08/30/2012 05:34 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Drug Cartels Operating In The U.S. Follow The Trail Of Mexican Immigrants Into American Heartland

Hidden on private property in Wilmington, North Carolina, Federal agents found a plot of 2,400 marijuana plants in June 2009.

The growers, who had trespassed onto the property, had set up a camp to harvest the plants; the site had a gasoline-powered generator and an irrigation system that brought in water from a nearby river. Federal agents also found camping accessories like drinking water, a tent, personal toiletries and scattered pieces of used clothing.

As reported by CNN, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents staked out the camp, but after two days grew tired of waiting for the "owners" of the operation, individuals believed to have been linked to the Mexican drug cartel known as "La Familia Michoacana." The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) lists the cartel, the "Michoacan Family" in Spanish, as one of the principal traffickers of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines in the Southeast and Southwest United States.

In June of this year, the DEA and the DOJ concluded a two-year investigation by jointly dismantling a money-laundering scheme operated by Los Zetas, another powerful and bloodthirsty drug cartel that operates in the northeastern part of Mexico.

Charges were filed against the reputed new leader of the cartel, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, also known as "Z-40," in an Austin, Texas court. Charges were also filed against his brothers Oscar Omar Treviño Morales and Jose Treviño Morales, a resident of the United States, as well as 12 other alleged members of the cartel, for taking part in a conspiracy to launder money earned from the trafficking of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs into the United States.

The Zetas had settled into Oklahoma and New Mexico by using horse breeding and racing to cover up their illegal activities. Through an established company, Tremor Enterprises, the cartel had placed horses -- including one named Cartel Número Uno (Number One Cartel) -- in some of the most important races in the U.S. according to the Mexican newspaper El Universal.

These arrests were just the latest in an ever-growing list of criminal cases against Mexican drug cartels which are finding their way into middle America.

"While a majority of [Latino residents in the area] are hard-working people like anyone else, it's an opportunity for cartels to have their foot soldiers do their thing, too," DEA agent Franklin told CNN, after finding the marijuana plants in North Carolina.

Over the last few years, there have been various reports on the operation of the cartels in U.S.-Mexico border states and large urban areas -- like Chicago -- which are quite distant from the border.

But evidence now points to no place in the U.S. being too remote for the cartels. Drugs, firearms and money tied to Mexican drug organizations have been found in small rural towns as well as lucrative suburbs.

And the number of these cases is growing. The National Drug Intelligence Center of the Department of Justice estimates that Mexican drug cartels control the majority of the methamphetamine, heroin and marjiuana that is distributed in the nation.

Roberta Jacobson, the current assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in April 2011 that Mexican drug cartels were operating in 230 cities in the United States.

"(Drug trafficking) is not a crisis that affects only the border," Jacobson said. " It's a crisis in our cities across the country."

However, the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that in "2009 and 2010, cartels operated in 1,286 U.S. cities. The center named only 50 cities in 2006."

"All the cartels are still here, the Gulf cartel, the Beltran-Leyvas, the Sinaloa cartel, Los Zetas, the de Arellano Felix, the Familia Michoacana," said Sylvia Longmire, a former special agent in the Air Force and an ex-analyst of California border security.

The problem will not go away and it won't decrease while drugs remain illegal and demand is high," Longmire said.

Charles Bowden, "noted author on the Mexican drug war," explained to CNN that the cartels seek out communities with an existing Hispanic population and proximity to highways through which drugs and proceeds can be moved.

"I'm not saying Mexicans come here to do crime, but Mexicans who move drugs choose to do it through areas where there are already Mexicans," he said.



Mexico's Drug Cartels