One of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels is now the main distributor of methamphetamine in Nebraska, federal law enforcement officials say.

The Sinaloa Cartel has built a sophisticated drug-trafficking operation in Omaha over the past five to eight years, according to the FBI.

Cartels increased their presence in Nebraska about the same time state officials effectively shut down local meth labs through laws limiting the sale of cold medicines, U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg said.

Several top Nebraska law enforcement officials say methamphetamine trafficking from Mexico is the most serious drug threat to the state, and the problem is slowly growing.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized 230 pounds of meth in Nebraska between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30 — more than double the amount seized two years ago.

Officials find, at most, 10 percent of the methamphetamine transported and distributed by cartels in Nebraska, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kevin Hytrek estimated.

The Sinaloa Cartel recently began warehousing large quantities of meth in the Omaha metro area, meaning cartels are storing meth in homes or buildings until they are ready to distribute it, either in Omaha or in other U.S. locations such as Chicago, said Michael Sanders, assistant special agent in charge for the DEA in Nebraska.

“The volumes (of meth) that we are seeing now are significantly more than what we were seeing three years ago,” Sanders said.

The Sinaloa Cartel members who oversee operations in Omaha change out every two to three months, Sanders said. Along with changing leadership, he said, the cartel often moves its stashes of meth to different locations to make it more difficult for police to find them.

“The Sinaloa Cartel keeps their drugs and leadership moving,” Sanders said. “It is always a moving target. If cartel members haven’t become a target of law enforcement in that three-month period, law enforcement has to re-identify the hierarchy of leadership.”

Of all the cartels in Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel is pre-eminent because of its extensive distribution network, which spans every region in America, the U.S. Justice Department said in a 2011 report.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, often called the world’s most powerful drug trafficker, led the cartel until his arrest in February.

Cartels fight with each other to gain more territory in Mexico, but they often don’t let the violence spill over the border into the United States, Hytrek said. The Sinaloa Cartel has been responsible for brutal killings and beheadings in Mexico, according to national media reports.

“It’s all about power and greed down there,” Hytrek said. “Up here, all they care about is selling (drugs) and sending the money.”

The cartels often travel into Nebraska on major highways such as Interstate 80 and Interstate 29. Cartels have identified Omaha as a key distribution point because it is close to many other Midwestern states, has major highways and has a large enough population for cartel members to blend in without being detected, Sanders said.

Mexican cartels operating in Nebraska typically work only with other Hispanic family members and friends living here, because those are the people cartels feel they can trust, Hytrek said.

Some cartel members didn’t intend to get involved in drug trafficking, but they end up doing it for the money or because they owe a debt to the cartels, Hytrek said. People deported to Mexico are sometimes recruited by the cartels as soon as they arrive home.

Cartels persuade people to join by promising to help transport them back to America, Hytrek said. Or drug trafficking organizations will threaten to harm family members in Mexico to push someone to join the cartel.

“Once they are involved, the cartels kind of hold them, in a sense, hostage,” Hytrek said.

Mexican cartels have distributed meth in the state for many years, but the problem has amplified in recent years, Gilg said. Nebraska won’t be able to get rid of cartels until Mexico is able to scale back meth production, she said.

“It all starts back in Mexico. I think we are all aware of the huge amount of violence and the huge amount of corruption that has occurred in Mexico with these cartels,” Gilg said. “Until the Mexican government roots out the corruption within their own government in dealing with these cartels and is able to disrupt the culture of fear surrounding these cartels in Mexico, drug trafficking is always going to be a problem.”

Nebraska had a meth lab problem before a 2005 law limited the sale of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a chemical used to make meth. Since then, in-state meth production has declined significantly.

In 2004 the DEA reported 321 meth lab incidents in Nebraska. In 2012 the DEA identified nine. People still make meth in Nebraska, Gilg said, but they don’t have the ability to make enough to distribute mass quantities.

With meth labs declining, cartels found an opening to serve more customers, and Gilg said law enforcement is taking notice. Last year, Gilg said, about 75 percent of federal drug trafficking indictments in the state involved methamphetamine.

Besides meth, the cartels smuggle marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the United States along the Southwest border between California and Texas, by vehicle and by mail.

Nebraska law enforcement officials are doing what they can to scale back trafficking of methamphetamine into the state, but their efforts alone aren’t enough.

“We have been able to disrupt and dismantle multiple organizations, take those people out of society and take away their ability to distribute methamphetamine,” Sanders said. “We have had great successes. In the same term, we are fighting a battle with an organization that has deep resources and complex organizations and are highly motivated to make money.”

Hytrek agreed and said the FBI’s goal is to diminish the power of cartels.

“We might not be able to wipe them out, but we will at least diminish their influence,” he said.

Within the past year the DEA made two major busts in the Omaha area, seizing 60 to 70 pounds each time, Sanders said. The investigation is still ongoing, so Sanders declined to comment further.

For context, a pound of meth contains more than 1,800 single hits.

In the past two months the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nebraska has indicted Jose Barraza, a man suspected of working for a Mexican drug cartel for at least 12 years, and has obtained search warrants against three other suspected drug traffickers with Mexican ties.

According to court records:

In August, the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted Barraza of Las Higueras, Mexico, for repeatedly transporting and distributing meth and cocaine into Nebraska since 2000. Barraza had been transporting mass quantities of both drugs from Mexico into the state every two weeks, authorities say. One of his associates estimated that one of Barraza’s vehicles could stash up to 20 pounds of meth and up to 33 pounds of cocaine.

A neighbor told investigators that Barraza frequently talked about working for a Mexico-based narcotic organization transporting drugs from Phoenix to Omaha. He also told more than one person that he received $500 per pound of meth and $1,000 per kilo of cocaine he transported.

The methamphetamine produced in mass quantities in Mexico is of high quality and less expensive than it was 10 years ago, when meth sold for $20,000 per pound, Sanders said. Today a pound of meth costs between $7,000 and $12,000.

Law enforcement took down a large Mexican meth trafficking organization last year in western Nebraska, near Ogallala and Big Springs.

Officials named 37 people connected to a Mexican cartel, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office said 14 people involved have been convicted and sentenced to prison. Law enforcement discovered the operation when an undercover officer purchased marijuana from one of the organization’s dealers.

Through longer investigations, officials learned the organization sent narcotics profits back to Mexico by wire and personal couriers. Officials seized about 2.7 pounds of meth associated with the operation.

In 2012 federal and local law enforcement agencies scored another victory when they arrested 20 people in Omaha, including major drug trafficking players with ties to Mexico cartels, Sanders said. Authorities seized 33 pounds of meth, Sanders said. Eighteen of the 20 indicted were convicted of drug crimes.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1066, alissa.skelton@owh.com

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