Two years ago, the now-defunct National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) released a shocking report that stated that Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations – including the notorious Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas – were active in more than 1,000 U.S. cities.

The report sparked headlines across the nation and outrage from activists and lawmakers, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, who spoke of his concern during a 2012 Armed Services Committee hearing.

The numbers tallied by the NDIC, however, may be exaggerated, according to law enforcement officials and police experts interviewed by The Washington Post, as the report was based primarily on self-reporting by local police agencies and not documented criminal cases involving Mexican cartels.

“They say there are Mexicans operating here and they must be part of a Mexican drug organization,” Peter Reuter, who co-directed the research for the nonprofit think tank Rand and now works as a professor at the University of Maryland, told the Post. “These numbers are mythical, and they keep getting reinforced by the echo chamber.”

The NDIC shut its doors last year and was folded into the Drug Enforcement Administration, which turned down a request by the Washington Post to release the name of the cities where cartels operate – the matter was “law enforcement sensitive,” the DEA said.

Using computer mapping techniques and government documents the Washington Post found over a third of the cities listed in the NDIC report, including about 20 in Montana, 25 in Oregon, 25 in Idaho and 30 in Arkansas. While the cartels no doubt operate in many U.S. cities and about 90 percent of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine in the country can be sourced back to Mexican drug trafficking organizations, policy experts still argue over the reach of Mexico’s narcos in the U.S.

Some policy experts, however, argue that the ubiquitous dissemination of the NDIC report makes it hard to discredit the numbers.

“Washington loves mythical numbers,” said John Carnevale, a former drug policy and budget official who served three presidents and four “drug czars” at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Once the number is out there and it comes from a source perceived to be credible, it becomes hard to disprove, almost impossible, even when it’s wrong.”

Even as the DEA keeps mum on the statistics and policy makers questions the results, former NDIC employees back the results of their findings.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the DEA doesn’t support those numbers,” said Michael F. Walther, who ran the agency between 2005 and 2012. “They like to paint a more positive portrait of the world. I stand by the work that our analysts did at NDIC,” he added.

At the heart of the matter seems to be the definition of what constitutes a “drug cartel.”

The NDIC report classified the carrels as “transnational criminal organizations” and included in the definition any group from major, multi-million dollar organizations like the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels to traffickers who purchased drugs from cartel associates.

This definition, analysts argue, could include anyone from Mexico selling small amounts of marijuana in any U.S. city.

“These definitions are interchangeable and indistinguishable,” Peter Andreas, a drug policy analyst at Brown University told the Post “This is a particularly egregious example of a pattern that unfortunately has not gotten a lot of scrutiny,” added Andreas, who is also the author of “Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide.”

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