The Dallas Morning News
Most are teens sporting crew cuts, gold chains and earrings, with shorts worn well below the waist and cellphones pressed to their ears. These "spotters" seem to be everywhere, including elementary schools, keeping tabs on everything and everyone for the area's most dominant drug cartel.
"Get the (expletive) away from my child!" Thelma Pena, a young mother, yelled at a Zetas spotter as she took her son to school.
"Am I afraid of being killed?" she later said of her outburst. "We're already dying, little by little, day by day."
The omnipresent cartel spotters are one aspect of what experts describe as the emergence of virtual parallel governments in places like Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez -- criminal groups that levy taxes, gather intelligence, muzzle the media, run businesses and impose a version of order that serves their criminal goals.
"President (Felipe) Calderon's war on drug cartels has been such an abysmal failure that entire regions of Mexico are effectively controlled by non-state actors, i.e., multipurpose criminal organizations," said Howard Campbell, an anthropologist and expert on drug cartels at the University of Texas at El Paso.
"These criminal groups have morphed from being strictly drug cartels into a kind of alternative society and economy," Campbell said. "They are the dominant forces of coercion, tax the population, steal from or control utilities such as gasoline, sell their own products and are the ultimate decision-makers in the territories they control."
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the Zetas organization is continuing to grow and estimated that it has as many as "13,000 to 15,000 hard-core members" nationwide, a reflection of its ability to exert control in regions of Mexico.
Calderon and his top aides insist that the government is making gains, that new data show a decline in killings in the second half of 2010, proving that the cartels are losing and in desperation are resorting to kidnapping, extortion and piracy.
Alejandro Poire, Calderon's spokesman for security issues, said that two years ago the government identified the top 37 cartel leaders. "The fact is, 20 of these 37 have been brought down, so these criminal organizations have been weakened, have been significantly weakened," Poire told The Dallas Morning News.
Poire later insisted that even northern Tamaulipas state -- where 183 bodies have been recovered from clandestine graves in the past month, including many victims believed to have been abducted at gunpoint from public buses traveling on major highways , "is under the control of the Mexican state."
Still, across Mexico, despite the presence of thousands of troops and federal and state police, the government appears unable to restore order.
In Ciudad Juarez, the Juarez cartel, which is defending its territory against the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is quietly installing its own rule.
In interviews with at least a dozen vendors, businessmen, cab drivers and shoe shiners, all talked of paying monthly extortion fees to the cartel. Fees range from 100 pesos, about $9, for street vendors, to 500 pesos ($45) for cab drivers and 800 pesos ($70) for junkyard owners. The Juarez cartel and their enforcers, the La Linea gang, have even set up bank accounts so businessmen can make direct deposits. Many of those interviewed said they were not even bothering to pay federal taxes anymore.
"What does that tell you?" asked Manuel Valdivia, a mechanic and cab driver.
"Because to me it tells me everything I need to know about who's in charge."
Eric Olson, a security expert for the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the lines of authority are truly blurred in some places.
"There is no question that the lines between the state and organized crime have been blurred in some areas of Mexico and, in some cases, obliterated altogether," he said. "In such cases, local governments continue to function 'normally' while protecting the interests of organized crime over those of the citizens."
"In local areas where the state is unable to guarantee the safety and well-being of citizens, organized crime provides de facto security and even guarantees services for the public," Olson said. "So far, this has been observed in limited areas of Mexico, but unless more is done to control organized crime and strengthen the state, the potential for expansion is very real."
With Calderon's term set to end in 2012, both Mexican and U.S. officials are facing pressure to prove that their joint strategy is working.
On Friday, the U.S. government announced that it would deliver another $500 million in aid to Mexico under the bilateral Merida Initiative to help train state police, thus broadening U.S. anti-drug assistance beyond the level of the federal government. The criminality and violence associated with drug cartels "continue to threaten the security and prosperity of both our nations," said a statement released after high-level talks in Washington led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa.
The continued insecurity, meanwhile, is widening the exodus to the United States, including Texas cities.
A Mexican dentist said he tired of paying a weekly extortion fee of 800 pesos, about $70, in Juarez, and, after suffering a beating for nonpayment that almost killed him, he made the move to El Paso.
He now runs a clandestine clinic in his El Paso home, using his car to pick up patients at a distant location and discreetly driving them into his garage, where he welcomes them to his office.
"Whether you agree, or disagree with this war, one thing is clear. This will go on for years," the dentist said. "This clandestine office is Plan B for now."
In Juarez, city officials have pledged to regain the upper hand.
During a funeral April 22 for two Juarez police officers, the newly appointed police chief, Julian Leyzaola Perez, referred to the criminals operating in Juarez as "cockroaches" and "cowards" and vowed that "Juarez will no longer kneel before" the drug gangs.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that plans are under way for "large-scale operations" in coming weeks to "hunt down" criminal groups that have taken over neighborhoods in Juarez.
In Nuevo Laredo, residents are watched daily by an estimated 1,500 halcones, or male spotters, about 1,000 panteras -- the nickname for female spotters -- and 500 supervisors, part of the Zetas' strategy to fend off their former employers and rivals, the Gulf cartel, according to the U.S intelligence official. The spotters earn between 1,500 to 3,000 pesos ($135-$275) per week, and in a weak economy, cartel recruits and their replacements come easy.
Nuevo Laredo, a city of 360,000 people, has a local police force of about 800 officers.
Compared with Juarez, Nuevo Laredo is peaceful. But a drop in violence doesn't necessarily mean that the government is winning, the intelligence official said.
"You can't measure success in Mexico solely on whether violence is up or down, but by who's in control of some of these territories like Nuevo Laredo," the official said. "With so many halcones and panteras, they're practically the eyes and ears of that city. What's more worrisome is that Nuevo Laredo is not alone. We're seeing that in other Mexican communities."
For residents, the constant presence of deadly cartels overshadows even mundane activities.
"Every day," said Thelma Pena, the young mother, "the goal is make it back home as a family without being harmed."