By DANE SCHILLER
June 13, 2011, 12:26AM
Cartels have taken cruelty up a notch, says one drug trafficker: kidnapping bus passengers for gladiatorlike fights to the death
The elderly are killed. Young women are raped. And able-bodied men are given hammers, machetes and sticks and forced to fight to the death.
In one of the most chilling revelations yet about the violence in Mexico, a drug cartel-connected trafficker claims fellow gangsters have kidnapped highway bus passengers and forced them into gladiatorlike fights to groom fresh assassins.
In an in-person interview arranged by intermediaries on the condition that neither his name nor the location of his Texas visit be published, the trafficker also admitted to helping push cocaine worth $5 million to $10 million a month into the United States.
Law enforcement sources confirm he is a cartel operative but not a fugitive from pending charges.
His words are not those of a federal agent or drawn from a news conference or court papers.
Instead, he offers a voice from inside Mexico's mayhem — a mafioso who mingles among crime bosses and foot soldiers in a protracted war between drug cartels as well as against the government.
If what he says is true, gangsters who make commonplace beheadings, hangings and quartering bodies have managed an even crueler twist to their barbarity.
Members of the Zetas cartel, he says, have pushed passengers into an ancient Rome-like blood sport with a modern Mexico twist that they call, "Who is going to be the next hit man?"
"They cut guys to pieces," he said.
The victims are likely among the hundreds of people found in mass graves in recent months, he said.
In the vicinity of the Mexican city of San Fernando, nearly 200 bodies were unearthed from pits, and authorities said most appeared to have died of blunt force head trauma.
Many are believed to have been dragged off buses traveling through Mexico, but little has been said about the circumstances of their deaths.
The trafficker said those who survive are taken captive and eventually given suicide missions, such as riding into a town controlled by rivals and shooting up the place.
The trafficker said he did not see the clashes, but his fellow criminals have boasted to him of their exploits.
Killing 'for amusement'
Former and current federal law-enforcement officers in the U.S. said that while they knew Mexican bus passengers had been targeted for violence, they'd never before heard of forcing passengers into death matches.
But given the level of violence in Mexico — nearly 40,000 killed in gangland warfare over the past several years — they didn't find it tough to believe.
Borderland Beat, a blog specializing in drug cartels, reported an account in April of bus passengers brutalized by Zeta thugs and taunted into fighting.
"The stuff you would not think possible a few years ago is now commonplace," said Peter Hanna, a retired FBI agent who built his career focusing on Mexico's cartels. "It used to be you'd find dead bodies in drums with acid; now there are beheadings."
Even so, Hanna noted, killing people this way would be time-consuming and inefficient. "It would be more for amusement," he suggested. "I don't see it as intimidation or a successful way to recruit people."
Hidden behind designer sunglasses and a whisper of a beard, the trafficker interviewed by the Houston Chronicle talked at a restaurant's back table. He had silver shopping bags filled at Nordstrom, but seemed anything but a typical wealthy Mexican on a Texas shopping trip.
As a condition of the interview, he asked that he be referred to only as Juan.
He has worked as a drug-trafficker in Northern Mexico for more than a decade, he said, but has grown tired of gangsters running roughshod over each other and innocent civilians.
Juan, who has worked with the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, the two major drug organizations that control territory along the South Texas-Mexico border, said that back home, he sleeps with a semiautomatic rifle by his bed and a handgun under his pillow.
"It is like the Wild West. You can carry a gun and you are Superman," he said of gangsters and killing at will. "Like everybody says, it is out of control now. We have to put a stop to it."
A recent U.S. Senate report contends the Zetas are the most violent of Mexico's cartels. Its members are believed to be responsible for the recent killing of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who was shot on a Mexican highway.
'They brag about it'
Just on Thursday, authorities in Mexico said they arrested members of the Zetas and seized 201 automatic weapons, 600 camouflage uniforms and 30,000 rounds of ammunition.
"I am not defending the Sinaloa or the Gulf Cartel," Juan said of the Zetas' main rivals. "I earn more money with the Zetas, but I know the (crap) they do," he said. "They brag about it."
With the recent killing of the ICE agent and perhaps other attacks, the Zetas also are breaking the golden rule for Mexican traffickers: Don't kill Americans, he said. It brings too much heat.
If the Zetas are crushed, violence will lessen, he said, and Mexico's older cartels will go back to the older way of doing business - dividing up territory and agreeing not to clash with each other.
Death toll has exploded
Mike Vigil, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was the chief of international operations, said Mexican gangsters used to understand that violence should be used sparingly.
"They love brutality," Vigil said of the Zetas. "They do not care whether you are a police officer, a trafficker or an innocent bystander."
"The drug-trafficking organizations are eventually going to have to deal with the Zetas."
The death toll has exploded since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and dispersed military troops throughout the country to fight the cartels. The resulting battles have wrought carnage among local politicians, soldiers, gangsters and civilians alike.
As for the military, Juan said, "They are not helping," noting that the soldiers, like the gangsters, seem to kill whoever they want.
He also discussed some of the finer points of drug trafficking.
Checkpoints no problem
"We don't hide it," he said, telling stories of openly off-loading tractor-trailer rigs of cocaine in parking lots. "These are not lies. Everybody in Mexico knows it."
Even the checkpoints Mexican officials operate along the highways between Central Mexico and the border do not pose much of a problem, Juan said.
The trick, he confided, is to send someone in advance to bribe a commander so a drug load won't be bothered.
"It is better to tell them," he said. "It will cost you more if they catch it."
Tries not to be flashy
As for how he's been able to survive a decade, Juan said the secret is not being greedy or flashy enough to draw attention from other gangsters, who these days show no hesitation to cut down rivals.
He said he can quickly size up in a bar or cafe who is likely to be a trafficker, from the money they spend to the way they talk, sit or eat.
"You can tell in a restaurant or anywhere - that guy is moving dope," Juan said.
Other keys to longevity in the business: knowing your place in the Mexican underworld's hierarchy and not giving the impression you are making more money or interested in taking a chunk out of another gangster's livelihood.
"You keep doing the work you do," Juan said. "Stay at your level."
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