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Associated Press/Photo by Guillermo Arias

Border wars

Latin America | With thousands already dead in Mexico, drug cartel violence is spreading north

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

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.

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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."

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