AMU Law Enforcement Organized Crime Original Public Safety

Mexican Drug Cartels Have Infiltrated the United States

Mexican drug cartels have been around for more than 40 years, and they continue to devastate communities and people’s lives. Some of the most powerful Mexican drug cartels include:

  • The Guadalajara and Sinaloa cartels
  • The Gulf cartel
  • The Jalisco New Generation cartel
  • The Tijuana cartel and other cartels

The Guadalajara cartel was particularly big in the 1980s. When it fell apart, its collapse led to the Mexican Drug War. Smaller Mexican drug cartels were established and fought over territory.

All of the Mexican drug cartels have one thing in common: the use of violence. Cartel members use violence for extortion, to influence the Mexican government, to maintain territory, and to further the cartel’s agenda.

Sometimes this violence is directed at rivals or people suspected of being informants. In other cases, the violence can even be directed at entire communities such as the massacre of the residents of Allende, Mexico.

Seeing the Devastation of Cartels Firsthand

In February 2024, I visited the southwest border of the U.S. to conduct human trafficking research. I went to locations on both on the U.S. and Mexican sides on a horrifying visit to gain a first-hand look into human trafficking, talking with various migrants.

For those migrants, the cartels had a menacing presence in their lives and still caused extreme fear. One man and his family were kidnapped by the Sinaloa cartel and only survived because his relatives sent a bribe to the kidnappers by Western Union. I also heard reports of sexual assault, murder and child kidnapping.

Cartels operate with impunity in Mexico. They exhibit more control and power than the Mexican government or its military.

Testifying to Congress About Human Trafficking at the Southwest Border

Cartels are directly responsible for smuggling and trafficking people to the southwest border of the U.S. According to Customs and Border Protection, 7.9 million encounters occurred at the southwest border between 2021 and 2024. However, this number does not account for the people who were not apprehended.

On November 14, 2023, I testified before Congress regarding human trafficking at the southwest border through the Committee on Homeland Security. This crisis is serious, but there are potential solutions.

Cartels understand that through the U.S.’s current open borders policy, there is a market to make unprecedented amounts of money by smuggling and trafficking people to the United States. While on the border, I learned that detention facilities are at capacity.

As a result, migrants are processed at the border and issued a court date four to seven years in the future. They are then released on their own recognizance into the United States, which then creates a market for cartels.

The Use of Gangs by Cartels

Mexican drug cartels have a network that includes gangs who operate in the United States. For instance, cartels and gangs use stash houses for their criminal activities.

Cartels operate cells throughout the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. These cells facilitate drug trafficking, the sex trafficking of children and other transnational crimes throughout the United States. Our failure to secure the borders of the United States has aided in the cartels’ ability to travel in and out of the United States.

Mexican Drug Cartels Have Invaded Other Areas of the US, Far from the Border

In Congressional testimony, House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Mark E. Green testified that “these organizations are the most vicious, evil organizations in the Western Hemisphere.” Congressman Green testified that cartels are in “the interior of our country,” using “the boldness with which they operate in open defiance of law enforcement.”

Cartels have long been embedded in major cities across the United States. However, Congressman Green’s testimony revealed that “the cartels have started operating “on a very large scale” in Montana – hundreds of miles from the border. He also noted, “Drugs and the violence associated with them are engulfing communities across the country, and it can all be traced back to the cartels.”

Mexican Drug Cartels Are No Longer a Foreign Problem

The alarm has been sounded about the crisis at the southwest border. However, the alarm also needs to be sounded about cartels’ influence in the rest of the United States.

I have spent over two decades in law enforcement, dealing with counter trafficking and counter terrorism. I did this work both in the United States and internationally, targeting drugs coming into the United States.

It is discouraging to see cartels being given so much power because people are dying in the United States because of it. Mexican drug cartels are no longer a foreign problem.

A Solution for Eliminating Mexican Drug Cartels in the US

The answer to solving this problem is providing the funding and backing for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) personnel to immediately target cartels in the United States. Designating Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations would have a substantial impact in stopping cartel activity in the United States.

If Mexican drug cartels were considered foreign terrorist organizations, law enforcement could then use tools to stop the violence and freeze cartel assets. They could also deny entry of cartel members into the U.S. and enable prosecutors to seek increased punishments for people who support the cartels. Hopefully, these solutions will receive consideration soon.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. For more information on Jarrod and links to his social media and website, check out

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