Rival prison gang members, including warring white supremacist and Hispanic groups, are brokering unusual criminal alliances outside prison to assist Mexican drug cartel operations in the U.S. and Mexico, federal law enforcement officials say.
The groups, including the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia, remain bitter enemies in prison, divided along racial and ethnic lines. Yet outside, the desire for profits is overcoming rivalries.
Kevin O'Keefe, chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives criminal intelligence division, says investigators have linked the rival gangs to stolen vehicles, some loaded with currency and weapons, moving toward Mexico from Texas, Colorado, California and even Georgia.
"They realize that the financial gain is so lucrative that they have been willing to work together," O'Keefe says. "It's all about business."
Herb Brown, section chief of the FBI's gang division, says the groups use tactics of intimidation and violence. "What has concerned us — and, frankly, surprised us — is the increasing nexus between these gangs and the cartels," he says.
Most are involved with drugs, but officials say members also are moving into human smuggling.
Sigifredo Gonzalez, chairman of the Southwestern Border Sheriff's Coalition, says rival gangs have joined forces for shares of lucrative smuggling fees. Some illegal immigrants have paid up to $20,000 per person to cross the U.S. border. "These groups are working together for a common cause, and the common denominator is money," he says.
A South Texas federal judge last month sentenced the last of five Aryan Circle members convicted of weapons charges and car theft for trying to smuggle vehicles to Mexican drug organizations. They were in a group headed by the Hispanic gang Raza Unida, court documents and investigators say.
"It was pretty odd to see people like that in Brownsville," police Lt. James Paschall says of the largely Hispanic border town. "They had the shaved heads, the tattoos, the whole bit. They stuck out like a sore thumb."
GANGS WITH CARTEL TIES
Among major prison gangs with ties to Mexican drug cartels:
- Aryan Brotherhood: Most members are white males; primarily active in Southwest and Pacific regions
- Barrio Azteca: One of the most violent prison gangs in the U.S. Most members are Mexican nationals or Mexican-American males; most active in the Southwest.
- Black Guerrilla Family: African-American males operating primarily in California and Maryland.
- Mexican Mafia: Mostly Mexican-American males who previously belonged to Southern California street gangs. Some have direct links to Mexican drug organizations.