Jorge Morales Almada
Translated by Sarah Damian
One of the most violent criminal organizations in Mexico has established itself in Los Angeles.
From here, it controls drug distribution to other parts of the country and, according to an informant, has started recruiting former California prisoners to become assassins.
This is the fearsome organization of Los Zetas – a group of Mexican army deserters that in the late 90s became the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel. Since then, they have consolidated as a group of sicarios, fighting wars against some Mexican cartels and partnering with others.
Los Zetas began its incursion into the United States through Texas, but now they have extended their criminal network in California.
"They are operating at the middle level and at the street level," he told La Opinión in an interview, flanked by his team of agents.
"The (anti-drug) agencies working in Los Angeles are combating seven major cartels from Mexico. We’ve detected two of them, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, working in distribution for the area covering San Fernando Valley, Westside, Central and South Central (Los Angeles)," said the police chief.
The other cartels operating in the area are the Arellano Félix, Beltrán Leyva, Sinaloa, La Familia and Carrillo Fuentes cartels.
Since 2006, the Sinaloa cartel, whose main drug lords in Mexico are Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, has taken over the California territory, displacing the Arellano Félix cartel, to distribute drugs across the United States.
One of the top henchmen working for "El Chapo" and "El Mayo" was identified by the DEA and FBI as Víctor Emilio Cázares Salazar (or Gastélum), as known as "El Licenciado."
But recently Los Zetas have established their operations in the Los Angeles area, a strategic location for drug trafficking.
The informant sets the date, time and place for the interview. He wants to be in a public place where there are lots of people. He starts giving driving directions over the phone. He changes the location for the meeting three times, as a precaution.
The meeting finally takes place on a public bench at the corner of 83rd Street and Vermont Avenue in South Central Los Angeles.
The man who signals from a distance looks about 50 years old, with long hair in a ponytail, and a green military-style jacket.
He talks fast, says that he was in the army and for a few years has been going back and forth to his native state of Michoacán.
He does not hide his sympathy for the cartel La Familia.
"The truth is that La Familia does more for the people than the f------ government," he says. "They do care about the people, so the people protect them, and they'll never be able to destroy them."
The informant, who keeps looking in every direction, says that in the last few months Los Zetas have been recruiting people after they get out of Los Angeles jails, gang members who are unemployed and would be more than happy to fire an AK-47.
"They’re bringing them to Mexico where they’ll train them. That is their army," says the informant, who asked to have a longer interview on another day because he is feeling a little anxious.
The days passed and the informant stopped answering his cell phone. He didn't respond to voicemail. Days later his phone said it was out of service. One of his relatives in Mexico says they haven't heard from him.
"That is something we can’t say," said Los Angeles FBI director Steven Martinez regarding the recruitment of gang members by Los Zetas.
What the local FBI chief does stress is that Los Angeles is a strategic point for drug cartel operations, both for consumption and distribution throughout the country.
"There are people here who are connected with these major groups, for distribution networks, but the cartels are in Mexico, the drug lords are there," he says.
Martínez explains that the drug lords live where the drugs are produced, and that the marijuana that is produced in California is also sponsored by the cartels.
"There are operations for growing marijuana," he acknowledges, "but it's a production sponsored by the cartels in Mexico, Central and South America, something that our intelligence is very interested in and we are working to fight these activities."