SAN DIEGO-Tijuana, Mexico, March 2009: Joggers discovered the headless bodies of three men near a bullfight ring. The corpses were also missing their hands, and one its feet. Nearby, authorities found the men's heads, along with a message from drug traffickers calling them "snitches." The area where all the body parts were found is a $10 cab ride from San Diego, Calif.
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 2009: Chief of Police Roberto Orduña Cruz stepped down after drug cartel bosses made good on a threat to kill one of his officers every 48 hours until he resigned. Cartel assassins killed six officers before Orduña relented. That brought to about 200 the number of people killed in the month of February in Juarez, just two miles south of El Paso, Texas.
Pharr, Texas, January 2009: A man lobbed a live grenade through the door of a strip club called the Booty Lounge. The grenade did not explode because the assailant failed to pull the second safety pin, and no one was injured. Using the grenade's printed lot number, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) investigators linked it to a major weapons cache seized from a drug cartel in Mexico.
Over the past year, more than 6,000 people have perished in the bloody narco-war that has swept through Mexico like a plague. Four cartels-Gulf, Tijuana, Juarez, and Sinaloa-are locked in a hot conflict over control of the lucrative narcotics- and human-smuggling routes that connect Mexico with El Norte, the United States. In the battle for territory, cartel soldiers have rained down mayhem, from drive-by shootings and gruesome "message" killings like those in Tijuana, to slick assassinations and military-scale firefights.
Much of the murder is occurring within sight of the U.S. border. About half the 2008 killings occurred in and around Juarez, many literally steps from El Paso. Now, analysts and government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security say the carnage and related crime is spreading north.
Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical intelligence at STRATFOR, a global intelligence firm, points to the Pharr grenade attack as the most recent "direct link." The lot number on the grenade "matched that of grenades used in successful cartel attacks on a Monterrey, Mexico, television station in January, and the U.S. consulate in Monterrey in October," Stewart said.
But the Pharr link is neither the only one, nor the worst. On Nov. 3, 2008, 10 alleged members of the El Paso--based prison gang Barrio Azteca (BA) were arrested in Juarez in connection with a dozen murders. According to a STRATFOR report, the suspects were armed with four AK-47s, pistols, and radio communication equipment-all hallmarks of an assassination team.
That same month, an El Paso district court began hearings in the racketeering case of six other BA members on trial for drug trafficking and distribution, extortion, money laundering, and murder. Several witnesses on both sides of the case testified that BA functions as both a drug distributor and enforcement arm for the Juarez cartel, headed by Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes.
FBI informant Josue Aguirre, a former BA member, told the court that BA collects "taxes"-a kind of combination "franchise" fee and protection money-from 47 different street-level narcotics operations in El Paso alone. Those who don't pay die, as did an El Paso dealer whose murder is at issue in the trial.
Barrio Azteca operates in West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. But because its members are American citizens, they are also able to move freely north and south across the Mexican border, making BA just one example of what law enforcement officials refer to as "transnational gangs."
Other such groups include the Mexican Mafia, the Pistoleros, Tango Blast, the Latin Kings, and the famously ruthless Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Such gangs account for as much as 60 percent of all crime committed in some southwestern communities, according to a 2009 National Gang Intelligence Center report. Often, crimes that may not appear cartel-related, such as car theft, actually are, as gang members boost vehicles for use in human- and drug-smuggling operations.
In this way, cartel crime touches ordinary citizens in both the United States and Mexico. Local newspapers are reporting an unprecedented influx of immigrants fleeing the chaos in Juarez to seek asylum in the United States. The exodus began in May 2008, and as many as 3,000 families have moved from Juarez to El Paso within the past year. Some bring more than relatives with them; they also bring bodyguards.
El Paso resident Sterling Bassett said he called the cops after months of watching a man sitting in a parked truck across the street from his upscale home. "I called the police after our property manager told me about the bodyguards," Bassett told the El Paso Times. "If he was guarding someone who felt they needed protection, I was concerned someone might come here and shoot up the place."
Someone did shoot up a neighborhood in Phoenix last year. On the night of June 22, a heavily armed tactical unit surrounded a house in a residential area of the city. Each member of the eight-man team wore black battle-dress uniform pants, Kevlar helmets, and body armor, and carried AR-15 assault rifles, along with pistols in thigh holsters. Raid shirts identified the men as Phoenix Police Department (PPD).
When the assault began, one element of the team fired into the residence windows while another breached the door and quickly killed a man inside. But no arrests were made. That's because the assault team was not PPD, but a group of paramilitary enforcers from a Mexican cartel carrying out a hit on Andrew Williams, a Jamaican drug dealer. The assassins fled the scene in a sedan and an SUV as the real Phoenix PPD tactical team, drawn to the scene by the sound of heavy gunfire, gave chase. PPD officers apprehended three men in the SUV. Those in the Honda got away, but the car was recovered in a church parking lot.
Phoenix police were not surprised to find sophisticated cartel enforcers operating in American territory. Paramilitary groups like Los Zetas, La Gente Nueva, and the Kaibiles train in military weapons and tactics on remote Mexican ranches and have carried out stateside hits since at least 2003. For example, Los Zetas, first formed by ex-members of the Mexican army who defected to work for the Gulf Cartel, are suspected of three drug-related killings in Dallas in 2005. That December, a gunman stepped from a red sports car and opened fire on three other men with a semi-automatic weapon. One victim, Christian Alejandro Meza, 26, a Wichita, Kan., parolee wanted on a weapons charge, died at the scene. Law enforcement officials said the hit was a message to Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman, a leader in the rival Juarez Cartel.
The Andrew Williams hit wasn't Phoenix's only cartel-related problem. Once known mainly as a desert paradise for retirees, the city has become the kidnapping capital of the United States, second only to Mexico City in the number of annual kidnapping incidents in the world. With nearly 370 cases in 2008 alone, the majority of victims are either illegal immigrants or are connected to the narcotics trade. In a cartel-related snatch, kidnappers usually trade the life of the victim for drug money owed. To battle the trend, Phoenix police have pulled more than a dozen officers from other divisions to form the Home Invasion Task Force.
Mexico-related drug trafficking and its associated violence are not confined to big cities like El Paso, Dallas, and Phoenix. Last month, officials in San Angelo, Texas, arrested the final six of 15 defendants indicted in December on charges of conspiracy to distribute large quantities of methamphetamine. Most were Mexican Mafia members or associates, and the arrests capped a two-year Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation. But Texas officials agree such stings address only part of the problem.
"What I think is lost on a lot of people is that this is big business," said Republican Texas state Sen. Tommy Williams. "The cartels are using American street gangs as their U.S. affiliates and the cartels have nearly limitless resources. Just arresting people is never going to shut the cartels down."
To combat the problem at the state level, Williams and bipartisan co-sponsors last month introduced SB 1065, the Texas Racketeering and Conspiracy Act. Modeled on a similar Arizona statute, the measure would provide district attorneys and the state attorney general with a new civil enforcement option, enabling them to go after money and property held by criminal organizations based on a "preponderance of evidence" rather than the proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" necessary in a criminal case.
South of the border, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has also taken extraordinary measures to crack down on the cartels. Last month, he dispatched 5,000 military troops to quell the violence in Juarez with promising results: Only three murders occurred in the first week of March, compared with 28 in the first seven days of February.
Still, Calderón cannot place every city under martial law. And Mexican law enforcement is largely impotent against the cartels for three reasons. First, the police are notoriously corrupt. Second, honest officers often face a choice first made famous by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar: Plata o plomo. Translation: Silver or lead. Accept a bribe or expect a bullet.
Finally, when stacked against the cartels, Mexican law enforcement is seriously outgunned. In recent street battles up and down Mexico, the police fought with rifles and pistols while cartel soldiers fought with light anti-tank weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Given the Pharr, Texas, grenade attack, some analysts have speculated that cartel operatives might bring their heavy firepower north.
But STRATFOR's Scott Stewart notes that even paramilitary groups like the Zetas find it difficult to attain the standard of training maintained by U.S. law enforcement groups. He notes a recent drug bust in Austin that culminated in a police shootout: "When the cops rolled up, a gang member opened up with an AK-47 and the cop dropped him with a handgun."
And while the northern spread of cartel violence remains a serious threat, Stewart said, stateside traffickers are not likely to be as audacious in dealing with American law enforcement as they are with their Mexican counterparts. "These guys really don't want to ratchet up attention on themselves any more than they have to here because if the U.S. drops the hammer on them it's going to be really bad for business," Stewart said. "It would also be bad for their health."