Drug Cartels and Organized Crime

What is a drug cartel? Definitions vary. It may encompass everything from gang members of a local street gang to a transnational criminal organization. A good working definition for a drug cartel is any organization that promotes, controls, or significantly involves itself with illegal drug trafficking

Often, a drug cartel may expand into other criminal conduct. In recent decades, fear of these groups has had a large impact on the law and on law enforcement.

Organized crime groups are similar. They often form to engage in illegal business for profit. They may also provide protection for members from law enforcement. An organized crime group may begin with one unlawful trade and then expand into others. For example, certain groups during Prohibition profited from illegal alcohol sales. They later moved into drug trafficking, illegal gambling, and prostitution.

Read on to learn more about how drug cartels and organized crime syndicates operate and the laws under which they're prosecuted.

Background and History

The history of drug trafficking in the U.S. goes back at least to the 1800s with the importation of opium into California from China. By the early 20th Century, the U.S. saw greater use of heroin and cocaine. Marijuana followed shortly thereafter. By the 1950s, American mafia families engaged in the drug trade known as the "French Connection," where Turkish opium came through France into New York City.

The Medellin Cartel from Colombia cornered the market on cocaine sales in the U.S. in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Prosecutions of high-level members of the Colombian cartel brought its dominance to an end. By the 1990s, Mexican drug cartels became the focus of federal law enforcement.

The danger of drug cartels stems from their organization. Criminal organizations growing in power and influence can destabilize entire communities. In 1920s Chicago, for example, cartels not only engaged in the illegal drug trade (the sale of prohibited alcohol) but were also involved in embezzlement schemes, intimidation, extortion, and murder. They had so much influence that corrupt government officials and police “conveniently" ignored the perpetrators. In present-day Mexico, drug cartels in border cities engage in violent crime, terrorize citizens, and bribe officials, not unlike the cartels of 1920s Chicago.

Until the early 1970s, the U.S. had a patchwork of drug laws to combat drug trafficking and abuse. With the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act and the Organized Crime Control Act in 1970, U.S. law began to target drug cartels (and organized crime) as a threat to national security. Today, the U.S. government works with Mexican authorities to develop and enforce more stringent laws to prevent drugs from crossing the U.S. border. Law enforcement agencies have also creatively applied existing criminal law.

Common Charges

Drug cartel members often find themselves embroiled in criminal activities seemingly unrelated to drug trafficking. As a cartel network grows in membership, finances, and influence, the potential for crime grows with it. For example, a drug cartel may earn enough to buy a legitimate business to use for money laundering. The cartel may then use the same business as a front for other crimes. For example, a cartel may run a legal casino or bar and then launder drug money through the business.

Though not an exhaustive list, the state may levy any of the following charges against members of drug cartels and other organized crime:

But prosecutors don't rely only on the variety of criminal charges when prosecuting members of drug cartels. That strategy may not thwart the cartel's operation. It's common for cartel members to specialize. A criminal network might have some members involved only in the gambling and prostitution side of the business. Other members might focus on the drug trafficking side.

This creates a problem for prosecutors since these networks may survive if only a few members are captured and tried. If a member were only responsible for prostitution and gambling, they may accept the sentence and choose not to enter a plea deal. So, prosecutors develop strategies for increasing the potential criminal penalties. This can provide leverage for members of drug cartels to enter plea deals or cooperate with the government.

Investigation and Prosecution

Who investigates and prosecutes cases against drug cartels and organized crime? Today, laws at both the federal and state level are employed against drug trafficking organizations. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) falls under the U.S. Department of Justice. Its mission includes setting national policy on drug control. It also engages in law enforcement and employs over 4,600 special agents.

The DEA cooperates with foreign governments to disrupt the drug market. It supports programs to reduce the availability of illegal drugs. It serves as a liaison to the United Nations and Interpol to promote international efforts to enforce drug laws.

As a lead organization in the U.S., the DEA sets priorities for drug law enforcement. This includes the opioid crisis of overdose deaths in the U.S. In recent years, the abuse of opioids ties into the illegal fentanyl trade. The DEA states that most illegal fentanyl and methamphetamine that comes into the U.S. arrives via Mexico. It claims the Sinaloa cartel and others produce such drugs from precursor chemicals received from China. As a result, the DEA has brought charges against Chinese companies as well as members of the cartels.

The federal government brings law enforcement officials from different areas together in task forces designed to combat the drug crisis. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also targets transnational organized crime groups. It cooperates with the DEA to investigate narcotics trafficking and the production of illicit drugs.

Federal and state prosecutors may use several strategies against drug cartel members. Through convictions at trial and plea deals, law enforcement will seek to lock up major players and break up criminal groups. They often make use of conspiracy charges, dual prosecution between state and federal authorities, and charges brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).


Described as a preparatory offense, conspiracy involves planning or otherwise helping another commit a crime. It's a separate crime, distinct from the underlying offense, which may or may not occur.

For example, let's say that Jack and Roger are making competing bids on a large tract of land. Jack learns that the seller is set to accept Roger's bid. Jack plans to murder Roger and enlists his friend Dan to help. Jack sets up a meeting with Roger in a remote location. Dan purchases a gun and heads to the location. He sets up in a spot where he will not be noticed. Jack and Dan could face charges of conspiracy to murder, even if the murder does not happen. What matters is the intention and some act taken in furtherance of the conspiracy.

Conspiracy charges can be very effective against drug cartels and organized crime. Even small amounts of cooperation, discussion, or planning may attach to the crimes of a cartel member. Low-level workers in a cartel may traffic drugs, threaten rivals, and commit other crimes. But others may direct and plan these crimes. The state may prosecute such “managers" for conspiracy.

State/Federal Dual Charges

Many drug crimes appear in both state and federal law. So, a defendant may face both state and federal charges for their crimes if they fit the necessary criteria. These prosecutions don't trigger constitutional protections against double jeopardy. There are two separate sovereigns (governments) bringing the charges. This “double jeopardy avoidance" strategy can result in a significant prison sentence for a single criminal transaction. To avoid the potential consequences, a defendant may be open to a plea deal that permits them to cooperate and receive less time. With such cooperation, the government may take other key members of the cartel out of the operation.

Where the elements of the federal crime (for example, drug trafficking) are largely the same as the state crime (drug trafficking), the defense lawyer may argue that the cartel member should not receive consecutive sentences. In other words, even if the defendant is convicted in both state and federal court, the sentences should run concurrent (at the same time) since there was only one transaction.

RICO laws

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal law designed to increase the penalties of belonging to a cartel or other organized crime group. It targets managers and leaders of these groups. Though conspiracy covers many instances of group crime (planning and cooperation), RICO law is broad enough to cover cartel members who merely give orders.

Under federal RICO law, the government must show that a criminal enterprise existed and affected interstate commerce. It must show the defendant was part of the enterprise and committed at least two acts of racketeering (one of 35 possible criminal acts). The acts must present a pattern of racketeering activity. Conspiracy under RICO can be a separate offense. It need not show an overt act. Criminal penalties for each RICO violation can be up to 20 years in prison. Life imprisonment is possible when an underlying act includes a life sentence.

States have created their own RICO laws based on the federal law. Some have broader applicability and different rules for prosecution than the federal law.

Efforts to Reduce Demand

From the "War on Drugs" years until today, the U.S. government has taken a three-pronged approach to reduce illegal drug use:

  • Law enforcement: Prosecuting those who produce, distribute, and use illegal drugs
  • Treatment: Providing effective services for those suffering from addiction to illegal drugs
  • Prevention: Educating the public (and often youth) on the dangers of illegal drugs and addiction to discourage use

One goal of such a policy is to reduce public demand for illegal drugs. Drug abuse and addiction are major problems that have a negative impact on public health and cost billions of dollars. In just the opioid crisis alone, one study found that the U.S. spends around $35 billion each year on health care costs.

Federal, state, and local efforts to enforce drug laws and provide funding for drug abuse treatment appear in the news quite often. But they come only as reactions to the social problem of drug abuse.

Many view drug abuse prevention programs as an under-utilized tool in addressing this large-scale societal problem. Today, the DEA provides drug prevention resources to help parents and educators create their own strategies. The ineffectiveness of past programs such as D.A.R.E. should not limit research into other programs. D.A.R.E. was a school-based program that sought to educate children about illegal drugs to discourage future use. Critics say such classroom-based models often did not get at the reasons why youth experiment with drug use.

Today, many prevention programs work to give young people opportunities to engage in after-school sports and other activities. These efforts can promote problem-solving skills and healthy outlets for youthful interaction. The success of these efforts remains an open topic of study and discussion.

Have More Questions About Drug Cartels? Talk to an Attorney

We've all seen popular crime dramas depicting the power and glamor associated with a well-financed drug cartel. But what you see on television isn't always true to life. Being arrested for a major drug offense is anything but glamorous. If you become a target of criminal justice officials or face charges, you'll need independent legal advice. For more information, consider talking to an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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