The horrific violence brought on by feuding Mexican drug cartels that has spilled into border states has stoked fears that the same kinds of slayings and kidnappings could migrate farther north.
But narcotics experts say that fear is probably overstated, despite the far-reaching presence of the cartels within the U.S. -- including Indianapolis.
Federal and local drug enforcement agents acknowledge the cartels have been quietly working in Indianapolis for about a decade. And they have had an impact.
Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, many of which have direct links to the cartels, are the principal suppliers of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana to the Indianapolis drug market. Their presence has brought a steady supply of drugs to satiate a growing demand and has posed additional hurdles for law enforcement in the fight against narcotics.
It's also true that the drugs those cartels supply are the root of much of the violence in Indianapolis, including slayings committed by Mexican traffickers and people they hire.
But narcotics agents are quick to point out that the violence here is vastly different from what's going on in Mexico or cities such as Phoenix, which had 366 reported abductions last year, most of which were linked to Mexican human smugglers and narcotics gangs.
"The violence you're going to see in drug markets in the U.S. involves disputes over distribution, territory, and money and drug rip-offs," said Ron Strong, supervisor of the Great Lakes Unit of the National Drug Intelligence Center. "Most of the violence in drug markets like Indianapolis is among retail distributors, not so much among the wholesale drug-trafficking organizations."
The violence in Mexico and along the border states, Strong said, "is largely unrelated to what you would see on the streets of Indianapolis."
That's because turf wars among the cartels are typically handled in Mexico, where the top power brokers in the organizations reside. For the most part, Strong said, the trafficking organizations in the U.S. have no reason to fight, and if they do have a conflict, it's usually resolved in Mexico.
In addition, said Dennis Wichern of the Drug Enforcement Administration field office in Indianapolis, the majority of those linked to the cartels here are far removed from the cartel leaders.
Indianapolis is among 230 U.S. cities where the drug-trafficking groups run distribution networks or bring in drugs to other distributors.
The exact number of foot soldiers with ties to the cartels in Indianapolis is too fluid for law enforcement officials to pin down, but the National Drug Intelligence Center has reported activity in the city from groups tied to Federation and Juarez, two of the four principal cartels. Last fall, three men were arrested in the Indianapolis area as part of a federal sting on a third, the powerful Gulf Cartel.
The market's shift to Mexican drug traffickers began about 10 years ago, when efforts to crack down on traffickers from Florida and the Caribbean caused South American cocaine and heroin manufacturers to start moving the drugs through the southwest border via the Mexican cartels.
Mexican-produced drugs, such as marijuana and methamphetamine, soon followed the same path, enabled by a porous border and intense demand in the U.S., said John Dowd, chief of the drug unit for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana.
In most cases handled by the local DEA, the drugs travel from Mexico to border cities such as El Paso and McAllen, Texas, and go straight to Indianapolis, Wichern said. They are carried in passenger vehicles and trucks with hidden compartments.
Although the city's central location and access to highways make it a point of shipment to other Midwestern cities, the majority of drugs stay in Indianapolis to be distributed locally, with money from their sales to local dealers flowing back to the cartels in the same vehicles that transported the drugs.
It is an elaborate and apparently successful distribution system -- and one that because of the Mexican cartels' involvement creates specific complications for law enforcement.
Cultural and language barriers make it harder for police to develop confidential informants, which means the groups are more difficult to infiltrate, said Maj. Chris Boomershine, assistant division commander of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's criminal investigations division.
When suspects are tracked down, it can be hard to identify them because they don't have valid U.S. identification, said Lawrence Brodeur, chief of narcotics for the Marion County prosecutor's office. Investigations also prove challenging, Brodeur said, because many Mexican nationals refuse to cooperate with law enforcement for fear of retaliation from cartel leaders.
As they confront those issues, law enforcement officials are not discounting the possibility of a larger problem: that cartel-connected groups could become more violent in Indianapolis, particularly if competing interests between traffickers and dealers escalate.
Boomershine said the department is providing additional training to the gang unit because as more Latino gangs take root in the city, they could provide another conduit for the cartel-related groups to market their drugs, especially in growing Latino enclaves within the city.
"We know from our past mistakes, if we're not ready for this trend when it gets here, we're going to lose badly," he said.