The ruthless syndicates have long been the nation's No. 1 supplier of illegal drugs. But in the past, their operatives rarely ventured beyond the border, preferring to use unaffiliated middlemen to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and heroin.
But a wide-ranging Associated Press review of federal court cases and government drug-enforcement data, plus interviews with top law enforcement officials, indicate the groups have begun deploying agents from their inner circles to the U.S. Cartel operatives are suspected of running drug-distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast.
If left unchecked, authorities say, the move could make the syndicates harder than ever to dislodge.