Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
In the early 1980s when I was a young narcotics cop — and the first and only female in my unit — all we heard about were the Colombian drug cartels. It was every young narc’s fantasy to get the “big score” that would lead us straight to a Colombian connection. The cartels were famously ruthless, and it took many years and too much bloodshed for them to be dismantled in the late 1980s, but dismantled they were.
Nearly three decades later, the modern-day Mexican drug cartels pose one of the biggest threats to the safety of American law enforcement officers not just on our southern border, but throughout this nation. Recently, I was privileged to speak with crime analyst, author and cartel expert Sylvia Longmire about this complicated and dangerous situation.
First and foremost, Sylvia is truly a role model for any woman in law enforcement or the military. She is a medically retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. She is an experienced investigator and has worked extensively in the fields of counterintelligence, counterespionage, and force protection. During her last assignment, she worked at HQ AFOSI as the Latin America desk officer, analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibility that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. For over four years Sylvia worked as a senior intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's Situational Awareness Unit, focusing almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues.
For the last six years, she has regularly lectured on terrorism in Latin America at the Air Force Special Operations School's Dynamics of International Terrorism course. She holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of South Florida in Latin American and Caribbean Studies — this woman knows her stuff! Sylvia is currently an independent consultant, freelance writer, and dynamic public speaker, and like many of you, she balances a busy career with an even busier young family.
Not just a border issue
As I talked with Sylvia, three words immediately came to mind: Passionate, focused and frustrated. As a part-time resident of Arizona, I’m amazed that the violent drug wars on our southern border don’t seem to get the national attention they warrant, and I asked Longmire about that. She shares my frustration.
“Ninety percent of the illegal drugs consumed by Americans come from Mexico,” Sylvia told me. The drug trade in the US is almost entirely connected to the cartels, and it’s no longer just a “border” issue. The U.S. Justice Department's Drug Intelligence Center reported in April of 2011 that Mexican drug cartels were operating in 230 American cities. Longmire estimates that number could now be nearing 1000.
“If you make a traffic stop and you seize a bunch of dope, you’re going to have a cartel problem,” she said, “and someone is probably going to come looking for their dope.” In other words, that drug seizure of a lifetime for a patrol cop is could turn into a security issue for the local police department and maybe even for the community itself. Longmire recently completed her first book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars" to help bring this issue to the forefront, and it’s a must-read for every cop (and concerned citizen) in North America.
There are six or seven primary cartels operating the Mexican drug trade. Longmire cites the brutal drug-related torture and murder of four men in Shelby County, Alabama in August of 2008 and the November 2010, record-breaking methamphetamine seizure in Gwinnett County, GA as only two of countless examples of violent, high-level Mexican cartel criminal activity well north of the US/Mexican border. So what should the average street cop, detective, narc, and even dispatcher be aware of?
Cartels in your community: What to consider
1.) Understand that there is no single drug involved; cocaine, marijuana, and meth are primarily cartel-controlled, and the substances don’t just come from Mexico. The cartels use public lands within the United States to grow massive amounts of marijuana, often exploiting their own people to plant, tend and harvest it.
2.) The cartels are highly organized and although they are often able to hide successfully in Mexican communities intimidated by their financing and their brutality, they often use local street gangs and criminal infrastructure to move their merchandise within the United States. When you find an illegal drug, it’s more than likely cartel-connected. And the “haulers” may not be Mexican; the cartels will use any criminal organization willing to get involved.
3.) There is an increasing willingness for the cartels to engage US law enforcement officials on our own soil. It’s in the criminals’ best interest to avoid the police, but if you make a large seizure, disrupt local operations, or prevent transportation of their product, be prepared. The cartels are extremely brutal and generally without conscience. They have no problem seeking out you, your residence or your family to exact revenge or get you or your agency off of their backs.
4.) Be prepared to see more high-quality black tar heroin from Mexico, and the price is starting to plummet, making it more available. This means that in certain cities, you may start seeing more of it used by middle class teenagers and young adults. Some of the better stuff doesn't even need to be injected anymore, getting rid of that "shooting up" social stigma. Mexican meth is also manufactured in huge quantities using “super-labs” and ingredients often imported from China; some of it may be in gel form.
How can American law enforcement help fight this war? Intelligence and information-sharing are two key weapons. Just like drug dealers have turf wars, so do cops. Longmire admits there are a lot of hurtles that the police culture needs to overcome. Our reporting systems are not well-connected and we tend to be too localized. Most criminals are not going to identify themselves as part of the cartels, so cops have to ask the right questions and document everything said. We need to access fusion centers, talk to each other, and remember that we’re all on the same team…really.
After all, this issue is not just a “war on drugs” and should not be confused with the controversy surrounding illegal immigration. This is a war against the violence being inflicted upon our citizens, our children and on us, and it’s a war we must win!