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Do Drug Cartels Operate In North Carolina? In Wake Of Deadly Shooting, We Ask An Expert

Congressional Research Service

When Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson described last week’s shootout that killed a Union County charter school teacher, he referenced Mexican drug cartels, and called the incident “almost like an old Western shootout."

Barney Dale Harris, a Spanish teacher at Union Academy Charter School, was shot and killed when he robbed a stash house of drugs and money, according to police. He was with his brother-in-law, Steven Alexander Stewart Jr., who has been charged with first-degree murder, first-degree burglary and possession of a firearm by a felon. Johnson said Alonso Beltran Lara, 18, was also killed in the shootout; the sheriff described Lara as a drug runner.

So what role do drug cartels play in the network that distributes drugs across North Carolina?

Drugs from cartels in Mexico move across the borders into the U.S., ending up in the hands of what UNC Charlotte criminology associate professor Matt Phillips calls “a very loose affiliation of organizations that receive narcotics from those cartels and distribute throughout the United States.”

Phillips, who specializes in transnational organized crime, says core members of the Mexico cartels don’t operate in North Carolina.

“The affiliations are very tenuous. These are criminal organizations within the United States that exist to distribute drugs, and they’re receiving those drugs from these large cartels who are their suppliers,” Phillips said. “These alliances are not perfect, they are not carved in stone and they are subject to change.”

The DEA declined to comment on the case, but a spokesperson released a statement: "Since the Atlanta area has become a primary hub of operation for Mexican drug cartel activity, because of Charlotte's close proximity to Atlanta, Charlotte has been identified as a secondary hub for Mexican cartel activity. Likewise, Charlotte's close proximity to the Piedmont region and elsewhere spawn such cartel-related activity. DEA is committed to identifying and prosecuting the highest level cartel leaders, not only in Mexico, but in the Piedmont Region and elsewhere, in an effort to eradicate these syndicates who traffic their poison on our streets."

Three cartels that have been known to have affiliates in North Carolina are Sinaloa, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación and Beltrán Leyva Organization, said Phillips.

“It’s difficult to say with any certainty because these affiliations are quite loose,” he said.

Johnson described the location of last week’s shooting as a stash house associated with the Sinaloa cartel.

The Sinaloa cartel was once led by the notorious drug boss known as Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. A2020 report prepared by the Congressional Research Service says the cartel originated in western Mexico and is fighting for control of the Mexico border states of Chihuahua and Baja California.

The Sinaloa cartel is less centralized than others, depending on a loose affiliation of smaller organizations, according to the congressional report.

“The decentralized structure has enabled it to be quite adaptable in the highly competitive and unstable environment that now prevails,” said the report.

That “unstable environment” came after the arrest, re-arrest and extradition in 2017 of Guzmán. What followed was bloody competition from the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación.

The Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación was the target of a DEA operation that played out in North Carolina last year. On March 11, 2020 — just days before the coronavirus pandemic started shutting down the state — the Department of Justice announced a major sting called “Project Python” resulting in 600 arrests, 350 indictments and six prosecutions that include people from the Charlotte area.

The Justice Department said in a release about the operation that CJNG was one of the biggest methamphetamine producers in the world. “We deemed CJNG one of the highest-priority transnational organized crime threats we face,” the news release said.

The CJNG controls the south-central part of Mexico, said Phillips, where a large amount of methamphetamine is made.

“It’s essentially access to the precursor chemicals that you just can’t get in very high volumes in the United States," Phillips said. “A lot of that (methamphetamine) is being produced not only in Mexico, but that part of Mexico.”

Another cartel identified by the DEA as having affiliates in North Carolina is the Beltrán Leyva Organization. This cartel was formed by brothers who had close ties to Guzmán, according to the Congressional Research Service report. Those ties were severed, and now the two organizations are rivals.

What attracts these affiliates to the drugs supplied by the Mexican cartels is simple: supply and demand. Phillips says these organizations are going to bring drugs wherever there’s a market.

“To say that there are criminals who are supplying drugs in our state shouldn’t shock anybody because we have people buying drugs in our state,” he said. “Those drugs have to come from somewhere.”

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Catherine Welch is Assistant News Director at WFAE. She has led newsrooms at KUNC in Greely, CO, Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence, RI and WHQR in Wilmington, NC.