By Leigh Irvin
Mexican drug cartels are operating at increased levels within San Juan County, and they steadily are becoming more violent, according to Region II Narcotics Task Force Director Neil Haws.
Speaking to the Bloomfield City Council on Tuesday, Haws outlined recent trends within the cartels and warned that unless aggressive measures such as securing a federal magistrate in the area are taken, the picture looks bleak for stemming drug-related crime and violence.
"Drugs and Mexican cartel activities are a real issue in Bloomfield," Haws said. "The cells are already here, and all of the problems that U.S. cities bordering Mexico are now dealing with are going to come this way. It's only a matter of time."
Haws said that for the past two years the major Mexican drug cartel operating in San Juan County has been the Juarez cartel, but recently the Sinaloa and Michoacan cartels have gained ground.
"What's happening here is reflective of what's occurring in Mexico," said Haws, adding that Region II is concentrating its investigative efforts on individuals three or four levels above the drug addicts, or those who are directly connected to the cartels.
Going deeper into how the cartels operate in Bloomfield, Haws said that four to five males are usually sent by the Mexican cartel to Bloomfield to live, and they spend 80 percent of their time in and around the city.
The cartel members bring their families with them to try to fit into the community and to be less noticeable, and do not deal directly with drug addicts, which makes them difficult to detect.
"These cartel members recruit local gang members to sell drugs to lower-level dealers, who then sell the drugs to the addicts," said Haws.
Region II agents rely on background checks and surveillance to identify cartel members, and watch for signs like tattoos and the collection of religious artifacts like shrines.
Recently, the Sinaloa cartel has added Albuquerque as a stepping stone for its drug distribution in New Mexico, and much of the drugs coming into San Juan County are coming from Phoenix, passing through Albuquerque and then being transported into San Juan County via Highway 550. Drugs continue to be transported to the area from Mexico after going through California.
Albuquerque is seeing more "enforcers," or cartel members who resort to kidnappings and violence on order of the cartel leaders in Mexico, Haws said.
While some of the drugs reaching the county stay in the area and are sold to local drug addicts, much of the drugs are further distributed to other states such as Colorado, Utah, Missouri and the Dakotas.
"We are definitely a distribution hub here," said Haws.
Addressing why our area makes a good distribution hub, Haws said that the cartel members find it easy to import the drugs via wide-open New Mexico roads and reservation lands, and storage of drugs is also relatively easy here.
Obtaining fake documentation is also easy to obtain in this area, despite Bloomfield taking away the ability of illegal aliens to obtain driver's licenses.
"One of the best forgers in the area lives in Shiprock and works by the side of the road. For $30, it's possible for someone to get a whole new identity from this person," said Haws.
While Region II has seen a slight increase in the use and distribution of heroin, Haws says methamphetamine remains the drug of choice in San Juan County, and that 98 percent of the drug cases Region II works on involve meth.
What is changing, he said, is the purity of the meth coming into the county.
"The purity here in San Juan County amazes the rest of the state," he said.
"We're seeing 94-98 percent purity here, and one recent sample sent to the DEA lab was 100 percent pure. The DEA didn't even know this level of purity was possible."
One of the challenges for local cartel members is getting the drug money back to Mexico. Bulk cash smuggling is one way to do this, but a relatively recent trend is to utilize money remitters such as Western Union and local businesses.
"The cartels know how to stay under the radar, and they'll repeatedly wire $999 back to Mexico to avoid reporting requirements. Since no reporting is required for this amount, the transfers are hard to detect."
Drug-related crimes such as kidnapping, homicide and money laundering are picking up in the county, says Haws.
One local family consisting of a father, an uncle and a cousin, were all recently kidnapped and taken to Mexico, according to Region II sources.
The family members were never seen again, and are believed to have been killed.
"Crimes like these are usually perpetrated by the cartels against undocumented Mexican nationals, so it makes it hard to positively identify a lot of the victims," said Haws.
The FBI has been involved in some of the Mexican-on-Mexican investigations, but without a U.S. citizen nexus, their hands are somewhat tied.
"We're also seeing a lot of extortion cases," he said.
"The cartel members might get a small local business to illegally transfer too much money on one occasion, then will extort them to continue the transfers, using the company's fear of getting into legal trouble."
Other strong-arm methods of local cartels is to kick gang members out of their homes and move their own families in.
"The gang family may be having some debt issues, and the cartel member will just say, get out, we're moving in,'" he said.
Fear of cartel violence prevents others from fighting back or reporting these activities, making it difficult for Region II to secure witnesses and informants.
Haws said money laundering is also "huge" in Bloomfield, and that the cartels are using small businesses like clothing shops to launder their drug money.
Investigating and apprehending cartel-related individuals is an extremely dangerous business for Region II and other law enforcement officials.
"We have to always be extremely careful, as each and every one of these guys has multiple guns, and they don't care about anything or anybody. Even though many of them have families here, they don't care as much about their wives or their kids as their money. They'll do anything for the money and to stay alive," said Haws.
"What we don't have in this county and what is desperately needed is a stronger federal presence," said Haws.
While there is an effective FBI office in Farmington, much of the agents' responsibilities are devoted to investigating crimes on the Indian Reservation and they lack the manpower to fully tackle the cartel issues in the county.
What is most needed, said Haws, is a federal magistrate.
"We've been trying to get a federal magistrate here for years, and have shown through cases and sheer numbers that we have a serious drug problem here. A federal magistrate is warranted, but we're still fighting this battle."
Despite the presence of a federal magistrate's office located in Durango, it can only be utilized only for Colorado cases unless an interstate nexus can be demonstrated.
Some temporary help has come in the form of five Homeland Security investigators who have arrived to work with Region II for the next month, and they are reviewing many of Region's open drug cases.
A serious warning
Haws made an ominous prediction that Bloomfield will continue to see an increase in Mexican cartel presence and drug-related violence.
"These people are already here in Bloomfield and in nearby towns, and although most of the violence has involved non-U.S. citizens, I believe it's just a matter of time before what's happening in the U.S. towns bordering Mexico will start to happen here, and our citizens will start to be affected more and more. The problem is here. It's real. And it's what we're dealing with every day," he said.
What can be done
At the conclusion of Haws' presentation, Bloomfield City Manager David Fuqua asked what the council can do to help, and asked if a resolution which could be taken to other officials, senators and pertinent groups would assist with efforts to secure a federal magistrate for the area.
"That would definitely help," said Haws.
"Without a federal hammer' to help us with our efforts, we don't have the manpower or resources to keep going after the cartel once some are taken down. They just keep springing up and replacing each other."
Mayor Scott Eckstein agreed that it would be productive to draft a resolution expressing the importance of a local federal magistrate, and Haws stated that he would provide the Council with additional statistical information needed to bolster the resolution's statement about the need for a federal magistrate.
Haws has also been coordinating with Farmington officials and with the San Juan County Sheriff's Office to lobby for a federal magistrate, but stated that it would be a tremendous help if everyone could come together to try to work toward this goal.
"Everyone has been doing what they can, but this is a huge problem. We just need to be aware of what we may be facing in the future." he said.
Mayor Eckstein found Haws' presentation to be eye-opening.
"I frankly found it a little alarming, as the activities Neil was describing are not things we see on a day-to-day basis," he said.
"If it's true, and I believe it is, the situation is worse than I thought it was. I think a resolution which we could get other elected officials to sign would be very effective, and if there's something else we can do to help, we'll do it."
Police Chief Mike Kovacs agreed.
"These cartel members are hiding in plain sight, and if we don't figure out a way to stiffen our laws within New Mexico, these cartel activities will start to affect all of us. Law enforcement is understaffed, and we're going to have to find a way to get ahead of the issue. I'm glad the city is taking a stance on this, and I look forward to working with the city to combat the problem," he said.