Reports by US authorities that Mexican cartels have a presence in more than 1,000 US cities were widely exaggerated, according to a newspaper investigation, highlighting how the political considerations of US security forces can skew perceptions of the on-the-ground reality.
Police chiefs in more than a dozen cities that the now-defunct National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) identified as having a "Mexican transnational criminal organization" presence told the Washington Post they had no knowledge of such activities.
In 2011, the NDIC said that Mexican criminal organizations -- including seven major cartels -- were operating in 1,000 US cities, a claim that has been widely repeated by news agencies and in government hearings, including by Sen. John McCain in an Armed Services Committee last year. But drug policy analysts and law enforcement officials, including anonymous sources at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Justice Department, told the Washington Post they had no confidence in the "mythical" figure.
The doubts apparently stem from the report's methodology, in which a Mexican "presence" was noted if just one Mexican national was engaged in some form of trafficking activity, while local and state police officials were prone to exaggerate in an attempt to secure budget increases from federal government.
InSight Crime Analysis
There is no doubt that Mexican organized crime groups maintain some sort of presence in the United States, but this is predominantly related to money laundering, maintaining trafficking corridors for drugs and bulk cash shipments, and wholesale distribution. These activities do not require the infrastructure or military strength needed south of the border, and the cartels have little motivation to set up such networks, which would attract the attentions of US law enforcement. Evidence of this is the low violence rates in cities on the US side of the border, where fears of spillover violence have been discredited.
As the Washington Post investigation highlights, tensions clearly exist within the various US agencies that work tackling drug trafficking, whose claims and actions at times seem to be more in line with improving their status or increasing their budget than reflecting the situation on the ground.