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Border wars

"Border wars" Continued...

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

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.

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