Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2015

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law enforcement:

Mexican drug cartels try to establish direct ties in Las Vegas, officials say

Mexican Drug Cartels

Mexican army soldiers burn laboratory equipment used to produce large quantities of synthetic drugs at a clandestine drug laboratory allegedly run by Mexico's powerful La Familia drug cartel, near the town of Charo, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, Sunday, July 26, 2009. According to federal law enforcement authorities, the lab produced about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of methamphetamine or crystal meth,  each week. So far this year, police say they have seized 40 drug labs operated by the La Familia cartel. Launch slideshow »

Drug Trafficking Tunnels

In this undated photo provided by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, shows a 240-yard, a complete and fully operational tunnel that ran from a small business in Arizona to an ice plant on the Mexico side of the border, Thursday, July 12, 2012, in San Luis, Ariz. Launch slideshow »

Mexican cartels are working to establish a direct foothold in Las Vegas to sell drugs here and use the region as a stepping stone to shipping large quantities of drugs to the East, law enforcement officials say.

The vast majority of drugs entering the region still come via long-established routes through Phoenix or Southern California and are overseen by middlemen. But with greater frequency, traffickers here are ordering drugs directly from cartels in Mexico, enforcement officers have found.

“There’s no denying that these cartels are slowly inching themselves into our community,” said Lt. Laz Chavez of Metro Police’s narcotics section.

Two years ago, for instance, Kent Bitsko, executive director of a Nevada-based interagency drug task force, testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that several degrees of separation still existed between the region’s drug traffickers and Mexican cartels. At the time, he could find only four or five cases over a three-year period with such ties.

Bitsko told the Sun that in the past 18 months, authorities have investigated five cases with direct cartel involvement.

“The only time we will say cartel involvement is when they have the ability to call directly to Mexico and arrange their narcotics to come up here,” he said.

The deliveries from Mexico include cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine, typically transported by vehicle in hidden compartments, Bitsko said.

Last year, task forces seized more than $66 million in drugs in Southern Nevada, more than double the amount seized in 2010, according to authorities.

Nevada’s local, state, tribal and federal drug task forces reeled in several large-scale drug busts last year, including 473 pounds of cocaine found aboard an 18-wheeler on Interstate 15. Authorities said methamphetamine continues to be the top drug threat to Southern Nevada, with several cases tied directly to Mexico. Task forces seized 559 pounds of methamphetamine last year compared with 314 pounds in 2010, according to a 2011 report produced by the task forces.

“We’ve done search warrants on homes and found (more than) 100 pounds of meth,” Chavez said. “There’s no way that much can be sold just in Las Vegas.”

Authorities suspect Mexican drug cartels are sending splinter groups — associates but not cartel leaders — to the Las Vegas area to, as Chavez puts it, “test the waters.”

They’re purchasing homes and own enough vehicles to operate in the region, all funded by money from the cartels, he said. Chavez said he thinks that as these associates attempt to set up shop, they’re keeping an eye on police activity — in other words, “how much they can get away with.”

That’s where the task forces come into play. Drug-trafficking activity has made Southern Nevada law enforcement teams just as busy as their counterparts in larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chavez said.

The investigative process works similar to a domino effect with the identification of drug sellers, their bosses and ultimately the head of a regional cell, Bitsko said. The task forces are working to build cases against organization cells, not individuals.

“We don’t consider it a success unless we can get eight or 10 or 15 of the people who are running the organization,” Bitsko said.

Many of the people arrested are Mexican nationals living here illegally, Bitsko said. There’s not one cartel running Southern Nevada, though. Authorities have come across drug traffickers with direct connection to the Sinaloa, La Familia and the Knights Templar cartels.

The technology drug traffickers possess creates a constant challenge for investigators battling their influence in the region.

“The cartels have an endless budget,” Chavez said. “Obviously, we don’t.”

Above all, authorities hope violence associated with cartels — 47,000 people have died in drug-related crimes in Mexico — doesn’t spill into the Las Vegas Valley.

“Is that coming?” Bitsko said. “I don’t know.”

Other U.S. cities, including Phoenix and San Diego, have seen an increase in cartel-related kidnappings, Bitsko said.

“We just want to do whatever we can to keep that from happening,” Chavez said.

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