large heroin seizures, totaling approximately 60.8 kilograms, account for the increase in the amount of heroin seized in Webb County in 2006.

In addition to the illicit drugs routinely seized in South Texas, Mexican law enforcement and military personnel regularly seize large quantities of illicit drugs destined for the HIDTA region in Mexican states bordering South Texas. In October 2007 Mexican military personnel seized approximately 12 tons of cocaine following a shoot-out with drug traffickers in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico. In a November 2007 incident, Mexican military personnel seized over 23 metric tons of marijuana from three trailers near Juamave, Tamaulipas.

The Gulf Coast of Texas, including portions of the South Texas HIDTA region, is a common destination for maritime drug smuggling operations originating in Mexico. The Gulf Cartel, which controls drug trafficking through northeast Mexico, is the dominant trafficking organization engaging in maritime smuggling to South Texas. Mexican drug traffickers frequently use lanchas to transport marijuana and cocaine shipments to coastal areas of South Texas, often operating at night to exploit the limited law enforcement presence in these areas. However, traffickers quickly adjust their maritime smuggling operations when confronted by increased interdiction assets along the coast or in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of maritime smuggling operations, law enforcement officials periodically encounter marijuana and cocaine bundles that have washed ashore. The first known "washup" of methamphetamine occurred in 2007, when law enforcement officials discovered 1 kilogram of methamphetamine along SPI. This washup is the first indication that traffickers are smuggling limited quantities of methamphetamine through maritime conveyances.

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Wholesale distribution networks controlled by Mexican DTOs are the primary distribution threat to the region. Wholesale distribution networks operating in the South Texas border area extend from source areas in South America and Mexico to all regions of the United States. The South Texas border area plays a pivotal role in these distribution operations--not only is the region a significant cross-border smuggling area, but wholesale drug distributors in the South Texas border area greatly affect drug availability and distribution throughout much of the United States. Once cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine shipments have been smuggled into the United States, drug traffickers often store them temporarily in stash houses in communities throughout the South Texas border area. At these stash houses, drug shipments are either consolidated into large shipments or broken down into smaller quantities for individual distributors. From these locations, cells arrange for the transportation and distribution of the drug shipments to other distribution centers in Texas, such as Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, or directly to other U.S. drug markets. In addition, drug distributors from across the country travel to the South Texas border area to purchase illicit drugs for distribution in their home markets.

Drug-Related Crime

The northern Mexico states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon have been the center of violent conflicts between the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel. Their struggle for control of lucrative smuggling routes through northern Mexico and South Texas resulted in a rise in the number of violent incidents and drug-related murders in these states. However, since fall 2007, violence associated with these conflicts has decreased in some areas of northern Mexico. Law enforcement officials in the region report a decrease in the number of murders and kidnappings in Nuevo Laredo. This decrease may be the result of counterdrug operations initiated by the government of Mexico as well as a reported truce between the Gulf Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel. Despite these decreases, violence continues throughout northern Mexico and could escalate at any time. Moreover, recent violence in northern Mexico indicates that the cartels are now targeting Mexican military personnel and law enforcement personnel conducting counterdrug operations along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Widespread drug trafficking in the area also contributes to property and violent crime within the South Texas border area. Drug traffickers and gang members involved in drug smuggling frequently commit assault, automobile theft, burglary, extortion, and murder throughout the South Texas border area to facilitate smuggling activities and to protect their operations from rival trafficking organizations or gangs. However, the high level of violence in Mexico has not led to similar levels of violence in the South Texas border area. In fact, communities in South Texas often record crime rates at or below state and national averages. While it is highly unlikely that the level of violence and public fear generated by cartels in Mexico will develop in the South Texas border area, drug-related crime will remain a threat because of the area's role in national-level drug trafficking activities.


Illicit drug abuse is a serious concern for law enforcement and public health officials in the South Texas HIDTA region. The highest levels of illicit drug abuse in the South Texas border area occur in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Webb Counties--the most heavily populated counties in the South Texas border area. (The highest levels of drug abuse in the entire South Texas HIDTA region occur in Bexar County. See the "Abuse" section in the San Antonio Market Area section for a discussion about drug abuse in Bexar County). Marijuana is the most readily available and abused drug in the border area; however, cocaine is the primary illicit drug abuse threat--it is the primary illicit drug for which local residents seek treatment. Treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities for cocaine have outnumbered treatment admissions for all other drugs since 2004. (See Table 3.) Additionally, cocaine abuse among adolescents in South Texas is a growing concern in the area. A recent survey conducted by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) revealed higher levels of powder cocaine or crack cocaine use among students along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas than among students who live in nonborder areas. For example, 20 percent of high school seniors along the border reported previous cocaine use, compared with 11 percent of students in nonborder areas. 

Table 3. Number of Substance Abuse Treatment Admissions to Publicly Funded Facilities, by HIDTA County Bordering Mexico and by Drug, 2004-2006**

County Cocaine Heroin Marijuana Methamphetamine
2004 2005 2006 2004 2005 2006 2004 2005 2006 2004 2005 2006
Cameron 190 238 195 60 89 49 234 207 178 * * *
Dimmit * * * * 0 * 30 57 17 0 0 0
Hidalgo 285 281 311 106 59 52 211 131 195 * * 0
Jim Hogg 0 * 0 0 0 0 0 * 0 0 * 0
Kinney 0 0 * 0 0 0 * 0 0 0 0 0
La Salle * * * 0 * 0 29 14 0 0 0 0
Maverick * * 12 * * * 23 55 47 0 0 0
Starr 98 165 133 0 * 0 42 82 74 0 * *
Val Verde 11 0 * * 23 27 17 * * 0 0 0
Webb 232 304 242 286 229 247 201 181 177 0 * *
Willacy * 20 * 0 0 * * * 14 0 0 0
Zapata 28 26 15 0 * * 21 34 33 0 0 0
Zavala * 12 * 23 18 19 25 28 27 0 0 0

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services.
* Represents fewer than 10 treatment admissions.
**  The latest year for which treatment data are available.

Methamphetamine abuse rates in the South Texas border area remain relatively low compared with abuse rates for other illicit drugs. According to the University of Texas Center for Social Work Research, methamphetamine abuse is a greater problem in northern Texas than in the South Texas border area, and treatment admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities for methamphetamine remain low. However, as more methamphetamine abusers switch to Mexican ice methamphetamine, methamphetamine abuse rates and treatment admissions may increase slightly in the South Texas border area. Heroin and pharmaceutical abuse rates typically rank behind those for cocaine and marijuana; however, high numbers of heroin treatment admissions in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Webb counties indicate that these areas are also experiencing heroin abuse problems.

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Illicit Finance

The Lower Rio Grande Valley in the South Texas border area is one of the primary smuggling corridors for bulk cash shipments destined for Mexico. Traffickers exploit the high concentration of border crossings and cross-border traffic in this area for bulk cash smuggling operations. Law enforcement reporting and seizure data reveal that Brownsville, Edinburg, Mission, McAllen, Pharr, Roma, and Rio Grande City are primary destinations in the area for bulk cash shipments originating in the eastern half of the United States, whereas cash shipments originating from western markets of the United States typically flow through points of entry in California and Arizona. Locations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia have all been identified as sources of bulk cash shipments seized en route to or within the South Texas border area. Additionally, traffickers in the area capitalize on its location to move their illicit proceeds into Mexico.

Traffickers in the South Texas border area also use other money laundering methods in an attempt to conceal their illicit drug proceeds. Some traffickers establish cash-intensive businesses, including automobile repair shops, restaurants, construction companies, and transportation companies, to mask the nature of their funds. They commingle illicit drug proceeds with profits generated by these businesses to conceal the source of the funds. Some traffickers also use money services businesses, such as electronic wire transfer businesses and money transmitters, to launder their drug proceeds. Wire transfer businesses and money transmitters offer these traffickers a quick, electronic, and often anonymous means of laundering their drug proceeds. Traffickers conceal their illegitimate transactions among the large volume of legitimate transfers that take place daily. Money transmitters are located throughout the United States and enable drug traffickers in most drug markets to wire drug proceeds to the South Texas border area or directly to Mexico. When funds are transferred to this area, they are often collected and then transported in bulk to Mexico.

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San Antonio Market Area


San Antonio, county seat for Bexar County, is the largest and most populous drug market in the South Texas HIDTA region. The city is home to approximately 1.3 million people, rendering San Antonio the seventh most populous city in the United States. The economic and transportation systems that support the city create an environment conducive to drug trafficking. Mexican drug traffickers conceal their operations among the city's large Hispanic population, use the extensive highway system to receive and transport illicit drug shipments, and exploit commercial businesses and financial institutions to launder illicit proceeds. Many Mexican DTOs place cells in San Antonio to facilitate the transportation and distribution of illicit drugs from Mexico, the South Texas border area, and San Antonio to drug markets across the country.


Bexar County--specifically, San Antonio--is the principal drug production center in the South Texas HIDTA region; considerably more illicit drug production takes place in the metropolitan area than any other locale in South Texas.

Bexar County is the primary location for methamphetamine production within the South Texas HIDTA region. However, because of an abundant supply of Mexican ice methamphetamine, production is at a relatively low level. In 2007 six methamphetamine laboratories were seized, compared with 15 in 2006. (See Table 4.) Despite the slight decrease in laboratory seizures from 2006 to 2007, some local law enforcement officials believe that local production levels may be trending upward again. Some local methamphetamine abusers still prefer to produce and abuse locally produced powder methamphetamine despite the prevalence of Mexican ice methamphetamine. The recent seizure of 58 kilograms of pseudoephedrine is an indication that precursor chemical smuggling from Mexico is supplying some local methamphetamine producers. Additionally, local methamphetamine producers circumvent restrictions on the purchase of large quantities of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine by purchasing these products at numerous locations throughout San Antonio and in surrounding states.

Table 4. Number of Methamphetamine Laboratory Seizures in the South Texas HIDTA, 2005-2007

County/Region 2005 2006 2007 Total
Bexar 31 15 6 52
Remainder of South Texas HIDTA Region 0 0 0 0
Remainder of Texas 139 56 38 233
Total 170 71 44 285

Source: National Seizure ,* run date January 28, 2008.
* NSS is a voluntary seizure reporting system and may not reflect all laboratory seizures.

Marijuana is produced in San Antonio and Bexar County, but its availability pales in comparison with that of Mexican marijuana. Limited quantities of marijuana are produced from outdoor and indoor cannabis grow sites throughout Bexar County. In recent months the San Antonio Police Department and Bexar County Sheriff's Office have reported an increase in local indoor cannabis cultivation, including the use of hydroponic growing techniques. According to officials from both agencies, indoor cultivation operations in the area are relatively small and lack the sophistication of indoor operations documented in other areas of the country. Moreover, these indoor grow sites produce personal use quantities of marijuana insufficient for distribution.

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San Antonio serves as a transshipment center for Mexican DTOs as a result of its proximity to Mexico and its extensive transportation network. San Antonio is located approximately 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border; consequently, it does not receive the heightened law enforcement scrutiny common along the border. As a result, many Mexican DTOs are establishing cells in the city that specialize in drug transportation to other transportation and distribution centers in Texas and to drug markets in other regions of the United States. The highway network that supports San Antonio facilitates the movement of illicit drug shipments into and through the city. Most of the major roadways serving the area originate at the U.S.-Mexico border and connect with other roadways that serve drug markets throughout the country. (See Figure 2.) This transportation network also provides drug traffickers with various routes to transport bulk quantities of illicit drug proceeds to the South Texas border area and eventually into Mexico.

Figure 2. South Texas HIDTA region transportation infrastructure.

Map showing the South Texas HIDTA region transportation infrastructure.

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Mexican DTOs use San Antonio as a national-level distribution center for wholesale quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. San Antonio's role in drug distribution is evident in the quantity of illicit drugs seized. Although cocaine and heroin seizures by the San Antonio Police Department declined from 2006 to 2007, the overall quantity of drugs seized is large, as evidenced by the 353 percent increase in marijuana seized from 2006 to 2007. (See Table 5.) The larger population in San Antonio, as compared with that in the South Texas border area, enables drug traffickers to better conceal their operations. In addition, some Mexican DTOs use familial ties and long-established criminal connections to maintain control over wholesale drug distribution in San Antonio and throughout the South Texas HIDTA region. As a result, the city is an ideal location for Mexican DTOs to base distribution operations and maintain drug and money stash houses.

Table 5. Drug Seizures by San Antonio Police Department Narcotics Unit, in Pounds,* 2006-2007

Drug 2006 2007
Cocaine 319.60 144.26
Heroin 23.10 16.97
Marijuana 1,281.90 5,808.27
Methamphetamine 14.93 25.44

Source: San Antonio Police Department Narcotics Unit.
* All weights have been converted from grams to pounds.

Midlevel and retail drug distribution takes place in all areas of San Antonio, resulting in varying degrees of abuse and crime throughout the city. In low-income areas, dealers distribute crack cocaine and heroin on neighborhood streets; in middle-class and high-income neighborhoods, drugs are often sold in bars or private residences. San Antonio also has a sizeable street and prison gang population. Many gangs, including Mexikanemi and HPL, rely on drug distribution as their primary income source, but they also commit crimes in the course of their drug distribution activities.

Drug-Related Crime

Drug trafficking and abuse contribute significantly to crime in San Antonio and throughout Bexar County. Distributors and abusers of all illicit drugs commit property crimes and violent crimes to varying degrees. However, local law enforcement officials report that those involved with cocaine trafficking commit the largest percentage of drug-related crime. Additionally, law enforcement officials report that methamphetamine abusers commit a host of property crimes in the city. Methamphetamine abusers frequently commit property crimes, such as residential burglaries, to acquire money or merchandise that can be sold or traded for methamphetamine. Law enforcement officials have also noted a recent increase in home invasions linked to drug trafficking in San Antonio. Such home invasions often target residents known or suspected to be involved in the illicit drug business; drugs or money are commonly stolen from these residences. Prison gangs and street gangs are very active in San Antonio; they are often implicated by law enforcement officials in drug-related crime.

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San Antonio has a much larger drug abuser population than all other areas in the South Texas HIDTA region. As a result, San Antonio regularly posts significantly higher drug abuse and drug treatment rates than other South Texas locations. Marijuana is the most frequently abused drug in San Antonio, but more San Antonio residents seek treatment for heroin abuse than for abuse of any other illicit drug. Admissions at publicly funded treatment centers for heroin and marijuana abuse increased each year from 2004 through 2006 in Bexar County. (See Table 6.) Heroin abuse levels have historically been high in San Antonio and may be increasing as the city's role in national drug transportation and distribution increases.

Table 6. Number of Substance Abuse-Related Admissions to Publicly Funded Treatment Facilities, Bexar County, 2004-2006*

Cocaine Heroin Marijuana Methamphetamine
2004 2005 2006 2004 2005 2006 2004 2005 2006 2004 2005 2006
978 1,409 1,242 1,291 1,437 1,557 943 1,315 1,433 166 318 322

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services.
* The latest year for which data are available.

The high levels of cocaine trafficking and wide availability of the drug also result in high levels of cocaine abuse in the city.

Illicit Finance

Mexican DTOs use San Antonio as a consolidation point for illicit drug proceeds generated in the city at markets throughout the country because of the city's highly developed transportation infrastructure and proximity to multiple border crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition, traffickers invest in cash-based businesses, such as auto body shops, and restaurants, and commingle illicit funds with profits generated from their businesses to conceal the source of the funds.

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