Mexican Cocaine Drug Lords Quietly Take NY Streets

The public square dedicated to Cuban journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, who became popular for unveiling the Colombian cartels operating in New York in the late 1980s. (Photo via El Diario)

The public square dedicated to Cuban journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, who became popular for unveiling the Colombian cartels operating in New York in the late 1980s. (Photo via El Diario)

Far from the riches and excesses associated with the Arellano Félix capos from the 1980s and ’90s, the small fish in the intricate Mexican drug trade try to stay under the radar of the residents of Latino neighborhoods throughout New York.

El Rosa watches the vibrant scene under the 7 train. He is a retail business owner who occasionally consumes cocaine, and has the nondescript appearance of a merchant that allows him to go unnoticed. He has known the Queens area of Jackson Heights for two decades, and is able to immediately identify new faces.

“You can tell who is a cop, even if they are undercover,” said El Rosa. “Their plain clothes don’t hide their demeanor.”

A Mexican immigrant, El Rosa claims that most of his income is legal. “I am the connection between the buyer and the one who sells the 20s [$20 bags of cocaine]. It’s extra income,” said the merchant. “They come into my business, make their arrangements and leave.”

A few blocks from where El Rosa has his establishment, journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, former director of newspaper El Diario and shrewd investigative reporter, was murdered on March 11, 1992.

De Dios Unanue, who gained notoriety when he denounced Colombian drug cartels, was shot inside the Mesón Asturias restaurant, which was located right next to the small triangular park bearing his name on 83rd Street, between Baxter and Roosevelt avenues, in Queens. The murderer was identified as Alejandro Wilson Mejía Vélez, an undocumented 18-year-old who carried out the orders of José Santacruz Londoño, head of the Cali Cartel.

Today, these streets appear peaceful. However, after a two month investigation and several interviews with minor dealers and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agents, El Diario is able to confirm that the drug trade is alive and well, this time in the hands of Mexican cartels.

DEA special agent Erin Mulvey said that, although 20 years ago many Colombians were being arrested for drug trafficking, today it is mostly Mexicans who are apprehended. If you are facing drug charges, or were wrongfully accused in relation to a drug related crime, a criminal defense lawyer could potentially help to minimise the consequences of such a series crime.

“Drug-related violence in New York is the product of territorial battles among gangs in local housing developments,” said Mulvey. “In the city, the violence is related to the level of distribution, not the level of the cartel.”

In this context, El Rosa said that “in New York, there isn’t a Mexican mafia as it exists in Chicago, but we will surely have one in a few years.”

The informant added that, because of the pressure exerted by the DEA and other authorities, minor traffickers opt to operate in cycles.

“You sell for six months or a year and then stop, but without losing your clients. Then you return to the business. The cops aren’t coming for the small fish, but they investigate them in order to reach the big one,” said El Rosa. “The police lets you work to see what you’re doing.”

Two other informants revealed that lesser dealers of cocaine and other drugs are linked to sex trafficking and document forgery. This confirms the statement made in 2012 to El Diario by Teresa Ulloa, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean. The organizer said that drug cartels protect pimps and guarantee their border crossing, especially through Arizona.

“Some of them sell fake papers, and they also sell women and drugs. It is the famous ‘delivery,’ in which they don’t only bring you the girl, but they also bring you the cocaine,” said El Rosa. “Many of the men who buy women are addicts. That’s where the business is.”

El Carnal, a Mexican ex-forged document seller, said that some Mexican goods shops on Roosevelt Avenue are a front for drug trafficking and sexual commerce. Still, the tentacles of the dealers extend to other counties and suburbs.

According to the DEA, Washington Heights, the Bronx, Long Island, Harlem, Westchester and rural areas in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are some of the most active zones for confiscations and arrests related to the heroin and cocaine trade.

“Each vendor owns a corner,” said El Carnal. “It’s a pyramid structure: A distributor has maybe four people working for him, and they have others in the streets.”

El Carnal, who sold forged documents for over a decade, said that the food delivery man getup is effective for distributing the drugs or the papers.

“I remember the scandal when they caught some pizza men delivering drugs. That wasn’t new; my fellow countrymen have been doing it for about 15 years,” said El Carnal.

In May 2013, Ramón Rodríguez and Jonathan Martínez, who worked for a Papa John’s in Sunset Park, were arrested for distributing cocaine while delivering pizza.

“Some restaurant owners do not know that their delivery guys do that, but others do know and take a cut under the table,” said El Carnal.

Legal businesses: A front for drug trafficking

Just as El Rosa’s establishment functions as an exchange point between drug dealers and their customers, other legitimate businesses are used as bases of operation for trafficking networks between Mexico and the U.S.

Last August, a task force dismantled a cocaine network based in Amityville, Long Island. The investigation started back in June 2013, when the authorities seized 20 kilos of the drug sent by mail to 39-year-old Juan Funes, a small business owner and leader of the operation.

The drug was smuggled in from Mexico to southern California in trucks and vans, and was sent by mail to Suffolk County, where Funes would sell it to other dealers.

District Attorney Thomas Spota did not hide his surprise when he learned about the accused men’s “double lives:” The immigrants had blended in with the community as regular workers.

“This is an atypical case (…) Funes led a house-cleaning business with 30 employees, many of whom were also part of the drug ring,” said Spota in a press release.

Some of them had legitimate jobs: Víctor Núñez was a taxi driver, Rafael Rodríguez co-owned a plumbing business, Jesús Simi owned a bodega and Juan Rosario worked making eyeglasses.

Politicians and entrepreneurs

The streets are not the only territory covered by Mexican traffickers. Some of them rub shoulders with high-level politicians and entrepreneurs.

The most notable case was revealed in March 2008, when the Mexican community was shaken by the arrest in New York of Rubén Gil Campos, then mayor of the city of Izúcar de Matamoros, in Puebla. “The Sparrow Hawk,” as he was known, was accused of trafficking cocaine into New York between 2005 and 2007 through his moving company Gil Moving & Storage.

Before he was known as the “narco-mayor,” the founder of nonprofit Casa Puebla in Los Angeles, California, was a high-visibility community leader, presumed to be friends with Puebla ex-governor Mario Marín Torres and ex-candidate to the same seat Javier López Zavala, among other state officials.

“Rubén Gil Campos was swimming in cash long before he was mayor,” said a source close to Mexican entrepreneurs, who chose to remain anonymous. “When Marín Torres came to New York around 2004, during his campaign, Gil Campos would pay his bills of thousands of dollars in the most luxurious suites. He did not mind swiping his card.”

According to the source, Marín Torres and Gil Campos held a number of meetings at Mexican entrepreneurs’ businesses in New York and New Jersey.

“Well-known Mexican business people and leaders were part of the same circle,” said the source. “Many didn’t know or didn’t want to know. It was a rumor that many renowned business people, who appear in the press as successful immigrants, actually smuggled people into the country and built their businesses with the profits.”

According to court documents (case 07-CR-1169), Gil Campos was released by New York’s Southern District federal judge Leonard B. Sand in 2012 due to his deteriorating health.

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