The Cartel Next Door

By Connolly, Daniel | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Cartel Next Door


Connolly, Daniel, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Mexican drug rings may have close ties to your community

The money that drug users spend in your community may be helping Mexican cartels pay their employees, bribe officials, buy weapons, and hire people to torture and kill rivals.

If you live in the United States, you can help shed light on the problem by exploring the impact of the trans-border drug trade where you live. If you don't live in the U.S., you may still be able to apply the concepts.

It makes sense to focus on Mexican trafficking organizations because their influence extends throughout the United States and beyond, and because they are causing tremendous bloodshed in Mexico. An estimated 35,000 people have died in Mexico's drug violence since President Felipe Calderón launched a crackdown in 2006, according to Associated Press reports.

I spent about 1 5 months part time researching international drug trafficking for the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal while I continued to cover the county government beat. I focused on Craig Petties, a man from Memphis who was accused of working as a high-level broker for Mexico's Beltran Leyva cartel to ship hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and more than a ton of marijuana to Tennessee and other states. Prosecutors accused him of making cell phone calls from Mexico to arrange drug shipments and to order killings in Memphis.

Mexican authorities caught him in the city of Queretaro in January 2008 and deported him to the United States. The government revealed in February of this year that Petties had secretly pleaded guilty in December 2009 to various charges, including conspiracy, drug trafficking and participation in four murders.

Our series "BloodTrade: Memphis and the Mexican Drug War," was published in the summer of 2010. (www.commercialappeal. conVblood-trade)

Finding a local focus

One of the best ways to write about the international drug business in your community is to take an in-depth look at a case that's closed or nearly closed. Learn about various cases, select one, then focus on one person within that case.

Big cases usually land in the federal courts, and the online system known as PACER can give you full-text access to filings. You can search for violations of specific drug trafficking statutes, money laundering or any other federal law by using PACER's advanced search functions or by using the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, (http:// trac.syr.edu)

Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle also suggests requesting interviews with agents at the local offices of the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and/or DEA. You can ask about closed cases similar to the ones you're working on, even though the agents may only be able to speak on background or point you to documents. Offices on the border often have agents who work with counterparts in Mexico and can suggest contacts there. Olsen also suggests meeting former federal prosecutors who have handled similar cases to learn how the legal system works.

Once you've identified a case and a person as your focus, start by reading all of the federal court documents. Olsen suggests looking for agents' affidavits, which the government uses to support search warrants or seizures of property. These documents often contain colorful nuggets that are great for narratives.

Olsen also suggests that you fully background your subject by checking property records, business licenses, liquor licenses, and state criminal and civil cases. ICE may be able to confirm if the government ever has deported your subject.

Here are some other story ideas and tips:

* Understand immigration patterns. This tip comes from Sam Quiñones of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote a 201 0 series called "The Heroin Road" about Mexican heroin traffickers active in towns such as Charlotte, N. C, and Indianapolis. Quiñones says Mexican cartels have spread throughout the country as they follow patterns of Mexican immigration.

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