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I-35: A major artery to the nation’s drug trade

As I-35 eventually reached down to Mexico, it provided seamless driving for those traveling cross country vertically. What it also inadvertently made seamless was the flow of hard narcotics by drug gangs.
by K. Mennem Modified: April 15, 2014 at 3:19 pm •  Published: April 15, 2014

photo - Photo by K. Mennem
Photo by K. Mennem

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.

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by K. Mennem
NewsOK Contributor
K. Mennem 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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