WE ARE ILLINOIS
Mexican drug wars have impact here, Kirk warns
By Abdon Pallasch and Frank Main - Chicago Sun-Times
The wars between Mexico's drug cartels are closer than you think, Senate candidate Mark Kirk says.
"The West Coast [of Mexico] Sinaloa Cartel has been attacking the East Coast Juarez Cartel. We should feel somewhat concerned about this because the Juarez Cartel is our guys -- they control the drug trade in Chicago," Kirk says, only half-joking, to audiences on the campaign trail.
The U.S. and Mexican governments are cracking down on the the warring cartels. U.S. officials arrested 500 drug traffickers in 16 states including eight in Illinois on Wednesday, part of more than 2,000 arrested in the "Project Deliverance" campaign to disrupt the cartels' distribution networks in this country. Chicago is a key transfer point for drugs heading on to Minnesota and points north and east, federal officials say.
Kidnappings in Phoenix and executions in Alabama last summer startled Americans not used to the cartels' violence. Kirk uses the issue to explain why he wants stricter border enforcement before considering immigration reform.
"The situation in Mexico is, I think, worse than a lot of Americans know about," Kirk said. "They've divided up the territories here and in Mexico. It would be naive to think the violence would remain south of the border."
It's easier to draw a map of the cartels' regions of control in Mexico than in the United States. Most big cities such as Chicago have all the major cartels represented, though federal and local law enforcement sources agree that Juarez is the dominant cartel controlling the flow of drugs into Chicago.
"I talked to someone who served as the lieutenant for the Juarez Cartel in Chicago in the '90s," said Tony Payan, a political science professor at the University of Texas El Paso who studies the cartels. "He his wife and kids lived in a posh house in Deerfield, Ill., and from there, he received the drugs, managed the distribution of money. He was fortunate enough to step away from the business without any repercussions."
The Sinaloa cartel aims to cut into Juarez territory in Mexico and Chicago. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicted 11 alleged Sinaloa-affiliated drug traffickers in Chicago last year.
As the old giant Juarez weakens, some American drug dealers and distributors flip allegiances.
"It's a highly unstable business," Kirk said. "Like our own history of the Moran and Capone gangs, history can change with one swing of a baseball bat."
Kirk takes more of an interest in the drug cartels than most congressmen. Even law enforcement sources that disagree with his characterization of the cartels having mapped out areas of influence here appreciate his advocacy on issues such as sending help to the Mexican police to fight the cartels.
Kirk took classes at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico during college, and he peppers his speeches with American-accented Spanish. He visits Mexico often, most recently last summer, meeting with President Felipe Calderon and Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico's point man on fighting the cartels.
He worked for the House International Relations Committee in the '90s focusing on helping Columbia with its war on drug cartels.
"We need to back the 'Merida' initiative and its successors, giving U.S. assistance to Mexican law enforcement," Kirk said. "Mexico is a country now with a fast-growing middle class that doesn't tolerate this, much like the middle class in Chicago eventually turned on Capone."
Familia Michoacan, which operates in a "Federation" with Sinaloa, is probably the second-most represented cartel in Chicago, a federal source said.
Many of the Mexican immigrants in Kirk's North suburban 10th Congressional District come from Mexico's Michoacan region. Kirk says he sees the impact of the cartels in his district: "The average drug kid gang shooter in North Chicago is in the 7th or 8th grade -- the average person who pulls a trigger. They use the kids as pawns in the battle."
"Illinois has the highest number of gang members per capita in the United States. We have 2,000 documented gang members operating north of Lake-Cook Road," Kirk said.
That's not all the cartels' people, Kirk acknowledges: "The gangs of Illinois aren't under the control of the Mexican cartels, but they're mostly supplied by them."
The cartels fight in the United States over distribution corridors, which tend to follow the interstates. Illinois is not only a dug destination and distribution hub, but also sits on the major West-to-East drug highway: Interstate 80. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court a few years ago arguing for the right of Illinois police to use drug-sniffing dogs. The arrestee in that case was accused of driving a car with a trunk full of marijuana from Las Vegas, through Illinois, for distribution on the East Coast. Madigan won the case.
"The Chicago market is in flux," Payan said. "The Juarez Cartel is not entirely gone. It's still there and fighting. 'La gente nueva' -- The 'new people' are switching form Juarez to Sinaloa."
"Coke is their main thing," a federal source said of the Juarez cartel. "But they supply large quantities of marijuana, and we are seeing bigger seizures of heroin from them than ever before."
Kirk has also deployed to Afghanistan, and he sees similarities there between the Taliban and the Mexican and South American cartels. The Taliban initially opposed the heroin industry in Afghanistan, but now uses it to finance its operations, he said.
"The international drug trade first makes people extremely wealthy, then they begin to build powerful political organizations and armed groups," he said.
Kirk's Democratic opponent in the Senate race, Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, offered this comment:
"The U.S. must do more to curtail the growing threat posed by Mexican drug cartels. I have recommended a two-pronged approach. First, we must embrace a policy that not only strengthens our borders, but also reduces American demand for these drugs through prevention and treatment. Second, we must strengthen our gun control enforcement to ensure that American weapons don't get into the hands of Mexican criminals. Ninety percent of assault weapons in the hands of drug traffickers in Mexico come from the U.S. Just as Mexico must help to stop the flow of drugs from south to north, we must curb gun flows from north to south."
SOURCE: Chicago Sun-Times
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