On the U.S.- Mexico border, that price is being paid daily with an endless stream of execution-style slayings in a war to control drug routes to the north.
As Mexican officials crack down on these cartels, violence spreads. Lives are merely the cost of doing business, and since 2007 the international press has documented more than 7,400 drug war-related murders on the border.
Police are gunned down in public squares. Failed drug smugglers are tortured to death and bound from head to toe in duct tape. Enemies are beheaded.
U.S. authorities fear the violence is creeping across the border. Yet the truth is that Mexican drug cartels are already entrenched in Oklahoma, casting an ominous shadow on the future of our cities and rural communities.
"Oklahoma's No. 1 threat is the Mexican drug cartels," said Darrell Weaver, executive director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. "Make no mistake."
gathered over the past 14 years has revealed a shadowy underworld of "second- and third-generation" Mexican drug smugglers who have gained a foothold throughout Oklahoma. They often operate in rural towns under the guise of a legitimate business such as a meat market or restaurant, and their connections have been traced to nearly all of Mexico's most notorious cartels — Sinaloa, Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana, La Linea and Juarez.
"At least 90 percent of the drugs we see here in Oklahoma are coming from the Mexican drug cartels," said one undercover state agent who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
The agent, known as "Agent M.S." for this article, is a veteran investigator who often conducts direct buys with major drug distributors. He is a second-generation American citizen whose father once served in the Mexican military, and he has participated in many of Oklahoma's largest drug busts in the past 15 years.
"They're really in our neighborhoods," said Agent M.S., who posed as a seller in a sting operation in August at Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City. Unarmed, he met three Mexican dealers who scanned his body with a hand-held metal detector to see if he was wired with a recorder or listening device.
Once satisfied that he wasn't an undercover agent or police informant, the men began to talk about business and their connections with Mexican drug cartel members in Dallas and beyond the Rio Grande.
"They mentioned real names of cartel members," Agent M.S. said. "Suddenly I realized I'm dealing with a guy on a real level. He wanted 50 kilos (of cocaine) a week. You're talking $1 million to $1.5 million a week worth of cocaine. That's real money and whenever you're talking about those kinds of purchases, you're dealing with a Mexican drug cartel.
"That really touches home."
Information gathered from the encounter led to a Mexican restaurant owner who had been using his popular western Oklahoma business as a front for his drug-smuggling operation. The investigation continues with hopes of netting higher-level cartel members.
"Oklahomans are in danger because they deal with these people without them knowing," Agent M.S. said. "They'll visit their restaurants (or other businesses) they own. The danger is being caught in the crossfire."
The cartels are also providing children with drugs, and rural communities are no longer insulated from the major drug operations.
In fact, Agent M.S. said, one informant recently claimed that two large warehouses are cooking methamphetamine somewhere in the state. Such warehouses — known as "fiesta labs" in Mexico — are designed to cook massive amounts of methamphetamine around the clock.
Another undercover state agent, who also asked for anonymity as "Agent P.A.," said, "The average citizen doesn't have a clue as to the reality of the Mexican drug cartels operating in the United States, and specifically Oklahoma.
"And it's not just in Oklahoma City. It's everywhere they can gain a foothold. You go to Elk City, and if you dig deep enough you'll find a connection in Elk City. You can go to Woodward Altus Frederick and you can find a connection if you look hard enough."
Cartel-related cases of the past have taught agents well.
A legendary lesson
Abraham Weibe seemed like an unlikely source for a major drug smuggling operation when police stopped him in 1999 for drunk driving in the small Custer County town of Thomas. He had no education, a drinking problem and seemingly no future after leaving the old Mennonite colony in Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, in the mid-1990s with his wife and children.
Then Weibe began talking.
"Abe told us he knew of major shipments of marijuana coming into Oklahoma on a regular basis — more than anyone had seen before," Agent P.A. recalled. "At first, no one knew if he was telling the truth. But he knew too many details."
The state narcotics bureau added Weibe to the payroll, housed him in a rural farmhouse near Thomas and placed him under surveillance. Soon, shipments of marijuana began arriving from Mexico just as Weibe had promised. As weeks passed, the loads got larger —often as much as 1,000 pounds of marijuana with a street value of several hundred thousand dollars.
Court documents show Weibe and others took orders from Martin Rene Cisneros, who ran the operation out of his Eakly trailer house. The drugs were traced back to Mexican national Enrique Harms, a violent drug runner with ties to the Juarez Cartel. The documents show Harms and Cisneros utilized local truck drivers like pack mules to disperse their drugs.
One of those drivers, Gerald Newman, an elderly, bearded man agents called "Santa Claus," transported loads of marijuana along Interstate 40 in the bed of his battered farm truck under bales of hay.
"What that case showed us was that these cartels were setting up their drug operations in rural communities where they'd never be noticed," Agent M.S. said. "We never would have known what was going on in that case had it not been for Weibe."
Cisneros eventually received a 20-year suspended sentence for drug trafficking in exchange for his cooperation as an informant. Despite the deal, authorities allege that Cisneros began dealing drugs again and is now a fugitive hiding out on the United States-Mexico border at Ciudad Juarez and El Paso.
There were other ramifications of the case — one that is now a legend among Oklahoma narcotic agents.
"I received word there were men from Mexico looking for me to get to Weibe," Agent P.A. said. "I was going through a divorce at the time, and my kids would stay with me on weekends. I wouldn't let them come to my house for over a year afterward. I'd answer the door with a loaded gun."
Weibe returned to Mexico against the advice of state agents. He soon disappeared. Another informant told agents that drug smugglers tortured Weibe for two weeks and dumped him in a lake. To date, his body has not been found.
The war front
Waging war against the Mexican drug cartels is like chopping down a giant oak tree. Undercover agents and prosecutors strike one blow at a time.
State and federal courts in Oklahoma have been littered with major drug-trafficking cases in recent years. In 2004, arrest warrants were issued for 53 defendants in a methamphetamine and marijuana ring connected to Alonzo Escejeda, a known Juarez Cartel member. The warrants named two Mexican nationals as the ring's higher-ranking smugglers: Jesus Manuel Torres and Carlos Roberto Salinas.
Torres and Salinas were later found executed in Ciudad Juarez, their bodies wrapped from head to toe in duct tape. Mexican authorities reported that the two had been tortured.
"Somebody was upset they lost their dope," Agent M.S. said.
In 2006, state agents nabbed Jose Gabriel Armendariz, Daniel Munoz and Juan Castillo as they passed through Oklahoma City with $1.6 million worth of cocaine. Court records indicate the shipment originated in Mexico, passed through Las Cruces, N.M., and was destined for distribution in Oklahoma City and North Carolina. Armendariz posted bail and is a fugitive.
In 2007, state and federal agents arrested 33 suspects in Pittsburg County in what District Attorney Jim Miller called the largest meth ring he had ever encountered. Investigators learned the drugs were being shipped from "fiesta labs" in Mexico.
Smugglers have been creative. State agents cracked a case in 2005 in which illegal immigrant Edgar Ortega-Zaleta of Heavener had been receiving five-pound packages of methamphetamine via the mail. Suppliers in Mexico crossed the border and used FedEx in McAllen, Texas, to ship the drugs.
Ortega-Zaleta, 37, is serving time in federal prison for his drug-trafficking conviction. His scheduled release date is in 2022.
"We've seen an increase in the amount of trafficking by the Mexican drug cartels," said Bret Burns, Grady County's district attorney. "We're seeing a lot of mid-level players, and they're reaching out into our rural counties and towns. What's hard for our rural law enforcement is they (the traffickers) speak Spanish, and they run in very close-knit groups that stay to themselves."
Burns encountered such a scenario in January when he charged illegal immigrant Ramon Garcia-Rodriguez with five counts of drug distribution and trafficking. Court records show a confidential informant bought drugs from Garcia-Rodriguez on several occasions at his Chickasha meat market.
"Ramon was running the whole operation out of his meat shop," Burns said. "It's all on video. You can see people standing in line for meat while others are stepping up to buy their drugs. Amazing."
Documents seized at the meat shop show names of alleged cartel members, Burns said. As for Garcia-Rodriguez, he posted $100,000 bail — much to Burns' dismay — and reportedly fled to Mexico. He, too, remains a fugitive.
Burns said he wonders if the next stage in the war against the Mexican drug cartels is violence on our own streets.
The concern isn't unfounded. Phoenix police documented 368 cartel-related kidnappings last year. In some cases, the kidnappers sent the victim's family a severed finger to expedite a ransom transaction.
"I'm alarmed knowing the Mexican drug cartels are so organized," Burns said. "They also have very few rules they go by regarding law enforcement. Even the Italian Mafia had boundaries: You try your case, but you don't go after police and DAs.
"The Mexican drug cartels have no boundaries, and law enforcement should be concerned."
Agent M.S. is fully aware of the escalating danger in Oklahoma. Yet he is a realist.
"We do what we can do," he said. "I just know one thing: We need more agents."
Tags: Mexico, Drug, Cartels, Oklahoma, MS-13, Cocaine, Marijuana, Smuggling, drop house, illegal, DEA, Border, Patrol, murder
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