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US cities are hubs for Mexican cartels

CHICAGO — A few miles west of downtown, past a terracotta-tiled gateway emblazoned with ‘‘Bienvenidos,’’ the smells and sights of Mexico spill onto 26th Street. The Mexican tricolor waves from brick storefronts. Vendors offer authentic churros, chorizo, and tamales.

Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood is home to more than 500,000 residents of Mexican descent and is known for its Cinco de Mayo festival and Mexican Independence Day parade.

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But US authorities say that Little Village is also home to something else: an American branch of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel.

Members of Mexico’s most powerful cartel are selling a record amount of heroin and methamphetamine from Little Village, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. From there, the drugs move to the streets of south and west Chicago, where they are sold in assembly-line fashion in mostly black neighborhoods.

‘‘Chicago, with 100,000 gang members to put the dope on the street, is a logistical winner for the Sinaloa cartel,’’ Jack Riley, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the Chicago unit, said after touring Little Village. ‘‘We have to operate now as if we’re on the Mexican border.’’

It is not just Chicago. Increasingly, as drug cartels have amassed more control and influence in Mexico, they have extended their reach deeper into the United States, establishing inroads across the Midwest and Southeast, according to American counternarcotics officials.

An extensive distribution network supplies regions across the country, relying largely on regional hubs like this city, with ready markets located off busy interstate highways.

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One result: Seizures of heroin and methamphetamine have soared in recent years, according to federal statistics.

The US government has provided Mexico with surveillance equipment, communication gear, and other assistance under the $1.9 billion Merida Initiative, the antidrug effort launched more than four years ago. But critics say north of the border, the US government has barely put a dent in a sophisticated infrastructure supporting some $20 billion a year in drug cash flowing back to Mexico.

The success of Mexican cartels in building huge drug distribution and marketing networks across the nation is a reflection of the US government’s intelligence and operational failure in the war on drugs, said Fulton T. Armstrong, an ex- national intelligence officer for Latin America.

‘‘We pretend that the cartels don’t have an infrastructure in the US,’’ said Armstrong, also a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now a senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. ‘‘But you don’t do a $20 billion a year business . . . with adhoc, part-time volunteers. You use an established infrastructure to support the markets. How come we’re not attacking that infrastructure?’’

A reported 8.9 percent of Americans age 12 or older — 22.6 million people — are current users of illegal drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services — up from 6.2 percent in 1998. Demand for and the availability of illegal drugs is rising.

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