Reporter: Dean Staley
Since 2006, Mexican drug cartels have killed 40,000 of their fellow countrymen and transformed their country into a bloody battleground.
And while the cartels have not declared open war on each other on the U.S. side of the border, they do have influence here, which often comes in the form of murders and bribing law enforcement.
“They’re trying to do everything they can to protect the movement of their drugs,” said Darren White, public safety director for the City of Albuquerque. “And if that means trying to find someone who’s willing to go dirty, then absolutely, that’s their business model. That’s how they’re successful.”
San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said he’s “absolutely” concerned that cartels are targeting his deputies.
“They’re already here,” he said. “There’s three cartels working in San Juan County right now.”
In 2003, Christesen worked for the Region II Drug Task Force when officials caught a former deputy named Mike Marshall dealing drugs.
Then, in 2007, the FBI discovered traitors inside the drug task force. New Mexico State Police Officer Keith Salazar and former San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy Levi Countryman were feeding information to a drug cartel.
“To keep the cartels safe, they told them what the task force was doing on a daily basis,” Christesen said. “Every time an informant was developed, they passed that information on. Every time a search warrant was obtained, they passed that information on.”
In essence, the cartels knew everything law enforcement was doing, he said.
All three of those men are now serving time in prison. But Christesen knows there are more crooked cops in bed with the cartels.
“If somebody sat down and researched all the federal agents and all the local … sheriffs and police departments in the western states, and looked at the amount of corruption that’s going on because of the cartels and as a result of the cartels, they’d be shocked,” the sheriff said.
White said the threat of corruption from Mexican drug cartels has existed for years among the 1,100 officers he oversees.
“It’s always something that we have to think about,” he said. “Unfortunately we’ll have a few that, for whatever reason, they don’t resist the temptation of easy money, and they cross over.”
Senior drug agents told News 13 the massive network guarding U.S. borders – including customs, border patrol, FBI, DEA, National Guard, as well as state and local police, catches just five percent of the drugs coming into the U.S.
Then there’s the violence.
In January 2008, sheriff’s deputies found a cartel member on Albuquerque’s West Mesa, shot 28 times and set on fire.
“When that man made the decision to take on the cartel, he signed his death warrant,” White said.
Christesen said cartel-related murders often don’t make headlines.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of those murders that happen in the U.S. directly linked to the cartel,” he said.
Silvia Longmire, a former U.S. Air Force investigator who now tracks cartels as an independent analyst, also agreed that cartel-related corruption and violence already exist within U.S. borders.
“There have been incidents well beyond the border – in Alabama -- of dead bodies showing up,” she said. “There was a beheading in Chandler, Arizona not that long ago. So, we are seeing examples of the drug war happening here in the United States. And again, not in just the four southwest border states.”
However, it’s difficult to determine just exactly how much cartel violence occurs in the United States. That’s because cartels often target Mexican nationals, who are afraid to go to police. Also, a high-ranking drug agent told News 13 that cartels often disguise killings so they are never linked to cartel business.
According to the drug agents and experts interviewed for this story, the only thing holding back the Mexican-style tide of violence in the U.S. is a shared understanding that an all-out turf war would be bad for business.
“If we lose this battle, we’ll be in the same boat that Mexico’s in right now,” Christesen said. “Total corruption and chaos.”