Des Moines Sunday Register
December 14, 1997, Page AA

Welcome to the heartland -- of drug traffic


    Cheyenne, Wyo. -- Here in the land of wide-open spaces and clean living, as well as in other communities across the midsection of America, Mexican drug cartels are opening new and lucrative markets for contraband brought from beyond the Rio Grande.
    Eager to create ambitious distribution points, the cartels are successfully targeting traditional God-fearing communities like Cheyenne and Casper in Wyoming -- and other cities in such states as Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.  They are bringing with them the drugs that long have plagued larger urban centers across the country.
    Some years back, gangs brought drive-by shootings and drug dealing to the American heartland.  But "our greatest problem today is illegal aliens and drugs," said Tom Pagel, director of the state Department of Criminal Investigation in Cheyenne.  "The vast majority of this is being transported up from Mexico, and we're getting our butts kicked over it."
    Smuggling vast quantities of methamphetamine and hustling their standard cocaine shipments, the Mexican drug criminals are aggressively trying to outmarket the Colombia cartels they have replaced.

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Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, a key drug-pipeline state, calls it "absolutely critical" that Mexico clean up its side of the border.

International Impact
    Taking over the drug routes once run by Columbians, the Mexicans' influence and the level of public corruption in Mexico have become major sources of friction between that country and the United States.
    In October, the U.S. government reported that more than 40 percent of the illegal immigrants who were deported to Mexico last year had first been convicted of drug charges in U.S. courts.  Those numbers fit an overall pattern of an increase in crimes committed by illegal immigrants.

Never Seen Before
    The offenses are often occurring in cities and towns where, in the past, the worst crime was likely to be transporting stolen cattle.  The situation has fueled a sharp increase in teen-age narcotics use, and the courts and drug treatment centers are seeing more kids more strung out than ever before.
    Kathleen Sloan, a drug treatment specialist here, is surprised at the number of kids -- and how young they are, some just 14 -- who pass through her doors these days.
    "It began about two years ago," she said.  "What was really noticeable was that it wasn't experimental drug use any more.  In the last eight months it's gotten to where it seems out of control."
    The upsurge in drugs also has prompted a keen awareness in places like Cheyenne that law enforcement must act decisively to reverse the trend.  Already, police here are taking Spanish-language training, and federal prosecutors have recently put away a Mexican national working as a major drug "primo" in Wyoming.
    In Washington, officials have been saying for some months that Middle America is no longer an outpost garrisoned off from the drug menace.  They warn that as long as there is a demand, even in places as small and distant as Cheyenne, there someday will come a supplier.
    White House Drug Policy Director Barry McCaffrey said recently, "Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, the Rocky Mountain heartland of America, are increasingly becoming populated with Mexican drug trafficking organizations and violent gangs using this major transportation crossroads as a trans-shipment center."
    Federal drug enforcement officials say that Interstate 25 is a historic smuggling route north out of El Paso, Texas, and that the nation's main east-west corridors, Interstate 70 and Interstate 80 -- which runs through Iowa -- are increasingly becoming drug pipelines.
    Cheyenne is located at the cloverleaf of Interstates 25 and 80.   The drugs move north and east; the money flows west and south.
    Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., head of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said it was "absolutely critical" to pressure Mexico to clean up its side of the border.
    In Des Moines, Polk County District Associate Judge Carol Egly has noticed in the past four years an increase in the number of drug users.  "We're getting many that are totally whacked out and crazy," she said.
    She also has seen a growing number of Mexican nationals appearing on drug-pushing charges in her courtroom, unable to speak English or understand the charges against them.  And yet, she said, they realize that even if they go to prison and then are deported to Mexico, it will not keep them from returning.
    "Why Des Moines? Why Iowa?" Egly asks herself. "I still don't know the answer."

Meth's Long Reach
    Here in Wyoming, one of the least populated states in the country, police chalked up 18 arrests on drug, illegal-immigrant and firearms charges in just one 12-day span in October.  Thirteen of the suspects were Mexican nationals.
    At the same time, drug use had climbed steeply, primarily for methaphetamine, the most common narcotic from Mexico that teen-agers and young adults across the Plains are smoking or shooting into their arms.  The drug is particularly popular because it gives a fast and lasting high, and sharply curbs one's appetite.
    In 1993, "meth" accounted for on 18 percent of Wyoming's drug-related arrests.  So far this year, the figure is 46 percent.

Not Safe Anymore
    Iowa Judge Egly's sentiments -- why us? why here? -- are being echoed all across Middle America, the part of America that, for a time, thought is was safe.
    Said Stephen Miller, deputy director of Wyoming's Division of Criminal Investigation: "This is hitting us all in the face all at once. Good Lord, what is happening here in Wyoming?"

Can it all be stopped?
And in only 5 years?

   Miami, Fla. -- President Clinton has directed his administration to develop an ambitious strategy to stop the flow of drugs across the nation's border with Mexico within five years, the president's drug czar said.
    Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the office of national drug control policy, said the goal is "achievable," even though an estimated 70 percent of all illegal narcotics sold in the United States currently come into the country via Mexico.
    "We're going to try to stop drug smuggling into the United States across the Mexican-U.S. border in the next five years -- substantially stop it," McCaffrey said.
    Some politicians and law enforcement officials immediately questioned the feasibility of sealing the border from drugs.  They noted that not only does demand for drugs remain high in the United States, but the North American Free Trade Agreement has increased cross-border activity.
    McCaffrey disclosed the administration's plans after an event at which Clinton praised the U.S. Coast Guard for a "banner year" in fighting the drug war.  The president noted that the Coast Guard has tripled its seizures of cocaine.
    The drug czar said he spoke with Clinton about the "Southwest Border Initiative" after the Coast Guard event, a discussion that followed a two-hour meeting he had with White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles on Wednesday.   McCaffrey added that he expects the president to outline the initiative's final shape in his State of the Union address early next year.
    But Rahm Emanuel, assistant to the president, said no decision has been made about including it in the State of the Union speech.  "The goal is to get something developed," Emanuel said.  "We have returned the rule of law to the border, but we have more work to do."

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Border Patrol Agent Dave Kennedy checks a border fence at San Ysidro, Calif. Despite the efforts of Kennedy and his colleagues, illegal immigrants -- like the ones waving to friends, at right -- continue to pour across the border, often on drug runs.

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The Des Moines Register
Sunday, December 14, 1997, Page AA