McALLEN — Despite more than three years of top bosses getting arrested or killed, the Gulf Cartel continues to be a major drug smuggling group that seeks to fill the appetites of drug users nationwide.
Like arteries to a heart, Interstate 69C/Expressway 281 and I-69E/U.S. 77, which connect the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio, are the main roads that the organization uses to pump a steady flow of marijuana into mainstream America.
The plant — which is grown illegally in Mexico, packaged and then smuggled across the Rio Grande — fetches about $200 per pound wholesale in South Texas. But that pricetag can double when the drug passes the Border Patrol’s Falfurrias and Sarita checkpoints, and it can go for up to $1,000 per pound when it reaches metropolitan areas across the nation. That price is further increased when the drug is sold at street level.
In an effort to curb the drug smuggling through the highways, U.S. authorities have set up permanent checkpoints along the two main arteries leading to San Antonio.
TARGET OF INVESTIGATIONS
For years, the Gulf Cartel has been the target of investigations aimed at impairing its operations, said Will Glaspy, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant special agent in charge in McAllen.
Through their work with Mexican military and law enforcement agencies, the DEA has played a key role in the arrests of numerous key members of the Mexican drug trade, including kingpins of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, Glaspy said.
While the takedown of a kingpin hurts the organization’s operations, by design the criminal entity will shift power to a new boss quickly, thus continuing the cat and mouse game.
“We will continue to put pressure on the Gulf Cartel throughout investigations, making seizures of drugs coming into our country and currency heading into Mexico to deprive them of their proceeds,” Glaspy said. “We will continue targeting and making arrest on those individuals who are in the command and control structure within the cartel.”
THE GULF CARTEL
The majority of the drugs trafficked in northern Tamaulipas and South Texas are under the control of one criminal organization: the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel, which traces its roots to the 1930s, when it primarily dealt with local rackets in Tamaulipas and liquor and tobacco smuggling. As part of its rackets, the organization found a way to make money from smuggling poultry, grains and other goods when a profit could be made by skimping on customs tariffs.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Gulf Cartel began shifting its operations into the profitable smuggling of marijuana and cocaine making South Texas a major player in the illicit drug trade.
While most scholars cite 2006 as the year former Mexican Felipe Calderón kicked off his war on drug cartels, its effects were not felt at the South Texas border until late 2009 and early 2010 since the focus of that war fell largely on the bloody streets of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.
By early 2010, though, the tide of violence reached the Tamaulipas-Texas border as the Gulf Cartel severed ties with its muscle, the Zetas, setting off a ruthless feud that drew the attention of the Mexican military.
Since the split with the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel has undergone another significant split as the factions loyal to legendary leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén and his brothers have squared off against the operational leader of the Gulf Cartel, Jorge Eduardo “Coss” Costilla. During that struggle four cartel lieutenants were detained on the U.S. side of the border as they sought to avoid the lawlessness of Mexico in favor of relative safety in Texas. In this time period, the U.S. saw a few cross-border incidents, such as a double execution in 2010 in Brownsville, a September 2011 execution along the expressway in McAllen, and in October 2011, a failed kidnapping in the City of Hidalgo and a botched kidnapping in rural Hidalgo County in which a sheriff’s deputy was shot.
The internal rivalry continued until early 2013, by which time most of the known bosses of the Gulf Cartel were either dead or captured, but the criminal organization continues to be the leading smuggling organization in the area.
Although Mexican authorities assume Homero “El Orejon” Cárdenas — the leader for the Matamoros region — is the de-facto kingpin, it remains unclear whether he is in fact the boss of the organization.
According to U.S. Border Patrol statistics, the Rio Grande Valley Sector has consistently rivaled the Tucson Sector in drugs seized. The fiscal year 2013 statistics are not yet available, but during that year, the agency saw an even bigger jump in marijuana and human trafficking, nearly doubling its apprehension rate, which came after drug trafficking organizations shifted their smuggling routes toward the Texas border.
The second-most important money maker for the Gulf Cartel appears to be human smuggling, which RGV Sector statistics show yielded a jump from almost 60,000 apprehensions in 2011 to 98,000 in 2012 and to almost 150,000 in 2013.
While the arrest of a top boss can spur a temporary decrease in production, criminal organizations quickly return to business to keep up with demand, said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official who is now the director for security at Mexican think thank IMCO.
The demand for marijuana in the U.S. has climbed since 2007, when the number of users was at 14.5 million, to almost 19 million in 2012, Hope said.
As long as the demand for marijuana and other narcotics remains high, drug traffickers will work to supply it.
At the end of the day, the logistical structure needed to smuggle drugs across the border is not that complicated, but the volumes of drugs that are actually crossed are staggering and very difficult to quantify, Hope said.
The Gulf Cartel’s continued strength is due in part to its alliance with drug traffickers from the Sinaloa Cartel and the Knights Templar, formerly known as the Familia Michoacana.
“Over time, there’s been a historical relationship between the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa and the Knights Templar,” Glaspy said. “There’s always drugs that travel through the RGV that belong to other cartels. It’s all part of a business relationship.”
Federal court records show an increase in prosecutions of methamphetamine smugglers, who are tied to the Gulf Cartel’s allies.
The heavier presence of Sinaloan forces and their support to the Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas is because of its leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, who has a big interest in controlling the entire Mexican border, said George Grayson, a university professor at the College of William and Mary who has researched drug trafficking in Mexico and has written several books on the topic.
“El Chapo is playing nice,” Grayson said. “It’s out of convenience. Ultimately he is looking to control the entire border.”