MX: Pandemic did little to stop border drug trafficking

El Paso News –

Organized crime groups adapted to restrictions, diversified

Crossing restrictions imposed by the United States on its border with Mexico in response to the COVID-19 pandemic impacted students, tourists, buyers, formal and informal workers, and thousands of businesses. But it did not stop drug trafficking between Juárez and El Paso.

Organized crime groups adapted to new circumstances and overcame the closure that caused a temporary decrease in cross-border drug shipments and the accumulation of drugs on the Mexican side of the border. They diversified their operation patterns.

They achieved their goal of crossing drugs by replacing their Mexican “mules” with American ones and increased traffic through unpopulated areas between Anapra and San Jerónimo, as well as through the Juárez Valley, where there are no bridges and little surveillance.

They also resorted to a new figure that emerged in mid-2020 within organized crime: “the broker-dealer,” a person outside the structure of a cartel who traffics drugs independently for different groups and obtains a percentage of the profits.

The entry of drugs into the United States slowed down at the beginning of the pandemic, but the criminal groups made some adjustments to modify their operations, said Kyle Williamson, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special agent in charge of the El Paso sector.

“We know that the cartels continue to hone their capabilities,” he said.

Jorge Nava, attorney general for the northern part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, agreed. He said pandemic restrictions in effect since March 21, 2020, “does little to stop” drug traffickers.

During the first months of the pandemic, traffickers increased retail sales of drugs on the Mexican side of the border, Nava said. That created a challenge for authorities who worried it would lead to an increase in addictions, drug dealing and homicides on the streets of Juárez.

The drug market in El Paso was not affected much as border crossings were restricted. But the flow of money was impacted, the restrictions causing large amounts to remain in the United States, according to the DEA.

As organized crime overcame the obstacles of limited cross-border movements, drug users on both sides of the border faced challenges of confinement and economic and emotional difficulties. This unleashed a perfect storm that led many to relapse, according to people who care for addicts.

The ravages caused by the restrictions imposed on the border were felt almost immediately in Juárez, one of the main routes for drug trafficking.

The Chihuahua State Attorney General’s Office said the city became a warehouse for all kinds of substances that throughout the last year have been dispersed in the streets using new methods, which triggered violence.

“Much of the drug has stayed here in the border cities, which results in a greater number of addicts, especially young people, because the drug continues to be sold. If it is not in the United States, it is here,” prosecutor Nava said.

The Chihuahua prosecutor’s office said drugs have spread to the streets and are now home-delivered when users place orders via telephone.

The DEA is concerned about this new trend of drug distribution on the streets of Juárez, because it could lead to a return of the violence that began just over a decade ago.

“We have never seen this before, and we are very concerned that this micro-level distribution in Juárez could bring us back to a situation like 2010 or 2009,” Williamson of the DEA said.

Drug distribution changes in Juárez also led to changes in consumption patterns.

María Elena Ramos Rodríguez, director of the Compañeros Program, said a kind of geographical line once defined what types of drugs were consumed in the city. But that has changed during the pandemic.

“Now we see that this line is less and less fixed and that in sectors like downtown, in old neighborhoods of Juárez, crystal meth is now also being consumed. And in sectors of the new Juárez, where crystal meth was being consumed, now heroin is also being consumed,” she said.

Compañeros treated some 7,000 people with addiction issues last year.

Nava said that although cross-border drug trafficking was interrupted for about two and a half months after the restrictions, it was soon reactivated with new methods and routes to achieve the smuggling task “at any cost.”

He said organized crime now recruits U.S. citizens to smuggle drugs into the United States since they are not restricted at border crossings.

“This is one of the main phenomena that the closing of the bridges left us, that now there are more people of North American nationality involved in this criminal dynamic to smuggle drugs into the United States,” he said.

State prosecutors in Chihuahua reported a 55% increase in the number of Americans arrested for drug crimes in 2020 compared to the prior year. The Special Unit for Drug Crimes reported that 68 people born in the United States were arrested on drug crimes, 24 more than in 2019.

Nava said they have also found cases of Americans who come to Juárez to buy drugs for their personal consumption and seek to cross the border with them.

Another new factor discovered by Chihuahua prosecutors is the emergence of “broker-dealers in the drug-trafficking chain. They work independently and are not part of any criminal group,” Nava said.

“What is their function? Receive a shipment of drugs from a certain criminal group and take it under their responsibility to a certain city in the United States. In some cases, they are American citizens, but they are people who are already dedicated to this activity,” he said.

They began seeing broker-dealers in mid-2020, as Chihuahua officials arrested Americans with considerable amounts of drugs, mainly synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and crystal meth.

Prosecutors have also seen an increase in drug trafficking in the sectors of Anapra towards San Jerónimo and the Juárez Valley, which are areas that have become conflict zones because they are also used by organized crime for human trafficking.

In its annual report, the U.S. DEA says the operations of transnational drug criminal organizations were not significantly impacted by the border restrictions implemented in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closure of international crossings had an impact on drug importation from México only in March, April and May, Williamson said.

By June the outlook was different.

“Now, all law enforcement agencies on the border, we are seeing a significant increase (in drug trafficking) and we are already exceeding the totals (of seizures) for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. That is not normal,” he said.

So far in fiscal year 2021 – from October to February – CBP reported seizing a total of 7,108 pounds of marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl on the border between El Paso and Juárez.

This figure is almost equivalent to the seizures of the entire 2020 fiscal year, when 7,176 pounds were seized. In 2019, total seizures amounted to 3,617 pounds.

The coronavirus restrictions created conditions that triggered increases in drug use and addictions on both sides of the border.

“The pandemic did affect people who were recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, because stress, unemployment and the crisis we are facing aggravate the situation and many relapse again,” says Guillermo Valenzuela, operational director for Aliviane, a nonprofit organization in El Paso offering addiction prevention and rehabilitation services.

Pandemic restrictions situation unleashed a crisis on both sides of the border for drug users, who faced challenges finding medical services and support centers.

Some centers closed, others limited their capacity, others transferred their therapies to digital platforms that some people with addictions could not access, and some required a COVID test to provide the service.

In Juárez, addiction care facilities reported a decrease in patients treated, going from 5,700 in 2019 to 5,400 last year.

In El Paso, Michael Jiménez, director of the downtown Victoria Center, said COVID also made it more difficult to help people with addictions.

“Now they have to take a test, and between the moment they decide to ask for help and the moment they get the test, many people do not return,” he said. “Now instead of receiving them directly, we have to refer them to another place to be reviewed.”

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