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Cartel presence in Utah 'exploding' with violence likely to increase, police warn

Published: Wednesday, July 30 2014 9:37 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 30 2014 9:37 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — The cartel presence in Utah has “exploded” in recent years and increased drug-related crime and violence could follow in the future, Unified police narcotics detectives cautioned.

“There are crimes that are going unsolved,” said an undercover detective who asked not to be identified for safety reasons. “It’s very real. It’s very, very concerning.”

One recent concerning development, according to investigators, is confidential informants saying that people involved in the drug trade have been disappearing occasionally.

“They’ll come to us and they’ll say … a certain person disappeared, but we are unable to find out who this person is because they’re either undocumented, they don’t have any type of a job,” the undercover detective said.

While police have no way to determine what exactly became of these people, they believe they likely “disappeared” based on the information they received.

“It’s known that that’s why they’re disappearing — either because of some bad drug trade that happened, some arrest,” the detective said. “Unfortunately with dope off the street, it’s lost money and gains for the cartel and somebody’s got to answer for that.”

Unified Police Sgt. Lex Bell, who works in the metro gang unit, said although there is no proof, drug investigators suspect multiple unsolved murders may be cartel-related, including a February 2007 case involving two men found dead in a burned-out car near Delle, a December 2011 shooting west of The Gateway in Salt Lake City that left a man dead and a January case near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where a headless body was discovered.

The Park County Sheriff's Office in Wyoming had circulated pictures of a belt and boots found on the headless body, in hopes of gathering more information about the crime.

Cartel presence

Bell said he rarely heard about cartels when he first joined the police force, but the infamous Sinaloa Cartel has had a presence in Utah for at least seven or eight years and is believed to have seen significant growth in recent years.

“You’re hard-pressed to get anybody to say, ‘I’m a member of the Sinaloa Cartel,’ but what we hear, yeah, a lot of it is,” Bell said. “The drug dealer types that we’ve run across — most tell us that they’re from Sinaloa.”

Police say, however, that it's not the only cartel operating in the state.

“You’re talking about Sinaloa, La Linia and La Familia Michoacana,” he said. “There’s plenty of customer base to go around for everybody to take their share of the business.”

Business is booming, police say, thanks largely to soaring demand for competitively priced heroin — $10 for a heroin balloon compared to as much as $85 for an OxyContin pill.

Utah has always been a strong market for meth, according to the detectives, and the well-to-do economy makes the state a lucrative region for drug traffickers.

“They run it like a corporation,” Bell said. “Their corporation makes more than any other corporation that I’m aware.”

Utah also has strategic value to traffickers.

“We’re a hub, where I-15 comes right through, I-80 comes right through Utah,” Bell said. “From here, you can branch out all over the Midwest, to Colorado, up to Montana, Idaho, Wyoming.”

Cartel future

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