Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
After inmate Alejandro Guerrero attacked a Pinal County detention officer in April, the Sheriff's Office gave a shocking explanation for the assault: Guerrero was a former member of the Zetas drug cartel who was afraid of leaving jail because he might be killed.
It turns out the office had not checked out Guerrero's claim before announcing it, and Guerrero has a long history of jailhouse assaults and infractions that might offer other explanations.
But the announcement exemplifies a growing trend: Increasingly, anyone caught in the drug trade is labeled by officials or the news media as a "cartel member."
In congressional testimony on May 11, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said that recently "more than 450 cartel members were arrested across this country."
That label may be convenient, but it inflates the significance of many individuals arrested for drug crimes and the groups they work for, experts said. In many cases, traffickers on the U.S. side are deliberately isolated from the big shots in Mexico to protect the cartels from investigators.
"He may be slinging cartel dope, but he may not necessarily be a cartel member," said Tony Coulson, who retired last year as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Tucson office. "Usually the cartel member sits in Mexico. He is not sitting here."
Relatively few people, most of whom are in Mexico, are true "cartel members, said Sylvia Longmire, a drug-war analyst in Illinois and author of the forthcoming book "Cartel: The coming invasion of Mexico's drug war."
"The lieutenants, the plaza (smuggling corridor) bosses, anyone entrusted with making important decisions can clearly be described as a cartel member, but then there are so many others," Longmire said.
Those others in the drug trade, she said, "can be thought of as contractors and subcontractors for the true cartels in Mexico.
At first, Longmire didn't want "Cartel" as her book title because it's not used accurately, she said. The standard definition of a cartel is an association of businesses that conspire to set prices, and that doesn't describe today's Mexican traffickers, she said.
But Longmire recognized the word is commonly used to describe drug trafficking groups, and she agreed.
Calling the entire drug trade cartels, some experts say, distorts the reality of a serious problem and makes it more difficult to find the right solution.
Just moving a product
Coulson likens the drug-trafficking groups in the United States to auto dealerships. A car dealer may sell Fords, but he may also sell Kias, and the salesmen aren't beholden to the CEOs of those manufacturers. They're just trying to move the product.
He scoffed at occasional efforts by the DEA to collect arrests of mid- and low-level drug traffickers, then announce them all as a major takedown of a "drug cartel" operating in the United States.
"That was all packaging that was put together by DEA," he said.
He also questioned reports in recent years by the National Drug Intelligence Center saying 200 to 300 U.S. cities have a Mexican drug-cartel presence. Another way to describe those people would be as cartel customers, he said.
Still, some in law enforcement say there's no real break in the chain from the cartel heads in Mexico and the traffickers down the line in the United States.
"If the drug traffickers are moving the marijuana for the cartels, they are considered part of the cartel's operation and therefore a member of the cartel," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said via email.
Guerrero's ties argued
As for inmate Guerrero, Babeu said a subsequent investigation confirmed his link to the Zetas cartel, but he did not offer details.
"The Zetas cartel does not have a phone number we can call or a website which lists their members," Babeu said.
Guerrero had been released from a Florence prison into Pinal County custody because of an outstanding Yuma case.
Other experts on Arizona-Mexico drug trafficking said the idea a young man like Guerrero would be living in Yuma and working for the Zetas is doubtful. The Zetas' main territory stretches from the Gulf coast of northeastern Mexico into central and southern Mexico.
"I have a hard time believing this guy was a Zeta. Real hard time," Coulson said via email.
A current DEA official said cartel geography doesn't support the story.
"The Tucson area, Yuma, San Luis, Douglas, all that area is mostly run by gatekeepers under the power and control of the Sinaloa cartel," said Ramona Sanchez, DEA spokeswoman in Phoenix. "There has been no suggestion that they (the Zetas) are here in Arizona or just south of us."
References to drug cartels and members operating in the United States are unlikely to go away, if only because they make such convenient shorthand.
"Try writing 'transnational criminal organizations' five times in an article. It's easier to say 'car- tel,' " said Shannon O'Neil, an expert on Mexico and Brazil at the Council on Foreign Relations. " 'Cartel' has an image. It's evil-sounding, easy to say, but it's not that accurate."
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or at email@example.com