San Antonio Express-News
WASHINGTON — Graphic surveillance videos of Mexican drug cartels were shown to House lawmakers Thursday, while their counterparts in the Senate were given an account of an all-out assault on the Southwest border — attacks that range from gangs using boats and tunnels to a catapult used to hurl duffel bags of marijuana into the U.S.
The vivid testimony and images were presented at separate congressional hearings convened to review border security and aid to Mexico that would help combat cartels striking out against the military and law enforcement.
“There are few threats as deadly and menacing than that posed by drug gangs, particularly Mexican drug gangs, operating near our border,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on intergovernmental affairs.
Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security subcommittee on investigations were privately shown videotapes of Los Zetas and Gulf cartel members carrying out attacks in Camargo, Tamaulipas and Juárez.
In one tape, cartel members use grenade launchers and assault rifles with military precision to take over a roadside checkpoint in Camargo, across the border from Rio Grande City. The heavily armed men take prisoner three people who were later killed and beheaded, a congressional source said, to send a message the cartel wanted a cut of the fees collected at the checkpoint.
The San Antonio Express-News was given access to some of the tapes by congressional sources who sought anonymity.
In another tape, Los Zetas members in marked cars travel through security checkpoints without stopping as local officials look away to avoid a confrontation.
A deadly car bombing in Juárez, across from El Paso, also was caught on tape — a scene eerily reminiscent of cities currently under siege in the Middle East.
All of the attacks occurred last year.
Meanwhile in the Senate, lawmakers were shown pictures of an elaborate catapult used to hurl bags of marijuana over the border fence into Arizona. Cartels also use speed boats on Rio Grande reservoirs to ferry loads and outrun U.S. law enforcement, said Donna Bucella, U.S. Customs and Border Protection assistant commissioner.
“The limited crossing distance in many areas means that these high-speed vessels can cross in a matter of seconds,” Bucella said.
Both chambers are crafting spending bills for border security next year. They also are considering expanding the three-year, $1.4 billion Merída Initiative designed to help the Mexican military battle the cartels. It's due to expire this year.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat whose district lies across the Rio Grande from Mexican cities that have become battlegrounds, said increased activity has underscored the need for more aid. The cartels, he said, are “well-trained, well-armed.”
“They are pretty violent,” Cuellar said.
Drug-related violence in Mexico has risen significantly since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched his crackdown on the cartels.
More than 30,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, with 3,000 slain in Juárez last year alone, making it the most deadly Mexican city in the drug war, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The violence has prompted concern among U.S. policymakers that it may spill onto American soil.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin and chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on investigations, filed a bill to designate cartels as terrorist organizations, subjecting them to stiffer criminal penalties. There is no companion legislation in the Senate, but McCaul, who agreed to let lawmakers view the surveillance footage, said the measure is more than symbolic.
“It is time for the United States to take decisive steps to end a rampant war that is just south of our border,” he said. “The solution goes well beyond securing our borders.”
David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told the House panel the U.S. and Mexico must do a better job of cooperating.
“Mexico," he said, “is in the midst of a worsening security crisis.”
The House Committee on Homeland Security-text of witness testimony.