Law enforcement faces challenges with drug trafficking bases on Peninsula 

The leadership of alleged family-operated Mexican drug-trafficking organizations — or DTOs — operating in the Bay Area is based primarily in Redwood City, East Palo Alto and San Jose, according to U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Karl Nichols.

It’s unclear exactly why Mexican DTO leadership finds those three cities particularly desirable. Details are difficult to come by, due to law enforcement’s reluctance to discuss ongoing investigations, but the federal government has been aware of the phenomenon since at least 2007, according to Department of Justice documents.

The most likely explanation is serendipity. Years ago, when DTO leadership was looking to purchase property in the Bay Area, housing in those communities for whatever reason looked favorable, said Mike Sena, director of the Northern California branch of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, or the HIDTA. And because the communities are tightly knit, other members of a drug operation likely purchased additional property close by, eventually resulting in a critical mass, Sena explained.

Some undoubtedly moved to East Palo Alto during the crack explosion of the 1990s, said Lt. John Munsey of the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force.

But it’s unlikely top-level organization members are living and distributing in the same area, he said.

Many DTO members suspected of narcotics sales commute via BART, as well as through other regional transportation, from the Peninsula and East Bay to San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to sell drugs, according to Capt. Jason Cherniss of the San Francisco Police Department. During last month’s BART strike, members of the community informed him that there was a noticeable reduction in open-air drug sales in the area, he said.

Major regional markets for drug sales include various locations in the East Bay and The City, Sena said.

Bay Area DTOs are “deeply entrenched, well organized and extensively connected through multigenerational family networks,” according to Department of Justice documents.

Primarily, the illegal enterprises smuggle “multi-pound” loads of methamphetamine, powder cocaine, cannabis and black tar heroin from Mexico through various points of entry into the U.S., with the ultimate goal of distributing narcotics to major drug markets within the Bay Area, Northern California and the rest of the country, according to the Department of Justice.

Some of the narcotics undoubtedly travel through one of several deep-water ports, such as the one located in Redwood City, according to department documents. But due to the volume of port traffic, it’s extremely difficult for law enforcement agencies — including the U.S. Coast Guard — to interdict narcotic shipments transported by such means, Sena said.

In 2010, law enforcement agencies in the HIDTA seized 60 metric tons of marijuana, 196 pounds of powder cocaine, 17 pounds of heroin, and 1,776 pounds of methamphetamine, according to recent statistics.

The seized methamphetamine has an approximate street value of $35.52 million, according to the Department of Justice. Due to the violence associated with methamphetamine production and distribution, law enforcement considers it a more serious threat than other narcotics.

The federal government created HIDTAs in 1988 in order to provide additional funding aimed at reducing drug trafficking and production in designated areas.

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Max A. Cherney

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