The suburbs face more Mexican drug-trafficking activity as smugglers use "tactics to fit in" with the general immigrant population and avoid conventional areas of high scrutiny like the inner city, according to the new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago.
"This is what makes me sick," said Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the DEA's Chicago bureau. "When I see the hardworking other Mexican population being used by these people, it gets me."
Riley, who returned to the city this summer to head the bureau where his career started 25 years ago, previously ran the DEA in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Ciudad Juarez, center of some of the most violent activity by the Mexican drug cartels.
Riley said the Chicago area is a distribution hub for the Mexican cartels, along with Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles, while New York and much of the East Coast remains in control of Colombian and Dominican drug organizations.
"The Mexican cartels are the most violent organized-crime group in the world," Riley said. He said he's been charged to "take the lessons learned at the Southwest border and bring them back to Chicago."
Among those lessons are that hard drugs are no longer primarily an inner-city problem and that they're popping up in suburbs where they're least expected precisely because that's where they're least expected.
For example, the DEA, Arlington Heights police and other suburban departments broke up a crack and cocaine supply ring in April that had operated for a decade, funneling drugs from a base in Jalisco, Mexico. Nearly two dozen people were charged in the so-called Dial-A-Rock case.
"It's a regional problem," Riley said. "It's not just a Chicago issue. It's a Midwest issue."
The Chicago DEA bureau also is assigned to oversee the entire state of Illinois along with Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. Riley emphasized that across that region hard drugs are no longer concentrated in larger cities.
"We're seeing suburban kids, for the first time, introduced to cheap, highly potent heroin, being produced by the Colombians, trafficked by the Mexican organizations," he said. "And for the first time it doesn't need to be injected. People are smoking it and snorting it, much like cocaine.
"So it's attracting a completely separate user base, which is very unfortunate," Riley added. "I think we've had something in every decent suburb around. I know the western suburbs have had some issues recently."
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart confirmed his force has seen increased drug activity in the suburbs, starting with routine traffic stops that turn up passengers with "ungodly amounts of cash on them," he said. "When we then do our work backward, we come across these very nice houses in suburban Cook County that are owned by people with really no discernible source of income."
In June, Dart's officers seized marijuana worth $20 million from a home in Lyons, calling it one of the biggest cannabis busts in his department's history. The drugs originated in Mexico, Dart's office said.
Riley emphasized that vigilance is required not just by law-enforcement agencies, but neighbors as well.
"This is why neighborhoods need to pay attention," he said. "If it doesn't look like it's supposed to be there, it probably needs to be looked at."
Both said the cartels form alliances with local gangs for street-level distribution, and those too are expanding into the suburbs.
"It isn't as if the gang members sit around and have a map in front of them and say, 'Oh boy, that's Harlem, that's the suburbs, we can only go up to Harlem. We're a city gang,'" Dart said. "They trickle over into the suburbs all over the place, and they jump over suburbs into other places. It's always a question of opportunity, it's a question of expanding their base ... They want to sometimes be closer to their customers."
Both emphasized that makes a unified approach across jurisdictions essential, and Riley praised the communication and teamwork between the various federal and local law-enforcement agencies working in and around Chicago.
"We're all so overwhelmed," Dart said, "the last thing we have time for is to say, 'He's getting more credit than me.' Nobody has the luxury to do that any more."
"We're going back to human intelligence," Riley said, "the old gumshoe way of doing things," with the goal of "completely dismantling organizations" devoted to drug trafficking, from the cartels to street gangs and everything in between....