The numbers could rise in coming years. The Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center estimates Mexican cartels control distribution of most of the methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana coming into the country, and they're increasingly producing the drugs themselves.
In 2009 and 2010, the center reported, cartels operated in 1,286 U.S. cities, more than five times the number reported in 2008. The center named only 50 cities in 2006.
Target communities often have an existing Hispanic population and a nearby interstate for ferrying drugs and money to and fro, said author Charles Bowden, whose books on the Mexican drug war include "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields."
"I'm not saying Mexicans come here to do crime, but Mexicans who move drugs choose to do it through areas where there are already Mexicans," he said.
Evidence of the cartels' presence in small-town America isn't hard to find. Take the 66 kilos of cocaine found in a warehouse in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, in February 2011. Or the Wyoming, Michigan, man denied bail on drug charges last year because he had alleged cartel connections. Or consider that a surge of Mexican black tar heroin into Ohio pushed the price per kilogram down from $50,000 in 2008 to $33,000 in 2009.
Latino communities are "cover for Mexican drug cartels" in small-town America. If you're wondering how the GOP is going to easily justify their latest raft of anti-Latino proposals, this is it.
"Maybe that guy is working for them" becomes "Well not in my town, dammit" turns into "Somebody ought to do something about all them" becomes "Well if lawmakers won't do anything about it..." and the worst of America's history rears its ugly head once again. The border states are deep into this paranoia, but it's new to the rural Midwest and South outside of Texas and Florida.
It will get worse before it gets better.