Mexican drug cartels have long dispatched agents to border states, but a new AP investigation finds that operatives are now infiltrating much deeper into the US, with problems arising in areas from the Chicago suburbs to rural North Carolina. Typically, middlemen have been used to smuggle drugs over the border and distribute them, but cartels are increasingly cutting those traffickers out in order to grab a bigger chunk of the money; now, cartel agents are suspected of running drug networks in nine or more non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South, and Northeast. "It's probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime," says the head of the DEA's Chicago office.
US officials are concerned the cartels could eventually expand into areas like prostitution, kidnapping and extortion, and money laundering if not held in check. Years ago, when Mexico first saw cartels' power increasing, it "didn't nip the problem in the bud," says one anti-trafficking expert. "And see where they are now." Officials are also worried an increased cartel presence could lead to increased violence and drug-related killings. But not everyone is convinced the problem looms large; some believe law enforcement agencies are exaggerating the threat in an attempt to increase their budgets. (Read more Mexican drug war stories.)