Influence of Mexican Drug Cartels
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News for Public Officials


A Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border



Cartels Waging Violent Turf Battle Over Control of Key Smuggling Corridor


Nuevo Laredo, Laredo’s neighboring city on the Mexico side of the border, is the most  important launching point for illegal contraband entering the United States. Nuevo Laredo is also where much of the violence and drug cartel activity has taken place in recent years. The violence is due to the fact that the major drug cartels are currently battling for control over this highly coveted corridor into the United States known as a “plaza.”

The plaza proceeds through major cities with large highway systems where both aliens and drugs can be staged prior to movement to other parts of the United States. Control of this corridor translates into control of all illegal smuggling, both of humans and drugs. Any criminal organization that wants to smuggle through this established safe passage into the United States is required to pay a tax to the cartel that controls the plaza.


The Sinaloa cartel began to contest the Gulf Cartel’s domination of this coveted corridor
following the arrest of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas in March 2003. While in prison, Arellano Felix, head of the Tijuana cartel, and Cardenas forged an alliance against the Sinaloa and its ally the Juarez cartel. As a result, the cartels are now largely aligned into two blocks, some which support the Gulf Cartel and others which support the Sinaloa Cartel. It is these two blocks that are involved in the massive and violent turf wars which are currently being carried out in Nuevo Laredo.


To protect and expand their criminal operations, Mexican drug cartels maintain highly
developed intelligence networks on both sides of the border and have hired private armies
to carry out enforcement measures. For example, the Gulf Cartel leader Cardenas employs a group of former elite military soldiers known as “Los Zetas.” The Zetas are unique among drug enforcer gangs in that they operate as “a private army under the orders of Cardenas’ Gulf Cartel, the first time a drug lord has had his own paramilitary.”


The Zetas have been instrumental in the Gulf Cartel’s domination of the drug trade in Nuevo Laredo, and have fought to maintain the cartel’s influence in that city following the arrest of Cardenas. The Zetas’ activities are not limited to defending the Gulf Cartel’s terrain in northern Mexico. The paramilitary force is also believed to control trafficking routes along the eastern half of the U.S.-Mexico border.


The Zetas are believed to be a serious threat to public safety on both sides of the Southwest border. They are well-financed and well-equipped and have demonstrated a willingness to shoot, torture, and kill law enforcement officers, or rival cartel and gang members on both sides of the border. Federal law enforcement officials deem the Zetas among the most dangerous criminal enterprises in the Americas.


Reports indicate that while the Zetas were initially comprised of members of the Mexican
military’s Special Forces, they now include Federal, State, and local law enforcement personnel as well as civilians. Moreover, according to U.S. intelligence officials, Zetas are recruiting former Guatemalan Special Forces military personnel known as Kaibiles and members of the notorious cross-border gangs known as Maras, including the violent Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13).


 The cartels’ methods of torture and killing are particularly brutal. On September 6, 2006,
masked gunmen entered a nightclub in the Michoacan, fired guns in the air and rolled five severed human heads onto the dance floor. The gunmen left a sign among the severed heads that read:

“The family doesn’t kill for money. It doesn’t kill women. It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice.”

According to Federal law enforcement officials; this hideous act was a revenge killing  between warring gangs. Decapitations are becoming quite common in many areas in Mexico where cartels and gangs battle for control over lucrative smuggling corridors.Heads are publicly displayed for the purpose of intimidation.Another brutal means of torture and death is called “guisoe.”


This practice involves putting a person into a 55 gallon drum, usually dead, but not always, and pouring various flammable liquids over the body and lighting it on fire. A variation on this method is toplace a burning tire around the neck of an individual, burning the victim alive. The remains are dumped on roadsides as a message to others who would consider crossing the cartels. The ruthless methods employed by these cartels to torture and kill their competitors are no different than the techniques used by Al Qa’ida and other terrorist organizations. This level of brutality is particularly troubling as the cartels are executing these vicious murders a mere stones-throw from U.S. soil.


Sometimes the violence and intimidation is captured on video. In 2005, a video was  anonymously delivered to the Dallas Morning News showing four men, handcuffed and
badly beaten in front of a backdrop of black plastic, describing to off-camera interrogators their work as cartel assassins. The men were members of the Zetas. The video ends when one of the Zetas is shot in the head at point blank range by an off-camera captor. Law enforcement authorities have never found the body of the murdered Zeta, nor the other three men, dead or alive.


U.S. law enforcement officials are struck with the resiliency and determination of these criminals. In the words of one law enforcement official: “They [the Zetas] have the Texas-Mexico border wired.” For example, in 2005, just six hours after being sworn in as Nuevo Laredo’s Police Chief, Alejandro Dominguez was killed. He had announced a crackdown on the cartels. He was shot more than 50 times.


During mid-September 2006, a group of 25 individuals in Nuevo Laredo were gathered in a local hotel with visas to travel to the U.S. for work. The Zetas mistakenly thought the workers were from a rival cartel and kidnapped and tortured them. The workers were released when the cartels realized their mistake. U.S. Federal law enforcement authorities said Mexican police would not respond to the emergency calls for help that were made during the incident.

The violence is beginning to spread to neighboring Mexican States also sharing a border with Texas. Nuevo Leon, once thought to be one of the safest States and home to some of the richest families in Mexico, has seen the murders of three top law enforcement officials who had spoken out against the drug cartels. Also, during September 2006, police chiefs were killed as well as the top crime investigator. In the past two years, six journalists covering drug trafficking along the border have also been killed.


The Zetas have now become completely entrenched in Nuevo Laredo and have grown to more than five hundred with hundreds more in a support network throughout Mexico. In an example of the Zeta’s capabilities, a shootout on September 22, 2006 in Nuevo Laredo between the Zetas and an assassination target lasted approximately 40 minutes. The shootout included bazookas and grenades and reportedly killed approximately five Zetas and injured approximately five others.


In response to such aggressive efforts on the part of the Zetas to defend and control parts of Mexico and its border with the U.S., the Sinaloa cartel established its own heavily-armed enforcer gang, “Los Negros.” The group operates in a similar fashion to the Zetas. Los Negros, attempting to wrest control from the Zetas over the local police in Nuevo Laredo are believed to be responsible for the recent rise in violence there. According to Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores, the warring cartels and the increase in violence wrought by these paramilitary enforcers have provoked a major cross-border human exodus from Nuevo Laredo into Laredo, Texas.



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