By: Martha L. Hernandez
McALLEN – When Jose Luis Cantú fled to Mexico in 2006 to avoid facing charges in the murder of his high school sweetheart, law enforcement officials in Reynosa let their U.S. counterparts know about his arrest.
However, for reasons unknown to the U.S. authorities, Cantú was freed from a Reynosa jail after posting bond. Since the U.S. authorities had no contacts at the jail, they did not immediately learn Cantú was on the loose.
When he finally was recaptured in Ciudad Mante, Tamps., where he had been hiding, the Mexican authorities again notified authorities in the United States that he was in custody and this time wound up being taken back north of the border to stand trial.
Such has been the rocky nature of the relationship between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials.
U.S. law enforcement sources say they have tried repeatedly to establish strong contacts and develop good relationships with their counterparts in Mexico, but with varying levels of success.
A former U.S. federal agent, who successfully worked with Mexican authorities to bring fugitives and kidnapping victims back to the United States, said he was able to establish strong contacts by inviting his Mexican counterparts to participate in American training programs and by hanging out with them in Mexico.
However, the relationships didn’t usually last long. Typically, just when strong relationships were finally built and people felt at ease with one another, the Mexican counterpart was moved to another post, left law enforcement, embraced corruption or was killed.
Although good cross-border relationships have never been easy to establish, U.S. sources say it has become even more difficult in recent years as the panorama of Mexican authorities has changed and the warring drug cartels have become more powerful and brazen.
In the past, the cartels would work to corrupt the ministerial police. Now, they are resorting more frequently to murder, and just staying alive has become more of a worry for Mexican law enforcement officers and officials who cooperate with authorities in the United States.
“Some state police would become cartel members,” the former U.S. agent said. “I cannot say they all take money from them, they know who runs the operations for the cartels.”
In the past, the cartels paid Mexican law enforcement officers to leave them alone. In the past, payoffs were made as a matter of respect, but that’s changed, the former agent said.
“The cartels have become such a strong force, that they don’t pay them (anymore) unless they want to pay them,” the source said.
Now, cartel members feel they are more powerful than the police and would just as soon kill law enforcement officers as buy them off if they interfere with cartel operations, the source said.
“It used to be that they were afraid of law enforcement, but they have become such big organizations and feared, they don’t pay the cops” anymore, the former U.S. agent said.
“I’m sure there is still corruption with the smaller criminals who are going to pay their mordidas to avoid getting arrested, but the cartels … now are more powerful than the police,” the source said.
“They’ve gotten weak, I don’t like to use that word, but they are overrun by the cartels, and they are afraid if they do the wrong thing, they are going to be picked up and killed,” the source said.
State police commander Rolando Armando Flores Villegas led the Mexican investigation into the “pirate” attack on Falcon Lake in which McAllen tourist David Hartley reportedly was killed. Flores was allegedly murdered by cartel members because he spoke out and cooperated with U.S. authorities, the former U.S. agent said, noting that it is such incidents that have made the establishment of reliable cross-border relationships among law enforcers “harder and riskier.”
He said that when he worked with his Mexican counterparts “as long as it was not pertaining to cartels, they would help me.”
“When (for instance) I would ask them to help me in kidnapping cases, if I knew it was drug-related, I would tell them, ‘You know what, tell the cartel it’s not in their best interest to be kidnapping so-and-so because the U.S. is looking into this and we are certainly not going to sit down and take it, we are going to investigate this thing and it is not in their best interest to hurt the guy,’” the former U.S. agent said.
In such instances, Mexican local law enforcement officers would essentially work as messengers for the U.S. authorities.
“I did not know who they went through, but they would contact somebody, who could contact somebody, who would get the word to them (cartel members) and the victim would be brought back,” the source said, adding that in about 85 percent of the kidnapping cases he handled in a year, he was able to bring the victim back to the United States alive.
In the past, the frequent rotation of Mexican state police commanders made cross-border relationships difficult, but rotations have halted in large part because of the ongoing drug war.
The warring cartels presume that the state commander stationed in each Tamaulipas city when the fighting began sided with either the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas, depending on which side controlled that territory when the fighting began — even if that was not true, the former U.S. agent said.
“Now it’s bad,” the agent said. A commander in an area controlled by the Zetas cannot be moved to an area controlled by the Gulf Cartel, because that would endanger his life, the former U.S. agent said.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department prefers to work through U.S. federal authorities when trying to reach Mexican authorities while working on a case.
“First, we want to make absolutely sure that the Mexican authorities understand that our contact is purely professional,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño said.
“Number two, we want to make absolutely sure that the contact we are having with the Mexican authorities are with the right, the appropriate — and here is a key word, ‘appropriate’— and trusted Mexican authorities,” Treviño said.
“And, number three, we want to make absolutely sure, we are contacting the right department. The American criminal justice system is not like the Mexican criminal justice system, so we do not know the different levels, we do not know the different jurisdictions and we are not familiar with the different areas of responsibility. Our federal agencies already know who to contact, they know who to trust and they know their levels or jurisdiction,” the sheriff said.
“So it’s a lot easier for me to call my agent that I communicate with in the FBI, ICE or DEA (and I say) ‘I need this, this and this; this is why I need it; will you convey this with Mexican authorities so they can see if they can help us?’” Treviño said.
“They (U.S. federal authorities) know what is the legal and the proper way of exchanging this information. That way we are always safe and doing it in the correct way,” the sheriff said.