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In Colorado, Authorities Battle Mexican Drug Cartels’ Business Plans

December 1, 2010 at 5:27 PM EDT
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In four years, Mexico's escalating drug violence has claimed almost 30,000 lives and focused attention on border states like California and Arizona. But as correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Colorado Springs, the conflict is having a far-reaching effect.

GWEN IFILL: Now: two takes on the Mexican drug war.

First: a report on how the drug trade is spreading far north of the U.S. border. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Colorado Springs.

TOM BEARDEN: The violence of the Mexican drug wars may seem far away, but the drugs and the dealers that fuel them are close to home. Colorado Springs is best known as the home of the Air Force Academy and the Army’s Fort Carson.

But this quiet, mostly conservative city of 400,000 is also a major distribution point for Mexican cartels.

Matthew Barden is the agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration office in Colorado Springs.

MATTHEW BARDEN, Agent in Charge, Drug Enforcement Administration: This house was a — a focal point of one of our recent investigations into a large methamphetamine organization.

TOM BEARDEN: He says Mexican drug cartels began exporting large amounts of methamphetamine after law enforcement began cracking down on production in the U.S. five years ago. Huge quantities of heroin and cocaine are also funneled through here.

MATTHEW BARDEN: The drug dealers that are sent from Mexico to run these cell organizations in small-town America, and their goal is to sell as much drugs as they can and make as much money as they possibly can.

TOM BEARDEN: Their business is fueled by drug consumption. The United States has one of the highest rates of illegal drug use of any country in the world. Drug use in Colorado Springs is on a par with the rest of the nation.

But what worries District Attorney Dan May is the fact that members of the Mexican cartels live and work in his city.

DANIEL MAY, district attorney, El Paso County, Colorado,: We have had drugs flowing into our high schools. Unfortunately, in the last few years, we have seen heroin usage, in particular in a couple of our high schools, increasing.

There’s no question that it goes back to the Mexican cartels. And we have actually made arrests of — of Mexican cartel members directly supplying it to high school kids.

TOM BEARDEN: Agent Barden says they reach into unsuspecting residential neighborhoods, too.

Do you see drug trafficking in a place like this?

MATTHEW BARDEN: Absolutely. They could be sitting on loads and loads and pounds and pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine, and nobody would ever know. And then, of course, they don’t do the drug deals at these locations. They take it from their — their shipment point, their stash house, to the deal location, at which time they will do their drug deal, so, not only in this neighborhood, but many neighborhoods like this, and not only Colorado Springs, but all over the United States.

TOM BEARDEN: The drugs and their impact go way beyond this city at the foot of Pikes Peak. Colorado Springs was the starting point for a two-year federal investigation into a web of trafficking that spanned 15 states. It ended last June with a total of 2,200 people arrested, and nearly 70 tons of marijuana, 2.5 tons of cocaine, 1,400 pounds of heroin, and $154 million in cash seized. The operation also led to the extradition and conviction of the leader of a major Mexican drug cartel.

But why Colorado Springs, 1,000 miles from the Mexican border? Law enforcement officials say it’s the interstate highway system stretching north out of Juarez into Colorado, and then branching off to points east and west.

How big a corridor is I-25 and then I-70 in terms of drug traffic for the whole country?

KEVIN MERRILL, Drug Enforcement Administration: It’s probably one of the major corridors.

TOM BEARDEN: Kevin Merrill runs the DEA’s regional headquarters.

KEVIN MERRILL: When the focus of law enforcement along the border is high, that makes the traffickers seek out less hot areas. And, so, Colorado Springs being right off the I-25 Corridor, literally only, you know, about 10 hours from the border by vehicle, it is a prime location for them to set up shop.

TOM BEARDEN: El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says the Mexican cartels operate quite differently than the Colombian cartels that dominated the business in the ’80s and ’90s.

TERRY MAKETA, sheriff, El Paso County, Colorado,: It’s a lot more sophisticated when — when it’s run as a business. I mean, they have a head of an organization. They have business plans. They have networks set up.

In some of the cases we have been involved in, they are very, very structured organizations, with built-in safeties and protections. And when you’re talking about that kind of organizational skill, that many people involved, it makes it very difficult. They have redundant systems. They’re not counting on just one truckload. If one gets pulled off, they consider that a loss of business, and they have three more coming through.

TOM BEARDEN: But despite the known presence of Mexican drug cells here, there’s one aspect of the Mexican scene that local officials are not worried about.

In a lot of places in Mexico, people are getting gunned down in the streets because of the drug trade. What’s the likelihood of something like that happening around here?

MATTHEW BARDEN: I think it’s very unlikely and the possibility of that is not very high.

TOM BEARDEN: Sheriff Maketa agrees.

TERRY MAKETA: They don’t want to bring a lot of attention to their business. They don’t want to send reckless individuals to be their front people in communities that are going to draw a lot of attention, because that goes against what they’re here to do, and that is make money.

And if they bring a lot of attention to themselves, if they bring about violence, not only is it going to affect the people they’re hoping to sell to, but it’s also going to capture the attention of law enforcement and bring the heat on them. And they know that.

TOM BEARDEN: But District Attorney May says there’s another looming concern: State budget cutbacks may lead to more drug users on the street.

DANIEL MAY: One of the ways they can save money is to have less people in prison. And, so, they have been cutting drug sentences.

It would be nice if, at the same time, they would be giving us rehabilitation facilities for some of the people who are using drugs, because, if we can rehabilitate more people, if we can get them off of drugs, that will also cut the demand. But what’s happening across our state is, we’re just cutting the money everywhere.

So, yes, that concerns me going forward. When they take away my tools to rehabilitate somebody, when they take away my tools to incarcerate people, I have great concerns that we’re going to see an increase in our drug use, certainly in this community and across the state.

TOM BEARDEN: And any increase in drug use means a corresponding increase in drug trafficking.