WASHINGTON – When Sen. John McCain spoke during an Armed Services Committee hearing last year on security issues in the Western Hemisphere, he relayed a stark warning about the spread of Mexican drug cartels in the United States. “The cartels,” the Arizona Republican said, “now maintain a presence in over 1,000 cities.”
McCain based his remarks on a report by a now-defunct division of the Justice Department, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), which had concluded in 2011 that Mexican criminal organizations, including seven major drug cartels, were operating in more than 1,000 U.S. cities.
But the number, widely reported by news organizations across the country, is misleading at best, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and drug policy analysts interviewed by The Washington Post. They said the number is inflated because it relied heavily on self-reporting by law enforcement agencies, not on documented criminal cases involving drug trafficking organizations and cartels.
The Post interviewed local officials in more than a dozen cities who said they were surprised to learn that the federal government had documented cartel-related activity in their communities.
The NDIC’s headquarters in Pennsylvania was closed last year and its personnel folded into the Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA officials declined to release a list of the cities, calling it “law enforcement sensitive.”
Privately, DEA and Justice Department officials said they have no confidence in the accuracy of the list. “It’s not a DEA number,” said one DEA official. “We don’t want to be attached to this number at all.”
The Post was able to identify more than a third of the cities using computer mapping techniques and government documents. The analysis located government claims of Mexican drug activity in numerous cities in unexpected places: 20 in Montana, 25 in Oregon, 25 in Idaho, 30 in Arkansas.
There is no disputing that Mexican cartels are operating in the United States. Drug policy analysts estimate that about 90 percent of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine on U.S. streets was trafficked by the cartels and their distribution networks in Mexico and along the Southwestern border. DEA officials say they have documented numerous cases of cartel activity in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.
But analysts who study drug trafficking scoffed at the idea that the violent cartels and other Mexico-based drug organizations are operating in more than 1,000 U.S. cities.
“They say there are Mexicans operating here and they must be part of a Mexican drug organization,” said Peter Reuter, who co-directed drug research for the nonprofit Rand think tank. “These numbers are mythical, and they keep getting reinforced by the echo chamber.”
The NDIC’s former chief defended the work of his former agency. “It doesn’t surprise me that the DEA doesn’t support those numbers,” said Michael Walther, who ran the agency from 2005 to 2012. “They like to paint a more positive portrait of the world. I stand by the work that our analysts did at NDIC.”
Drug policy analysts said the wide dissemination of the number is part of a pattern in the decades-long “war on drugs” of promoting questionable statistics in an attempt to quantify the drug problem in the United States and justify budgets.
“Washington loves mythical numbers,” said John Carnevale, a former drug policy and budget official who served three presidents and four “drug czars” at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Once the number is out there and it comes from a source perceived to be credible, it becomes hard to disprove, almost impossible, even when it’s wrong.”
The NDIC closed in June 2012 after 19 years of operation and more than $690 million in taxpayers’ money spent. But the NDIC number lives on, cited in congressional reports on security along the southwestern border and in testimony by high-ranking members of the military and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“The cartels now have a presence in more than 1,000 U.S. cities,” said a 2012 report by the House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee on violence and terrorism on the border.
“A terrorist insurgency is being waged along our southern border,” then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Connie Mack said during a 2011 hearing on combating international criminal organizations. He cited “the operations across Mexico and Central America, as well as in over 1,000 U.S. cities.”
Drug policy analysts called NDIC definitions of what constitutes a Mexican drug organization murky and not particularly useful, paving the way for confusion and misinterpretation. In its 2010 report, the center used the phrase “Mexican drug trafficking organizations,” defining them as being based in Mexico or the United States, with Mexican nationals serving as their leaders. The report’s definition of “presence” in a U.S. city was met if at least one member of the organization was engaged in “some type of trafficking activity.”
In its 2011 report, the center used the phrase “transnational criminal organizations” and said they included seven cartels based in Mexico, the well-known Sinaloa and Zetas syndicates among them.
The report broadened the definition in a footnote to include traffickers who purchased drugs from cartel associates. Under such definitions, the analysts said, anyone from Mexico caught selling a small amount of marijuana in a U.S. city could be counted as a Mexican drug organization or cartel presence.
“These definitions are interchangeable and indistinguishable,” said Peter Andreas, a drug policy analyst at Brown University. “This is a particularly egregious example of a pattern that unfortunately has not gotten a lot of scrutiny.”