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

For that reason, detectives said they expect an increase in drug-related violence in the future — particularly when one of the cartels decides to take control of the entire market.

“There is going to be competition, and with competition there can be violence in this world,” Bell said.

His prediction was echoed by the undercover detective.

“I think it’s just a matter of time before one of the cartels decides to take over the entire market, wiping out the rest of the other two cartels or whoever else is here,” he said.

Neither detective, however, believes that Utah will someday see the same quantity of kidnappings and other crimes that Phoenix sees, or that cities across the Mexican border experience.

“It wouldn’t benefit for any of them — the cartels — for that to happen here,” Bell said. “I think it behooves them not to have that violence follow them to a lucrative market like Utah.”

Cartel structure

Bell said the cartels have been filling their organizations with people not from Utah, and are less likely in general to employ locals. That, in turn, makes the job of the Metro Gang Unit much more difficult.

“We have no records on them, we have no history with them, we don’t know who they are,” Bell said. “We frankly don’t know how to target them.”

The undercover detective said cartel bosses in Utah aren’t easily identifiable because they look like reputable members of the community.

“They look like you, driving Range Rovers, $80,000 to $90,000 cars, no tattoos, clean-cut,” he described. “They own restaurants, they own dance clubs, they own bars. They are your regular, standard businessmen.”

“Those people tend to be ghosts — it makes it difficult because they rotate them around,” Bell added. “We constantly are able to work a case back to one of the supply-level personnel, but not necessarily the cartel guy.”

The undercover detective said it’s important for the public to know about the cartel presence because everyday people end up making a difference in these cases.

“Be able to recognize it, and to be honest, they just have to remember we can only be as successful as the public is involved,” he said. “As they call the police and report it — that’s how we catch the bad guy.”