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Mexican Drug Cartels: What They Mean to Florida

May 01, 2024
Mexican Drug Cartels: What They Mean to Florida

By David Brand 
Law Enforcement Coordinator, Florida Sheriffs Association

While most people haven’t a clue, Mexican Drug Cartels have established a presence throughout much of Florida. This presence brings with it harmful substances that affect many families, along with young women and children that are being sold as property and exploited in horrible ways. 

Given the financial collapse in many Central American countries, seasoned with corrupt or oppressive governments, illegal immigration reached a breaking point in early 2023. People from not only Central America but from Communist China, Russia, and over 100 other different countries flooded the southern border. While many were simply looking for a better life, Transnational Criminal Cartels were threaded into the population that was unlawfully crossing over into the United States. Cartel members continue to bring in fentanyl and other dangerous drugs along with exploiting this human suffering by turning women and children into sex slaves to be owned and sold as property.

The Impact in Florida

Mexican authorities have been battling the Cartels for decades with little success. Thousands of Mexicans, including politicians, law enforcement officials, and journalists die in this conflict every year.

Mexican incursions into the U.S. are nothing new. General “Black Jack” Pershing, along with a young Lieutenant George Patton, later of World War II fame, chased Poncho Villa through Mexico, in the Mexican Punitive Expedition 1916-1917, after he and his banditos made raids into our country and returned to Mexico to hide out. However, these recent unlawful crossings have brought in dangerous illegal drugs and are responsible for thousands of deaths. According to the Florida Medical Examiners Report for January – June 2022, methamphetamine was responsible for the cause of 1,088 deaths and was present in the toxicology reports in an additional 357 deaths. Fentanyl caused 2,744 deaths and was present in the toxicology reports in an additional 306 deaths.

The Largest Cartels

The Cartels, by their very nature, are always at war both within and externally. This results in sub-groups splintering off, new groups being formed, and loyalties always in question. The largest Cartels, as of this writing, are listed below.

  • Sinaloa Cartel. One of Mexico’s oldest and most powerful drug trafficking groups. It is especially influential along the Pacific coast in the northwest and near Mexico’s southern and northern borders.
  • Jalisco New Generation Cartel. This Cartel broke off from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2010 and has operations covering most of Mexico.
  • BelTran-Leyva Cartel. This organization formed from a split from Sinaloa in 2008.
  • Los Zetas. This was originally an enforcement arm for the Gulf Cartel and split off in 2010.
  • Gulf Cartel. They have a power base in northeast Mexico.
  • Juarez Cartel. They are a rival of Sinaloa and operates across the border in New Mexico and Texas.
  • La Familia Michoacana. This group was formed in the 1980s and has its base in western Mexico.
  • Los Rojos. This is another splinter group from the Beltran-Leyva and operates in central and southwestern Mexico. It relies largely on kidnapping and extortion.

To maintain their power and influence, all of the Cartels pay off Mexican judges, law enforcement officers, and politicians. They also assassinate journalists and public officials.

The Florida Sheriffs’ Response

Florida sheriffs have statutory authority, pursuant to §23.1225, Florida Statutes, to enter into mutual aid agreements to assist each other across jurisdictional lines. These mutual aid agreements become the authority for the Florida Sheriffs Task Force to operate all over the state when necessary. As the presence of dangerous unlawful drugs increased, it became apparent that the I-10 corridor was a conduit from the Texas and Arizona borders.

In early 2019, several Big Bend area sheriffs created the North Star Task Force, chaired by Wakulla County Sheriff Jared Miller. The established goals included the collection of intelligence and the joint investigation of methamphetamine and fentanyl development labs, importation, and sales. North Star is currently comprised of the following sheriffs’ offices: Calhoun, Dixie, Gadsden, Gulf, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Liberty, Taylor, Wakulla, Franklin, Hamilton, and Suwannee counties.

According to Sheriff Miller, there is reason to believe that the I-10 east-west route is responsible for delivering large amounts of illegal substances to Florida.

Sheriff Jared Miller

Most of the counties in the central panhandle are rural with small populations. Two have populations of less than 9,000. The sheriff’s offices in most of these counties, along with other local law enforcement agencies, have a limited number of personnel and few resources. These drug trafficking organizations, along with local gangs, thoroughly exploit these vulnerable areas and develop an infrastructure with extensive distribution capabilities. North Star serves as a force multiplier in these counties. Wakulla County Major Eddie Wester reported that a large amount of cash was seized in December after a collective investigation conducted by Homeland Security, the Florida Highway Patrol, and North Star investigators.

North Star Task Force

The problem is not confined to the panhandle. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has continuously mounted wide-range investigations for both drugs and human trafficking. In one investigation, in September 2023, 219 arrests were made involving human trafficking. 21 possible human trafficking victims were identified. 35 of the arrestees were suspected of being in the U.S. illegally and three of those were identified as victims of human trafficking. Those here illegally were from Cuba, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and the Bahamas.

Continuing the Initiative

Regardless of a lack of national policy regarding border security, your Florida sheriffs will continue to dedicate resources and personnel to protect the public they are honored to serve.