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Drug Trafficking Organizations

Wholesale-level DTOs, especially Mexican DTOs, constitute the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States. These organizations derive tens of billions of dollars annually from the trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs and associated activities. All of the adverse societal impact resulting from the illicit drug trade begins with the criminal acts of DTOs that produce, transport, and distribute the drugs.

Drug Cartels, Drug Trafficking Organizations, Criminal Groups, and Gangs

Drug cartels are large, highly sophisticated organizations composed of multiple DTOs and cells with specific assignments such as drug transportation, security/enforcement, or money laundering. Drug cartel command-and-control structures are based outside the United States; however, they produce, transport, and distribute illicit drugs domestically with the assistance of DTOs that are either a part of or in an alliance with the cartel.

Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are complex organizations with highly defined command-and-control structures that produce, transport, and/or distribute large quantities of one or more illicit drugs.

Criminal groups operating in the United States are numerous and range from small to moderately sized, loosely knit groups that distribute one or more drugs at the retail level and midlevel.

Street gangs are defined by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators' Association as groups or associations of three or more persons with a common identifying sign, symbol, or name, the members of which individually or collectively engage in criminal activity that creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Prison gangs are highly structured criminal networks that operate within the federal and state prison system and in local communities through members who have been released from prison.

Outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) are highly structured criminal organizations whose members engage in criminal activities such as violent crimes, weapons trafficking, and drug trafficking. OMGs maintain a strong centralized leadership that implements rules regulating membership, conduct, and criminal activity.

The influence of Mexican DTOs, already the dominant wholesale drug traffickers in the United States, is still expanding, primarily in areas where the direct influence of Colombian DTOs is diminishing.

Mexican DTOs are more deeply entrenched in drug trafficking activities in the United States than any other DTOs. They are the only DTOs that are operating in all nine Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) regions (see Map A1 in Appendix A) and all 32 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs) (see Map A2 in Appendix A). They are active in more cities throughout the country than any other DTOs. Law enforcement reporting and case initiation data show that Mexican DTOs control most of the wholesale cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine distribution in the United States as well as much of the marijuana distribution (see Table B3 in Appendix B).

In the past few years, Mexican DTOs expanded their operations in the Florida/Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic, New York/New Jersey, and New England Regions, where, in the past, Colombian DTOs were the leading suppliers of cocaine and heroin. As a result, the direct influence of Colombian DTOs has diminished further, although they remain a source for wholesale quantities of cocaine and heroin in many eastern states, especially New York and New Jersey. Mexican DTOs have expanded their presence by increasing their transportation and distribution networks, directly supplying Dominican drug distributors that had previously distributed cocaine and heroin provided primarily by Colombian DTOs. The switch by Dominican DTOs from Colombian to Mexican suppliers is most evident in the Mid-Atlantic Region, specifically in the Philadelphia/Camden and Washington/Baltimore areas. In these locations, some Dominican DTOs bypass Colombian sources of supply in New York City and Miami and obtain cocaine and heroin directly from Mexican sources or from sources in the Caribbean or in South America.

The supply arrangement between Mexican and Dominican DTOs has aided Dominican DTOs and criminal groups in expanding their midlevel and retail drug distribution networks, primarily in the Mid-Atlantic Region, but also in other regions such as the Great Lakes and Southwest. The establishment of multiple sources of supply--rather than reliance entirely on Colombian sources--has also enabled Dominican DTOs to lower costs and increase profit margins.

The direct effect of the Mexican DTO expansion in eastern states on the drug trafficking activities of Italian Organized Crime (IOC) groups is unclear, although IOC drug trafficking appeared to diminish in 2009 as Mexican DTO influence increased. In 2008, drug trafficking by IOC in eastern states appeared to be increasing, based on information revealed through several significant multiagency drug investigations. However, in 2009, there were no similar drug cases involving IOC, and the relative strength of these groups in drug trafficking in eastern states now is unclear.

Asian DTOs have expanded their influence nationally in recent years by trafficking MDMA and high-potency marijuana--drugs that do not put them in direct competition with Mexican, Colombian, or Dominican DTOs.

The rising influence of Asian DTOs that was observed and reported by law enforcement agencies in 2008 continued to increase in 2009. Asian DTOs trafficked wholesale quantities of drugs in 24 of the 32 HIDTAs (see Map A2 in Appendix A), compared with 22 HIDTAs in 2007. Asian DTOs that had previously trafficked high-purity Southeast Asian heroin have become the predominant distributors of MDMA and high-potency marijuana, drugs typically associated with low criminal penalties and high profit margins. Asian DTOs increasingly smuggle large quantities of MDMA through and between ports of entry (POEs) along the U.S.-Canada border, as evidenced by seizure data that show a substantial increase in the amount of MDMA seized along the Northern Border from 2004 (312,389 dosage units) to 20098 (2,167,238 dosage units). While Asian DTOs continue to produce high-potency marijuana in Canada, they have decreased their reliance on foreign production by establishing marijuana grows in the United States, further reducing associated smuggling risks and costs. Consequently, the amount of marijuana seized along the U.S.-Canada border decreased from 10,447 kilograms in 2005 to 3,423 kilograms in 2009.

Asian DTOs have filled a niche by trafficking high-potency marijuana and MDMA--drugs not typically trafficked by Mexican, Colombian, or Dominican DTOs. This factor has contributed to their success; however, their success is largely due to their ability to estimate the risk and cost of engaging in any given criminal activity. Asian DTOs are willing to cooperate with other criminal groups to increase their profit and work with Caucasian, Hispanic, and African American DTOs or criminal groups in most major cities in an effort to expand their drug distribution and customer base.

Cuban DTOs and criminal groups are slowly expanding their drug trafficking activities beyond the Florida/Caribbean Region, in part by partnering with Mexican DTOs.

The influence of Cuban DTOs and criminal groups is expanding, albeit at a slower rate than that of Asian DTOs. The number of HIDTAs reporting Cuban DTO or criminal group activity increased from three in 2007 to eight in 2009. The expanding influence of Cuban DTOs and criminal groups is largely the result of their ability to exploit Cuban émigrés to establish and tend indoor marijuana grow sites in locations throughout the Florida/Caribbean and Southeast Regions (specifically in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina). Cuban DTO and criminal group activity also appears to be expanding in the Southwest Region, where law enforcement agencies in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas report Cuban DTO or criminal group involvement in cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana trafficking. This expanding influence of Cuban DTOs and criminal groups can also be attributed to their close working relationships with Mexican DTOs. Many Cuban émigrés are brought illegally into the United States by smugglers who are associated with a Mexican DTO. Moreover, communities composed of both Cubans and Mexicans allow for the development of personal relationships between criminal groups. The full extent of these relationships is unknown. However, if they follow patterns similar to the relationships established between Mexican and Dominican DTOs, the involvement of Cuban DTOs and criminal groups in drug trafficking should expand further in the near term, although the threat posed by these groups will remain much lower than that posed by Mexican, Colombian, Dominican, and Asian DTOs.


8. National Seizure System data as of December 1, 2009.

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