The refrain that Mexican drug cartels "now maintain a presence in over 1,000 cities" has been widely heard ever since the claim was first made in a 2011 report by the now defunct National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC). But the Washington Post reported Sunday that it isn't true.
DEA and Justice Department officials speaking off the record told the Post they didn't believe the numbers.
"It's not a DEA number," said a DEA official who requested anonymity. "We don't want to be attached to this number at all."
"I heard that they just cold-called people in different towns, as many as they could, and said, 'Do you have any Mexicans involved in drugs? And they would say, 'Yeah, sure,' " a Justice Department official told the Post, also anonymously.
The Post also interviewed police chiefs in towns with supposed cartel presence who said they were surprised to be included in the list of cities penetrated by the cartels. "That's news to me," Middleton, NH police chief Randy Sobel told the Post. Corinth, MS, police chief David Lancaster told the Post. "I have no knowledge of that."
Drug policy and drug trafficking analysts also scoffed at the number.
"They say there are Mexicans operating here and they must be part of a Mexican drug organization," said Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland professor and former co-director of the Rand Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center. "These numbers are mythical, and they keep getting reinforced by the echo chamber."
"Washington loves mythical numbers," former longtime Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) official John Carnevale told the Post. "Once the number is out there and it comes from a source perceived to be credible, it becomes hard to disprove, almost impossible, even when it's wrong."
The analysts said the claim was part of pattern in the drug war of promoting questionable statistics to justify drug enforcement budgets.
"At a time when agency budgets are being cut, you want to demonstrate that you are protecting the public from a menace," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a drug- and policing-policy reform group. "If you say there are Mexican henchmen in 1,000 cities, you don't want to cut their budget."
The unjustifiably high number also resulted from definitional problems with the NDIC's effort.
"These definitions are interchangeable and indistinguishable," said Peter Andreas, a Brown University professor whose book "Smuggler Nation" was recently reviewed here. "This is a particularly egregious example of a pattern that unfortunately has not gotten a lot of scrutiny."
The "1,000 cities" canard isn't the only cartel myth widely circulating. For years, law enforcement in the Western US has claimed that Mexican cartels are behind large-scale marijuana grows in national forests and other public lands.Then, in January of this year, ONDCP was forced to admit there was no evidence of cartel involvement in such marijuana grows.
"Based on our intelligence, which includes thousands of cell phone numbers and wiretaps, we haven't been able to connect anyone to a major cartel," Tommy Lanier, head of ONDCP's National Marijuana Initiative, admitted to the Los Angeles Times in January.
He said law enforcement had long mislabeled marijuana grown on public land as "cartel grows" because Mexican nationals had been arrested in some cases and because raising the cartel threat was good for getting federal funding.
But Lanier's admission hasn't stopped local law enforcement from trying to play the cartel card. At least three have done so just this month: Police in San Luis Obispo, California said a marijuana grow there was "associated with Mexican drug cartels" even though no one has been arrested. Police in Grass Valley, California, warned of an "illegal Mexican cartel grow." And, police in Cedar City, Utah, said that marijuana grows on public lands were "big business for the Mexican drug cartels that operate them."