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DEA Boss: Mexican Drug Cartels Are So Deeply Embedded in Chicago, We Have to Operate Like We're 'On the Border

"Mexican cartels are probably the most organized, well-funded, vicious criminal organizations that we've ever seen."

The city may be nearly 2,000 miles from Mexico, but the country's drug cartels are so deeply embedded in Chicago that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are "on the border," according to Jack Riley, special agent in charge for the Chicago Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Because of Chicago's location in the heart of the United States, its large Mexican population and its abundance of street gang activity, drug cartels have designated the city as one of its main hubs of operation in America, Riley told TheBlaze in an exclusive interview. Inevitably, the increasing presence of cartels has also contributed to the Windy City's skyrocketing violent crime rates, the DEA boss revealed.

"My opinion is, right now, a number of the Mexican cartels are probably the most organized, well-funded, vicious criminal organizations that we've ever seen," said Riley.

Right now, at least three major Mexican cartels are fighting for control of billions of dollars worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin in Chicago. That includes the ruthless Zetas and the powerful Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, arguably the most wanted man in North America, and perhaps the entire world.

However, the influence of drug cartels is seemingly overlooked repeatedly by the media when it reports on Chicago's crime rate and rampant drug-related violence.

The city of Chicago, which Riley says has the "strongest police department" in the country, has been dealing with organized crime groups since the early 1930s, most notably the Italian mafia. But as ruthless as Al Capone and the mobs once were, Mexican drug trafficking organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel put them to shame, Riley said.

"If I pitted the Italian organized crime groups against for instance, 'Chapo' Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, it wouldn't be a fight," he told TheBlaze. "In my opinion, Chapo Guzman is the new Al Capone or Scarface to Chicago. His ability to corrupt, his ability to enforce his sanctions and to really do with an endless supply of revenue is in my opinion far greater than older Italian organized crime."

Riley is well acquainted with Guzman. In fact, he posed such a threat to the Mexican drug cartels when he ran a DEA operation on the border in El Paso, the Sinaloa Cartel boss reportedly put a bounty on his head, according to WLS-TV.

The drug cartels from Mexico have found willing business partners in more than 100,000 "documented" street gang members in Chicago. The cartel operatives hide in plain sight, within the crowds of millions of hardworking Mexican citizens living in the city.

"It's the perfect cover," Riley said.

The drug trafficking organizations are based in Mexico but, he explained, they have operatives in various cities across the nation. In Chicago, local gangs are used by cartels as a means to get their products onto the streets without putting their operations at risk, all the while raking in massive profits from drug sales. Cartels move every drug you can think of, including cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines.

Overall, police records indicate Chicago's murder rate is up 31 percent from 2011. Further, Mayor Rahm Emanuel in August requested federal assistance to combat violence and drugs. The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Aug. 31 that at least 82 people were injured or killed in shootings within a one week period, 10 in one night alone. Additionally, as of Aug. 23, there had been 351 shooting deaths so far in 2012.

Needless to say, violence in Chicago is a big problem.

When asked how much of a role Mexican drug cartel activity plays in the out-of-control violent crime rates, Riley said that "at some point, you have to make the correlation that yeah, it does have an impact on the violent issue here in Chicago and also across the Midwest."

Other powerful Mexican drug cartels include:

  • Los Zetas
  • Gulf Cartel
  • Juarez Cartel
  • Tijuana Cartel
  • Knights Templar

The Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that in "2009 and 2010, cartels operated in 1,286 U.S. cities. The center named only 50 cities in 2006," according to a CNN report.


Making Strides

Though they are extremely powerful and well-funded, Riley says the DEA, in cooperation with other local and federal law enforcement agencies are making strides in combating Mexican drug cartels in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.

"I was a boss for DEA at the Mexican border for several years prior to being brought up here, and one of the things that we've stressed since I've been up here is this: we have to operate as if we are on the border," he told TheBlaze. "Even though we are 2,000 miles away from parts of the border, the lessons we have learned along the border with our counterparts in Mexico really have to be employed here."

How are they implementing those lessons? Riley says the Chicago Police Department, Illinois State Police, Immigrations Customs and Enforcement (ICE), FBI, IRS, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Secret Service and DEA have all joined together to form a special "Strike Force" with the goal of dismantling the cartel command and control structure in the Midwest United States "from start to finish."

"We share all our intelligence information… and we bring it all together," he said. "It is a smart use of resources."

By co-mingling all the various federal and local agencies, Riley said they can follow cartel operatives from Chicago all the way into Mexico or Columbia if necessary, working with America's "counterparts" in those countries.

"We've got to do something more proactive and implement a new way of thinking to attack what's going on in terms of violent crime on the streets of Chicago."

The Zambada-Niebla Court Case

Riley went on to confirm that the Sinaloa Cartel has perhaps the strongest presence in Chicago of all the Mexican drug cartels. He said federal law enforcement agencies have been largely successful in extraditing a number high-ranking members of the cartel to the United States to stand trial, most notably, Guzman's so-called "logistics coordinator," Vicente Jesus Zamaba-Niebla.

As previously reported exclusively at TheBlaze, Zambada-Niebla was arrested in 2009 by the Mexican Army and extradited to Chicago to face federal drug charges. During his initial court proceedings, Zambada-Niebla made a number of explosive allegations about Operation "Fast and Furious" and an alleged immunity deal between the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, the DEA and other federal agencies.

Read the entire report from TheBlaze here.

Zambada-Niebla claims that under a “divide and conquer” strategy, "the U.S. helped finance and arm the Sinaloa Cartel through Operation Fast and Furious in exchange for information that allowed the DEA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agencies to take down rival drug cartels. The Sinaloa Cartel was allegedly permitted to traffic massive amounts of drugs across the U.S. border from 2004 to 2009 — during both Fast and Furious and Bush-era gunrunning operations."

Based on the alleged agreement, "the Sinaloa Cartel under the leadership of defendant’s father, Ismael Zambada-Niebla and ‘Chapo’ Guzman, were given carte blanche to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States and were also protected by the United States government from arrest and prosecution in return for providing information against rival cartels which helped Mexican and United States authorities capture or kill thousands of rival cartel members,” states a motion for discovery filed in U.S. District Court by Zambada-Niebla’s attorney in July 2011.

Chicago is the only city that Zambada-Niebla mentions specifically in the motion for discovery.

When asked for the DEA's official response to the allegations, Riley said, "It's an ongoing investigation. He hasn't been brought to trial, and I can't speak to that." However, he did say of Zambada-Niebla's claim, "It is not DEA policy and in my own personal opinion, I just don't think it's accurate."

Riley also didn't say whether an internal investigation was launched after the DEA learned about Zambada-Niebla's shocking allegations. "I can't say," he reiterated, citing again the fact that the case is part of an ongoing investigation.

"The one thing they fear the most is coming to the United States and doing time here, where they can't buy their way out, they can't bribe the judge," Riley added. The statement seemingly suggests that Zambada-Niebla is attempting to swindle his way out of federal drug charges, which will likely carry a hefty prison sentence.

Zambada-Niebla's trial, which is being closely monitored by some members of Congress, is set to begin on Oct. 9 in a Chicago federal court. In April, 2012, a federal judge refused to dismiss charges against him, ruling he failed to prove that he was an informant for the DEA and was granted immunity. It is unclear whether the alleged agreement will still be part of Zambada-Niebla's defense in the upcoming trial.


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