A few miles west of downtown, past a terra-cotta-tiled gateway emblazoned with “Bienvenidos,” the smells and sights of Mexico spill onto 26th Street. The Mexican tricolor waves from brick storefronts. Vendors offer authentic churros, chorizo and tamales. Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood is home to more than 500,000 residents of Mexican descent and is known for its Cinco de Mayo festival and bustling Mexican Independence Day parade. But federal authorities say that Little Village is also home to something else: an American branch of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel.
Members of Mexico’s most powerful cartel are selling a record amount of heroin and methamphetamine from Little Village, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. From there, the drugs are moving onto the streets of south and west Chicago, where they are sold in assembly-line fashion in mostly African American neighborhoods. “Chicago, with 100,000 gang members to put the dope on the street, is a logistical winner for the Sinaloa cartel,” Jack Riley, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the Chicago field division, said after a tour through Little Village. “We have to operate now as if we’re on the Mexican border.”
It’s not just Chicago. Increasingly, as drug cartels have amassed more control and influence in Mexico, they have extended their reach deeper into the United States, establishing inroads across the Midwest and Southeast, according to American counternarcotics officials. An extensive distribution network supplies regions across the country, relying largely on regional hubs like this city, with ready markets off busy interstate highways.
One result: Seizures of heroin and methamphetamine have soared in recent years, according to federal statistics. The U.S. government has provided Mexico with surveillance equipment, communication gear and other assistance under the $1.9 billion Merida Initiative, the anti-drug effort launched more than four years ago. But critics say that north of the border, the federal government has barely put a dent into a sophisticated infrastructure that supports more than $20 billion a year in drug cash flowing back to Mexico.