Lexington is ‘regional’ hub for the cartel’s illegal drug trade. Why? Location is a reason

Two men sentenced for helping to launder $23 million in drug money through Lexington are among many suspects facing prosecution for helping cartels operate in Kentucky.

In that specific investigation, six men were found to be part of the operation which imported drugs and needed profits laundered and returned to drug suppliers in Mexico, according to court documents. A total of 26 kilograms of cocaine was seized in that investigation.

Cocaine is readily available throughout Kentucky and cartels’ presence is a “major issue,” according to Kevin McWilliams, public information officer for the Louisville Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

McWilliams said the DEA seized $6.1 million in cash in Kentucky from October 2021 to September 2022, the 2022 fiscal year. In the 2023 fiscal year, the DEA has seized $3.6 million dollars in cash related to drug trafficking, McWilliams said.

“The Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) have established a presence in Lexington,” McWilliams said in an emailed statement to the Herald-Leader.

Both the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG are drug cartels based in Mexico that the United States claims are responsible for the vast majority of the fentanyl and methamphetamine killing Americans, according to the DEA.

McWilliams described Lexington as a regional distribution location for such drugs in large part because of its location and access to I-75 (north/south) and I-64 (east/west). Major cities which serve as hubs for drug trafficking are within a days drive of Lexington, including Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta.

“There is a great deal of traffic on these interstates, and they easily connect a lot of places,” U.S. Attorney Carlton Shier IV said in an email. Shier is the top federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Kentucky. “…That means easier access and distribution. As a result, a lot of large drug and money seizures intercepted here, are intended for distributors (and, ultimately, consumers) in other areas nearby.”

Drug traffickers typically smuggle wholesale quantities of drugs into the area from California and the southwest border through commercial trucks or passenger vehicles, McWilliams said.

He said these two cartels are the only ones with an established presence in the state, but did confirm it is a major issue because they supply drug trafficking organizations and street gangs with the drugs they sell.

“Business competition among these groups often leads to violence as well,” McWilliams said.

Special Agent Todd Tremaine with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the Herald-Leader previously that a rise in violent crimes he has investigated over the past five years in Eastern Kentucky is due to higher-quality drugs being shipped into the state.

“The organizations that are dealing the meth, it is not the resident in Clay County, Whitley or Laurel County who is getting his buddies to go to the pharmacy to get their Sudafed. It is the cartels,” Tremaine said. “These are bigger networks that are operating and if you don’t pay the drug debt, the consequences are more severe now than they were when your neighbor down the street was cooking meth.”

Shier said drug trafficking is a source of enormous amounts of crime not directly related to the transfer of illegal drugs — trafficking causes a significant increase in violence.

“Violence is often used to support the operation; it is often accompanied by illegal firearm use; it increases homicides, shootings, robberies, burglaries, and thefts, often related to the operation or to enable users to acquire more drugs; it strains the community resources – in countless ways, including available community services, medical care, law enforcement needs, and public health; and it injures communities, dramatically affecting many who are not involved in the sale or use of drugs,” Shier said.

McWilliams confirmed illicit fentanyl (typically in the form of pressed pills) and meth continue to be the most significant drug threats to Kentucky residents in 2023.

Overdose data from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy confirms 90% of 2,135 overdose deaths were related to fentanyl and opioids in 2022.

Broken down regionally, Northern Kentucky sees lots of heroin, fentanyl, and opiate pharmaceutical use, McWilliams said. Western Kentucky is “riddled with methamphetamine abuse,” he said.

Shier said while his court still sees marijuana, cocaine and other drugs, methamphetamine and opioids make up most of the drug cases – approximately two-thirds.

“Across the commonwealth, reports indicate an increase in the availability of fake fentanyl pills,” McWilliams said. “I cannot stress enough, the danger associated with pills purchased online, through social media, or out on the street. Unless you’re getting pills from your doctor or a pharmacist, don’t take them. There is a very high likelihood that they may contain enough fentanyl to kill you.”

DEA laboratory analysis shows that seven out of every 10 fake pills seized contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl — up from six out 10 last year.

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