With reports like this --
Wilmington, North Carolina -- Less than a mile off a county road in Ivanhoe near the Black River, federal drug agents and local authorities found exactly what their informant had promised.
"We saw what looked like, as far as you could see, marijuana plants," said Drug Enforcement Administration agent Michael Franklin.
There were about 2,400 in all, surrounded by a makeshift camp where the growers had illegally squatted on private property, setting up a generator and pump to tap the river for irrigation. The camp, which had been recently inhabited, contained a tarp shelter, canned fuel, drinking water, toiletries and old clothing, some of it camouflage.
Authorities staked out the "grow" for two days waiting for the marijuana farmers to return. They didn't. It was just as well, Franklin said.
"The people we were really focusing on were not the guys tending the field. The guys bankrolling the field were the target," he said.
Those guys, according to the DEA's source, were members of La Familia Michoacana, a Mexican drug cartel that the Justice Department says focuses primarily on moving heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine into the southeastern and southwestern United States.
Because the investigation into the June 2009 seizure is still ongoing, the DEA would not divulge further details. But Franklin said the case is one in a growing list of cartel-linked busts he is seeing in largely rural southeastern North Carolina. The area's Latino population has grown considerably in the past 20 years, and authorities say cartel operatives use Latino communities as cover.
"While the majority of (Latino residents in the area) are hardworking people like anyone else, it's an opportunity for the cartels to have their foot soldiers do their thing, too," Franklin said. Based in Wilmington, he is resident agent in charge of 14 counties.
News of cartel machinations are common in cities near the border, such as Phoenix, and the far-flung drug hubs of New York, Chicago or Atlanta, but smaller towns bring business, too. In unsuspecting suburbs and rural areas, police are increasingly finding drugs, guns and money they can trace back to Mexican drug organizations.
The numbers could rise in coming years. The Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center estimates Mexican cartels control distribution of most of the methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana coming into the country, and they're increasingly producing the drugs themselves.
In 2009 and 2010, the center reported, cartels operated in 1,286 U.S. cities, more than five times the number reported in 2008. The center named only 50 cities in 2006. --
I wonder how long it will be before the reds on the bottom of this map start bleeding (no pun intended) into the top:
(Image: "Mexican Drug War: Waves of Violence," The Economist)