By Fred Burton
The U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security subcommittee recently issued a report on the increasing security risks along the U.S.-Mexican border. The report, which focuses on the Mexican drug cartels and the threat they pose to citizens and law enforcement on the U.S. side of the border, cites the cartels' use of military weapons and mercenaries with advanced military training, as well as their affinity for brutality and gratuitous violence.
Violence stemming from the drug cartels has existed for decades in many parts of Mexico. What is new is the fact that cartel violence is now spilling over onto the U.S. side of the border. However, although the House report -- by the Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations -- focuses on the current risks in the border area, the threat posed by the cartels already is making its way farther north. If left unchecked, the fighting can eventually be expected to erupt more widely in nonborder areas, affecting unprepared law enforcement agencies and even civilians.
Much of the violence is a result of the ongoing struggle between the three main drug cartels -- Gulf, Tijuana and Sinaloa -- for control of lucrative narcotics- and human-smuggling routes stretching from Mexico into the United States. Although the Mexican government has made efforts to stem the bloodshed, two main factors have impeded any major progress in this area. First is internal police corruption. Beyond the police commanders and officers who gladly accept money in exchange for providing the cartels with protection are those who face the choice between "plata o plomo," -- "silver or lead" -- meaning take a bribe or take a bullet. Second is the fact that federal and local security services are way outgunned -- both in terms of the types of weapons used and the training level of the people using them.
President-elect Felipe Calderon has vowed to end corruption in Mexico, but his administration will face the same issues as did its predecessors, and there is no indication it will have any more success at stemming the escalating violence. Indeed, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City issued a statement Sept. 15 warning U.S. citizens of the rising level of "brutal violence in areas of Mexico," specifically the persistent violence along the U.S. border in Nuevo Laredo.
In one recent and particularly gruesome incident that illustrates the current level of violence in Mexico, a group of masked gunmen entered the Light and Shadow nightclub in Uruapan, Michoacan state, on Sept. 6, fired weapons into the air and then tossed five severed human heads onto the dance floor. Beheadings had already reached the U.S. border in June, when Mexican authorities recovered four beheaded bodies from a vacant lot in Tijuana, and then pulled the heads from the nearby Tijuana River. The victims were three local police officials and a civilian.
Mexican drug gangs, who used the beheadings tactic for the first time in April, are sending a clear message that they are willing to go to any lengths to get what they want -- and that anyone who gets in their way is doomed. This same message also has been delivered via a number of attacks using grenades and assault rifles in other parts of Mexico, including the U.S. border cities of Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana and Juarez.
Another example of the escalation in violence is the Sept. 22 firefight in an upscale neighborhood of Nuevo Laredo between enforcers for the Gulf cartel and the security forces of an assassination target (presumably from the Sinaloa cartel). The engagement, which raged on for some 40 minutes and involved anti-tank weapons, hand grenades and automatic weapons fire, reportedly resulted in the deaths of five Gulf cartel enforcers and five other people.
The Mexican government has tried various tactics throughout the years to stem the violence and corruption associated with cartels, including dispatching military troops to Nuevo Laredo and other border cities. In June 2005, a string of events in Nuevo Laredo -- including the killing of two police chiefs in the city, the second of which occurred only a few hours after he was sworn into office -- prompted the Mexican government to dispatch army troops and federal agents to the town. The army and federal agents detained all 700 officers of the Nuevo Laredo police force and temporarily assumed their duties until some semblance of order could be restored. Following interviews and drug tests, only 150 of the police officers retained their jobs; the rest were terminated or arrested. More recently, in March, the Mexican government assigned an additional 600 members of the Federal Preventative Police to Nuevo Laredo as part of another program to fight increased violence related to the drug trade. Such solutions, however, have failed to stem the corruption and violence. As evidenced by the major firefight Sept. 22, Nuevo Laredo remains a hotbed of cartel activity.
The Ongoing Cartel Wars
Because of its geographical position beneath the United States, Mexico long has been used as a staging and transshipment point for narcotics, illegal aliens and other contraband destined for U.S. markets from Mexico, South America and elsewhere. Turf battles have flared up as various criminal organizations have moved to take control of smuggling routes, or "plazas," that lead into the United States. Over time, the balance of power between the various cartels has shifted as new cartels emerge or older organizations weaken, shrink or collapse -- creating temporary power vacuums that competitors rush to fill. Vacuums sometimes are created by law enforcement successes against a particular cartel; indeed, cartels will often attempt to use law enforcement against each other, either by bribing Mexican officials to take action against a rival or by leaking intelligence about a rival's operations to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
These kinds of tensions and frictions often can lead to inter-cartel warfare. The February 2002 death of Tijuana cartel leader and chief enforcer Ramon Arellano Felix, who was killed in a shootout with police in Mazatlan, and the March 14, 2003, capture of Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen in Matamoros sparked the current period of particularly brutal warfare among the three cartels, which aim to take territory from one another. This war is being waged not only for control of Mexico's incoming drug shipments, in cities such as Acapulco and Cancun, but also for control of the outgoing network, where border towns have been focal points for violence.
The New Enforcers
The likely reason for the most dramatic changes between the drug wars of the past and the current intra-cartel violence is the makeup of the enforcing teams and the weapons they use. Though the cartels historically did their own dirty work, they now have started subcontracting out the violence to enforcers who apparently know no boundaries when it comes to who, how or where they strike.
This escalation has an obvious root cause: Some cartel leaders (notably from the Tijuana cartel) use active or retired police against their enemies, which has forced the targeted cartels to find enforcers capable of countering this strength. As a result, the Gulf cartel hired Los Zetas, a group of elite anti-drug paratroopers and intelligence operatives who deserted their federal Special Air Mobile Force Group in 1991. The Sinaloa cartel, meanwhile, formed a similar armed force called Los Pelones, literally meaning "the baldies" but typically understood to mean "new soldiers" for the shaved heads normally sported by military recruits. Because of attrition, the cartels have recently begun to reach out to bring in fresh muscle to the fight. Los Zetas has expanded to include former police and even motivated civilians. The group also has formed relationships with former members of the Guatemalan special forces known as Kaibiles and with members of the brutal Mara Salvatrucha street gang.
Though cartel enforcers have almost always had ready access to military weapons such as assault rifles, Los Zetas, Los Pelones and the Kaibiles are comprised of highly trained special forces soldiers who are able to use these weapons with deadly effectiveness. Assault rifles in the hands of untrained thugs are dangerous, but if those same rifles are placed in the hands of highly trained special forces soldiers who can operate as a fire team, they can be overwhelmingly powerful -- not only to enemies and other intended targets but also to law enforcement officers who attempt to interfere with their operations.
In addition to powerful handguns and assault rifles (which are frequently smuggled into Mexico from the United States), Los Zetas and Los Pelones are also known to possess and employ rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades and improvised explosive devices, and have used them in attacks in several parts of Mexico. Such weapons are not confined to the Mexican side of the border, though. On Feb. 3, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that government agents operating in Laredo seized a large cache of weapons that included dynamite, grenades and materials for making improvised explosive devices. These weapons were associated with the drug cartels.
The various enforcer groups have targeted Mexican government officials protecting rival cartels, the leadership of the rival cartels and members of those cartels' enforcement arms. Some extremely brutal executions of members of Los Zetas and Los Pelones by their contemporaries have occurred, including not only beheading but also a tactic called "necklacing," in which a tire is placed around a victim's neck and set ablaze. (The tactic was made famous by the African National Congress in South Africa).
The drug cartels also conduct intimidation campaigns and reprisal attacks against noncriminal groups such as police, government security forces and journalists -- anyone who is seen as a threat to their business. Such attacks are quite significant, and gruesome executions are often the norm. That said, the crime gangs are not always precise in their targeting. At times, they have mowed down police on the streets with assault rifles or attacked police stations with grenades and other heavy weapons, causing considerable collateral damage.
In addition to their network of tactical operators, Los Zetas and Los Pelones also have provided the cartels with an advanced intelligence and surveillance capability. This network operates on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border and has been used to protect drug shipments from law enforcement interdiction and the forces of competing cartels. They also are accomplished at countersurveillance operations and at avoiding the countersurveillance activities of their rivals.
Law enforcement officers along the U.S. border have reported many encounters with armed smugglers who do not hesitate to shoot. In one encounter last summer, two deputy sheriffs in Hidalgo County, Texas, were attacked as they patrolled the north bank of the Rio Grande. They reported that their assailants fired 300 to 400 rounds from automatic weapons at them before withdrawing.
To date, the violence associated with this intra-cartel warfare has been much more severe in Mexico than on the U.S. side of the border. Although this trend will continue, violence can be expected to increase on the U.S. side as targeted criminals and others search for safe hiding places. Perhaps as a sign of problems to come, the Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 23 that cartel-related corruption has been "rising dramatically" on the U.S. side of the border. With corruption spreading north, it is only a matter of time before more violence follows -- particularly because the cartels are especially adept at parlaying their power to corrupt into opportunities to commit violence.
Traditionally, when violence has spiked, cartel figures have used U.S. cities such as Laredo and San Diego as rest and recreation spots, calculating that the umbrella of U.S. law enforcement would protect them from being targeted for assassination by their enemies. This is beginning to change, however, as the bolder Mexican cartel hit men carry out assassinations on the U.S. side of the border in places such as Laredo, Rio Bravo and even Dallas, where law enforcement contacts indicate Los Zetas members are believed to have assassinated at least three people.
This change will likely cause high-value cartel targets to move even deeper into the United States to avoid attack, though their enemies' brazen and sophisticated assassins will likely follow. Judging from their history in Mexico and along the border, these assassins will have no qualms about engaging law enforcement personnel who get in their way, or about causing collateral damage. Their intelligence network will be bolstered by their alliances with street gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18, which have affiliates in many large cities throughout the United States. These allies can either provide them with intelligence or, in some cases, be contracted to conduct assassinations.
Though the House report warns of the dangers to law enforcement and civilians on the border, the spread of this cartel violence beyond the border region could catch many law enforcement officers by surprise. Patrol officers conducting a traffic stop on a group of Los Zetas members who are preparing to conduct an assassination in, say, Los Angeles, Chicago or northern Virginia could quickly find themselves heavily outgunned and under fire. Additionally, because of their low regard for human life and disdain for innocent bystanders, any assassination attempts cartel members do manage to launch might be very messy and could result in collateral deaths of innocent people and responding law enforcement officers.
U.S. law enforcement officers along the border are aware of the problem of Mexican cartel violence and have made efforts to mitigate it, though they have found they cannot completely prevent it or root it out. This same reality will apply to the violence that will soon be seen farther inside the United States. The roots of this problem lie in Mexico, and the solution will also need to be found there.
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