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Drug Trafficking by Criminal Gangs

There are nearly 1 million9 active gang members in the United States, based on analysis of federal, state, and local data, and the involvement of criminal gangs in domestic drug trafficking is becoming increasingly complex. Since 2001, many gangs have advanced beyond their traditional role as local retail drug distributors in large cities to become more organized, adaptable, deliberate, and influential in large-scale drug trafficking (see Table B4 in Appendix B). Much of their growing influence has come at the expense of local independent dealers and small local criminal groups who cannot compete with gangs that establish control in smaller drug markets.

The influence of Hispanic and African American street gangs is expanding as these gangs gain greater control over drug distribution in rural and suburban areas and acquire drugs directly from DTOs in Mexico or along the Southwest Border.

In 2009, midlevel and retail drug distribution in the United States was dominated by more than 900,000 criminally active gang members representing approximately 20,000 domestic street gangs in more than 2,500 cities (see Map A3 in Appendix A). These street gangs vary greatly with respect to their ethnic or racial identities, the types and amounts of drugs that they distribute, their strength and influence, and their adaptability. Their prevalence varies geographically, with the greatest concentration of street gangs occurring in the Great Lakes, Pacific, Southeast, and Southwest OCDETF Regions (see Map A4 in Appendix A).

Many Hispanic and, to a lesser extent, African American gangs are gaining control over drug distribution outside urban areas that were previously supplied by local independent dealers or small local criminal groups. Around 2007, Hispanic and African American gangs throughout the country, but especially in the Southwest and Great Lakes Regions, began to command greater influence over drug distribution in many rural and suburban areas. This trend continued in 2009. For example, in 2009, the Avenues street gang based in Los Angeles, California, expanded its operations to distribute drugs in suburban and rural locations throughout southern California.

To increase their control over drug trafficking in smaller markets, street gangs have been increasingly acquiring larger wholesale quantities of drugs at lower prices directly from DTOs in Mexico and along the Southwest Border. Several Southwest Border street gangs, such as Shelltown 38th Street, Tri-City Bombers, and Vallucos, smuggle wholesale quantities of drugs obtained in Mexico into the United States. By purchasing directly from Mexican wholesale sources in Mexico or along the Southwest Border, gangs throughout the country realize cost savings that enable them to sell drugs at lower prices than local independent dealers in small communities, driving these dealers out of business. For example, members of the Chicago-based Latin Kings street gang who operate in Midland, Texas, purchase cocaine from Mexican traffickers in south Texas for $16,000 to $18,000 per kilogram, compared with $25,000 to $35,000 per kilogram from wholesale traffickers in Chicago. With this savings, the gang undersells other local dealers who do not have the capacity to buy large wholesale quantities directly from Mexican DTOs in Mexico or along the Southwest Border.

Hispanic prison gangs, primarily in Southwest Border states, are gaining strength by working directly with Mexican DTOs to acquire wholesale quantities of drugs and by controlling most street gangs in areas along the Southwest Border.

Prison gangs are active in all 50 states and are increasing their influence over drug trafficking in areas along the Southwest Border (see Table B4 in Appendix B). Prior to 2001, the criminal influence of prison gangs was limited primarily to retail-level drug distribution. However, since that time, Hispanic prison gangs have become increasingly involved in the transportation and wholesale distribution of drugs.

Hispanic prison gangs such as Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos (HPL) and Raza Unida operating in Southwest Border states have increased their involvement in wholesale drug distribution activities through cooperative relationships with Mexican DTOs. Through these relationships, Hispanic prison gangs are able to gain access to wholesale quantities of drugs. For example, in September 2009, 21 members of HPL were convicted in the Southern District of Texas (Houston) of conspiring to distribute more than 150 kilograms of cocaine and laundering millions of dollars in drug proceeds. In April 2009, 15 members and associates of the Raza Unida prison gang were indicted for trafficking multikilogram quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine weekly in McAllen and Houston, Texas.

To ensure a consistent profit stream from the wholesale drugs that they purchase from Mexican DTOs, Hispanic prison gangs distribute drugs through street gangs that they largely, if not entirely, control. Through force or intimidation, Hispanic prison gangs exercise significant control over local gangs that distribute their drugs in the Southwest Border region. For example, Barrio Azteca prison gang members operating in El Paso, Texas, collect drug payments and taxes from 47 street-level gangs and independent drug dealers trafficking drugs in El Paso.


9. Includes incarcerated gang members.

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