Mexican drug traffickers are branching out as never before — spreading their tentacles into 47 nations, including the U.S., Guatemala and even Colombia, long the heart of the drug trade in Latin America.
The expansion comes amid a military crackdown in Mexico and the arrests of major Colombian suppliers and poses a new challenge for efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the United States.
"There are more Mexican drug traffickers in South America today than at any time ever, period," said Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help Colombia dismantle its major cartels but may have actually helped the Mexicans gain traction in South America in the process.
In the past two years, Colombia extradited 14 warlords to the U.S. on drug-running charges and another six major traffickers have been killed or arrested. Mexican emissaries and money are flowing into the country to fill the void.
"The belief is that the Mexicans are trying to get closer to the source of supply and take over the transport," said Jere Miles, chief of the unit that tracks trade-based money laundering for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.