The I-35 Corridor: Cartel Activity in Austin

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Lieutenant Norris McKenzie, of the Austin Police Department's Organzied Crime Division, says his intel suggests cartel activity is a real threat in Austin.

Photo Credit: Daily Texan Multimedia | Daily Texan Staff

Check out Daily Texan Multimedia's A Discussion on Cartel Influence in Austin video.

Austin’s proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border may lend itself to drug cartel activity in the city and surrounding areas, officials say. 

“We’re only 234 miles from Laredo,” Michael Lauderdale, a social work professor who is writing a book detailing Mexico’s political, social and economic development, said. “For all the reasons Austin’s nice, if I’m worth five or ten billion dollars running a cartel, I want to move up here. It’s safer here than it is anywhere in Mexico. There’s certainly reason to worry.”

Lauderdale said the last three years have seen cartel activities accelerate in the Central Texas area, with Austin increasingly becoming a command and control center for contraband flowing up and down Interstate 35. 

“There have been several instances that illustrate the reality of cartel presence in Austin,” Lauderdale said. “A cartel-related case is currently being tried in federal court here in Austin. The Zetas were laundering millions of their dollars through the American quarter horse industry. They were training their horses in cities as close as Bastrop. They owned a ranch in Oklahoma.”

The Zetas are one of Mexico’s most notorious and violent drug cartels. Their primary base of operations is the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, which borders Laredo. 

Marcela Ramirez, an anthropology senior, grew up in Laredo and has family in Nuevo Laredo. Ramirez said some parts of Nuevo Laredo can be described as lawless warzones.

“It’s been quite a while since I’ve visited my family in Nuevo Laredo,” Ramirez said. “My father was accosted by gang members. They tried to take his car, but he managed to fend them off... A lot of people from Nuevo Laredo that I know moved to Laredo because of the violence.” 

Lauderdale also cited the police take down of two major drug distribution networks — one of which had direct ties to a Mexican drug cartel — earlier this month. Authorities seized more than $1 million dollars in proceeds and large amounts of cocaine and marijuana, as well as 75 kilos of methamphetamines. 

According to a report by the Austin-American Statesman, law enforcement officials said the distribution network was managed by a cell of a Mexican drug cartel called Knights Templar. Officials said once the drugs arrived in Austin via hidden compartments shipped to JT Body and Paint, an East Austin body shop, the drugs were then prepped for transport to distributors in Dallas, Oklahoma City and other cities. 

Lt. Norris McKenzie, who works in the organized crime division of the Austin Police Department, said his intel suggests cartel activity is a real threat in Austin and has dealt with cases directly tied to Mexican drug cartels. 

“In organized crime we’ve dealt with prostitution, human trafficking and the distribution of narcotics,” McKenzie said of his experience with cartel-related activity. “Human trafficking is just as big a money maker sometimes as cocaine is in these areas. They work with coyotes to smuggle illegals here. Then they hold them hostage till someone, usually the family, pays.” 

Lauderdale said Austin would provide adequate cover for billionaire cartel leaders. 

“There’s a fair amount of cover here in Austin,” Lauderdale said. “We got people coming in and out all the time. It’s not like Amarillo, where the population is relatively static and there’s not a ton of strangers. There were 1.9 million visitors to this campus last year — just campus alone. It’s much more likely that a drug cartel leader would go relatively unnoticed in Austin.”

A Discussion on Cartel Influence in Austin from The Daily Texan on Vimeo.