Interstate 35, once it starts at Laredo, Texas near the Mexico border, covers 1,568 miles of prime real estate across the nation. The major highway, which ends near Canada, not only transits a large number of travelers across the nation, but also a massive amount of narcotics.
The origins of I-35 began in Oklahoma during the late 1950s. In 1958, the portion that ran from northern Oklahoma into Kansas became the first Interstate highway to cross state lines. In the next 25 years, advancements were made in both directions until the highway spanned the distance of the country.
As the interstate eventually reached down to Mexico, it provided seamless driving for those traveling cross country vertically. It also has been an important route for Mexican drug cartels, said John Sullivan, a drug war analyst and senior fellow at the Small War Journal-El Centro.
“The I-35 Corridor is significant; it links with Highway 85 in Mexico south of the Nuevo Laredo/Laredo Plaza. As such, it is a specific link to Tamaulipas, where the Zetas and factions of the Gulf Cartel are in a contest for territorial control. Both the Zetas and Gulf need a route north,” Sullivan said.
The Zetas are entangled in a daily struggle against their former employers, the Gulf Cartel. According to DEA officials, the two drug gangs were once united but officially split in 2010.
Now, the two are fighting for control of the I-35 Corridor. In 2005, the U.S. Justice Department reported that the Zetas were deploying henchmen along I-35 cities to enforce their prized smuggling route. The memo also noted that the Zetas were charging a 10 percent fee on all human and drug shipments that were not theirs.
“Drugs often are co-mingled in these shipments and travel north in trucks through Dallas to OKC to the Junction of I-35 & I-40,” Sullivan said.
And the further north the drugs go, the higher the prices.
“Consider currently a kilo of heroin goes for about $1,500 at the source in the Sierra Madre (Mexico). By the time in retails in northern cities the kilo is worth between $60-80K. Price increases as you move further from the source due to transaction costs. Each step along the way there is profit to be made,” Sullivan said.
To make this happen, Michael Lauderdale, professor at the University of Texas and author of “Mexico – A Path to a Failed State?,” said drug cartels have diversified their process of getting narcotics across the border.
“These are smart and resourceful professional organizations. They build concealed compartments in cars, trucks and buses. For five years we have seen auto batteries where part of the anodes and cathodes have been removed and replaced with packets of high value drugs such as cocaine,” Lauderdale said. “There are dozens of cases where a woman or a family is sent with a load of drugs in their car or pickup.”
He said the cartels are playing a volume game.
“Auto and truck traffic at Nuevo Laredo is a vehicle every eight minutes or so, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Authorities cannot catch it all and there are always problems of corrupt Border control officials,” Lauderdale said.
Lauderdale, who is a native of Oklahoma and graduate of the University of Oklahoma, said no one knows what percentage of these narcotics are actually seized by law enforcement on their way in and through the U.S.
“Law enforcement has motivation to report a lot of seizures and also to report many are not seized to maintain appropriations to fund them. The fact that meth, cocaine, heroin and marijuana are highly available says to me that the bulk of the drugs evade the authorities,” Lauderdale said. “Prices do not appear to be increasing and with the reports of heroin, brown and black tar, in states like Vermont, New York, etc. and at high concentrations suggest to me that plenty of it comes in.
“Word I hear from drug treatment centers note that very potent variants of heroin are on the street. Those poppies are likely grown in the states of western Mexico, shipped overland to the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and then up from a city like Nuevo Laredo on IH 35.”
According to DEA officials, most Mexican criminal organizations have focused more on selling their self-made methamphetamine, instead of imported South American cocaine. This switch reduces risk, costs, and cuts out unneeded South American counterparts. This has made the much stronger drug of methamphetamine more prevalent in cities across the U.S.
Mexican cartels have also stepped in to fill the void left when Oklahoma passed one of the toughest laws regulating pseudoephedrine products that are used to make meth. This law made it hard for local producers to get the products they needed. Drug cartels quickly reacted by supplying stronger meth than previously made in Oklahoma, according to federal documents by a committee on the methamphetamine epidemic.
Oklahoma’s network with drug gangs has also exceeded that of just a distribution point. In June of 2012, federal agents raided a horse ranch in Lexington about 30 minutes south of downtown Oklahoma City. No massive amounts of drugs were found, only about 400 horses owned by the Zetas Cartel.
These horses were used to launder drug proceeds. The man who owned the ranch, Jose Trevino Morales, is the oldest brother of the most powerful family in Los Zetas.
As for distribution, the switch to Mexican meth from local meth has made street dealing more competitive in local markets. Local gangs have become more empowered with their freedom to peddle high quantities of smuggled drugs at their own prices. Higher commission rates on the streets have brought in a much more territorial and defensive attitude.
In 2012, Oklahoma City saw its highest number of homicides in over 30 years. The 99 recorded homicides were the 2nd highest of all time, after 102 in 1979 (excluding 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing).
The majority of the homicides occurred in central, east and south Oklahoma City. Police Chief Bill Citty said most homicides can be attested to some sort of “drug nexus.”
Oklahoma City did see a 20 percent drop in homicides from 2012 to 2013, as 79 were recorded last year. However, this is still higher than most recent years.
Sullivan said merely being on the path of the drug flow can cause this type of violence.
“As the illicit product flows through to its end-points, new markets arise in cities along the way. This can lead to new alliances with local gangs, increased local drug use and conflict,” Sullivan said. “Oklahoma City has a significant gang problem. The drug-gang nexus fuels this conflict.”
K. Mennem is a NewsOK Contributor and began his career as a journalist covering the Mexican drug war in 2006. He has since worked on numerous projects across the American Southwest, Mexico, Central America, and Europe.
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