Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Michael Tarm / The Associated Press
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This photo dated 2007 from federal court documents shows Jose Gonzales-Zavala with two of his children. Prosecutors say Gonzales-Zavala was a member of the La Familia cartel, based in Mexico, and was dispatched to the Chicago area to oversee one of the cartel’s lucrative trafficking cells. His defense team entered the photograph into evidence in arguing for leniency in his case. In 2011, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a federal judge in Chicago.
The Associated Press
Bales of marijuana are wheeled out at a news conference in Jonesboro, Ga., in 2010, when 45 people were arrested and cash, guns and more than two tons of drugs were seized as part of an investigation by federal and local law enforcement into the Atlanta-area U.S. distribution hub of Mexico’s La Familia drug cartel.
2010 Associated Press File Photo
Beginning two or three years ago, authorities noticed that cartels were putting "deputies on the ground here," Bilek said. "Chicago became such a massive market ... it was critical that they had firm control."
To help fight the syndicates, Chicago recently opened a first-of-its-kind facility at a secret location where 70 federal agents work side-by-side with police and prosecutors. Their primary focus is the point of contact between suburban-based cartel operatives and city street gangs who act as retail salesmen. That is when both sides are most vulnerable to detection, when they are most likely to meet in the open or use cellphones that can be wiretapped.
Others are skeptical about claims cartels are expanding their presence, saying law-enforcement agencies are prone to exaggerating threats to justify bigger budgets.
David Shirk, of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, said there is a dearth of reliable intelligence that cartels are dispatching operatives from Mexico on a large scale.
"We know astonishingly little about the structure and dynamics of cartels north of the border," Shirk said. "We need to be very cautious about the assumptions we make."
Statistics from the DEA suggest a heightened cartel presence in more U.S. cities. In 2008, around 230 American communities reported some level of cartel presence. That number climbed to more than 1,200 in 2011, the most recent year for which information is available, though the increase is partly due to better reporting.
Federal agents and local police say they have become more adept at identifying cartel members or operatives using wiretapped conversations, informants or confessions. Hundreds of court documents reviewed by the AP appear to support those statements.
"This is the first time we've been seeing it – cartels who have their operatives actually sent here," said Richard Pearson, a lieutenant with the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, which arrested four alleged operatives of the Zetas cartel in November in the suburb of Okolona.
People who live on the tree-lined street where authorities seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana and more than $1 million in cash were shocked to learn their low-key neighbors were accused of working for one of Mexico's most violent drug syndicates, Pearson said.
THE TRAPPINGS OF A NORMAL LIFE
One of the best documented cases is Jose Gonzalez-Zavala, who was dispatched to the U.S. by the La Familia cartel, according to court filings.
In 2008, the former taxi driver and father of five moved into a spacious home at 1416 Brookfield Drive in a middle-class neighborhood of Joliet, southwest of Chicago. From there, court papers indicate, he oversaw wholesale shipments of cocaine in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Wiretap transcripts reveal he called an unidentified cartel boss in Mexico almost every day, displaying the deference any midlevel executive might show to someone higher up the corporate ladder. Once he stammered as he explained that one customer would not pay a debt until after a trip.
"No," snaps the boss. "What we need is for him to pay."
The same cartel assigned Jorge Guadalupe Ayala-German to guard a Chicago-area stash house for $300 a week, plus a promised $35,000 lump-sum payment once he returned to Mexico after a year or two, according to court documents.
Ayala-German brought his wife and child to help give the house the appearance of an ordinary family residence. But he was arrested before he could return home and pleaded guilty to multiple trafficking charges. He will be sentenced later this year.
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This 2009 photo provided by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department in Lawrenceville, Ga., shows reputed cartel operative Socorro Hernandez-Rodriguez after his arrest in a suburb of Atlanta. Hernandez-Rodriguez was later convicted of sweeping drug trafficking charges. Prosecutors said he was a high-ranking figure in the La Familia cartel, sent to the U.S. to run a drug cell.
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Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago, points out local Mexican drug cartel problem areas on a map in the new interagency Strike Force office in Chicago. Looking on is DEA agent Vince Balbo. The ruthless syndicates have long been the nation's No. 1 supplier of illegal drugs, but in the past, their operatives rarely ventured beyond the border.