RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Mexico today, she'll have with her a new offer of U.S. help in fighting Mexico's violent drug cartels.
Thousands of people have been killed there over the past year as the cartels battle each other and the Mexican government.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
To try to stabilize the situation, the Obama administration is sending about 500 additional federal agents to the U.S.-Mexico border, along with new funding, equipment and technology, and the administration is considering sending the National Guard.
MONTAGNE: At the White House yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said there are two goals. First…
Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): To provide assistance to the government of Mexico, to break up these huge cartels, which are funneling tonnage quantities of illegal drugs into our country on a regular basis and are conducting this war of violence within Mexico that has resulted in over 6,000 homicides, over 550 of which were assassinations of law enforcement and public official personnel.
INSKEEP: So that's the first goal, and Janet Napolitano says the second has to do with the American side of the border.
Secretary NAPOLITANO: To guard against an increase in violence in the United States as a result of the actions undertaken in Mexico. We've seen some increase in violence, primarily between cartels themselves; kidnappings, for example, in the Phoenix area, in the Houston area. But what we want to do is to better secure the border area.
MONTAGNE: That's Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. The extra money and manpower may stop some of the violence from spilling over into the U.S., but it won't keep the drug cartels out. That's because they're already here. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on just how far their reach goes.
(Soundbite of car on road)
MARTIN KASTE: I've driven up to Mount Vernon, Washington. It's a little town about an hour and a half north of Seattle. It's about as far north from Mexico as you can get. In fact, turn on the radio here in the car, I think we can get…
(Soundbite of music)
KASTE: Yup, French radio from Canada. There you go.
(Soundbite of music)
KASTE: But even this far north, the Mexican cartels are going strong.
Deputy CHRIS KADING (Skagit County Sheriff's Department): You've got a criminal element in every race, nationality.
KASTE: Sheriff's Deputy Chris Kading is driving through one of Mount Vernon's Mexican neighborhoods. Most people came here to work in agriculture. In Kading's words, they're good people who work their tails off in the fields. But he says there's no denying the fact that drug investigations almost always lead back here.
Mr. KADING: The facts dictate that you're only going to get your dope, a big amount of dope, from a Hispanic guy.
KASTE: The cartels use this neighborhood as a kind of wholesale warehouse for product imported from Mexico: pounds of meth, kilos of coke. Local cops talk about confiscating bricks of the drugs imprinted with the cartel's insignia.
The drugs are then broken up and resold to street dealers. It's a pattern seen around the country. The cartels use Hispanic communities as cover, often in smaller agricultural towns, places like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Pocatello, Idaho. The Feds say the cartels are now operating in 230 American cities, up from 50 just three years ago.
But Deputy Kading says you won't find the cartel bosses in the U.S.
Mr. KADING: These are the storekeepers, the worker bees, the disposable people. If they get caught, eh, they get caught. There's four more guys that'll take their place.
KASTE: It's a pretty slick business plan. The cartel bosses are safe in Mexico, and the money comes to them. Riding along in the car with Kading is a detective. He's still working undercover and doesn't want his name on the air. He says the money never stays here very long.
Unidentified Man (Detective): We've actually done deals and watched them afterwards as they go directly from the deal to the wire-transfer place, and we can see our money going back, you know, within an hour.
KASTE: The cartels' American business model also benefits from the continued porousness of the southern border. Deputy Kading says he's seen Mexicans deported on drug charges that are back in town less than two weeks later.
Investigators are often confounded by changing names and fake IDs, and add to that the fact that potential informants are often afraid of being deported, and you can see why authorities often have a tough time tracking the cartels' movements in the U.S.
In the DEA's Seattle office, Special Agent in Charge Arnold Moorin lists some of the Mexican cartels that he believes are operating here in the northwestern corner of the country.
Special Agent ARNOLD MOORIN (DEA): Zambada Garcia, Juan Esparragoza. Then you have the Tijuana cartel and Chapo Guzman, him being the largest of the two. That's the Sinaloan cartel.
KASTE: But while those Mexican cartels are here, he says, so far they haven't brought with them their notorious gun battles.
Mr. MOORIN: For them to be as violent as they are in Mexico, that's counterproductive.
KASTE: When there's a dispute over business in the U.S., Moorin says, the killing usually takes place in Mexico. During a recent investigation of the Barragan family's meth operation near Tacoma, he says wiretaps intercepted at least 20 phone calls that involved murders, but all down south.
Still, that faraway violence does have an effect here. Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Thomas says he feels it when he tries to get a Mexican to cooperate on a prosecution.
Mr. MATT THOMAS (Assistant U.S. Attorney): Chances are the organization will visit a member of their family. Typically they might go, you know, talk to their mother, say hello, and that gets back to them.
KASTE: But in Mount Vernon hardly anyone expects that the cartels are about to bring that kind of violence and intimidation this far north. In the Hispanic neighborhoods, talk of the cartels inspires more shoulder shrugs than fear.
In a local community center, Lucia Ortega tutors kids after school.
Ms. LUCIA ORTEGA (Tutor): (Speaking Spanish)
KASTE: Ortega says she knows of a couple of people involved in the drug trade here, but she figures she'll just keep her distance.
Ms. ORTEGA: I think they just bring their stuff here, give it to other people for them to sell, and that's that.
KASTE: Ortega, who was born in California, says she feels safe here, safer than she would in Mexico. Another tutor in the room, Linda de la Rosa, says she doesn't think the cartels are getting any more dangerous here than they were before; it's just that people are paying more attention.
Ms. LINDA DE LA ROSA (Tutor): I guess it hasn't come out into the open as it is now. I think a lot of people are more being aware of it, but I personally believe it's always been around.
KASTE: In fact, that jibes with information from the DEA. Agent Moorin says here on the West Coast the Mexican cartels displaced the Colombians back in the mid-1990s. So what's changed now? Maybe more than anything, it's the news of all the violence down in Mexico, which has made more Americans look around and wonder whether that could ever happen here. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
MONTAGNE: And Martin's story is part of a series we're doing on the drug cartels and the violence in Mexico. You can view a map of the Mexican drug-cartel presence in the U.S. and read about how border cities in Texas are faring at our Web site, npr.org.
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