By Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times
Mexican drug cartels are using military weapons and tactics while also recruiting Texas teenagers to carry out their operations, which are evolving into full-blown criminal enterprises, experts said.
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven C. McCraw said last week in a report given to Congress that the cartels "incorporate reconnaissance networks, techniques and capabilities normally associated with military organizations, such as communications intercepts, interrogations, trend analysis, secure communications, coordinated military-style tactical operations, GPS, thermal imagery and military armaments, including fully automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades."
McCraw, an El Pasoan and former FBI official, testified about his findings before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight, Investigations and Management. He was joined by Arizona Attorney General Thomas C. Horne, Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., and McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez. The committee wanted to shed light on the latest trends among Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.
McCraw testified that the cartels are recruiting youths in high schools to commit crimes for them.
"The border region constitutes 9.4 percent of the state's population and now has nearly 19 percent of the juvenile felony drug and gang referrals," he told the committee without elaborating.
Four years ago, U.S. federal agents arrested a high school graduate and accused him of belonging to a student-led drug-trafficking ring in east El Paso County. Agents said that 15 to 20 students were recruited and paid about $1,500 to drive vehicles across the border from Juárez and $3,500 more to drive loads to Oklahoma City.
Earlier this year, U.S. border officials intercepted a 16-year-old El Paso boy who was driving a vehicle from Juárez that had a hidden compartment packed with illegal drugs.
"While conditions are substantially similar, we have noticed a disturbing trend where the cartels have been increasing threats to U.S. law enforcement officers," McCraw said Wednesday.
Nearly all of the experts who testified before Congress said that the Zetas cartel is the most dangerous group and that cartel disputes pose grave dangers for the U.S. border.
Mexican Consul Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez said that while he does not downplay the dangers cartels have created in cities like Juárez, the U.S. side of the border remains relatively safe.
"Some of these reports out of Texas are exaggerated and without basis," Rodriguez said. "U.S. law enforcement statistics show that U.S. border communities have not become less safe."
Last week, President Barack Obama signed an order authorizing new sanctions against the Zetas, which has spread its influence in the United States, Central America and Europe.
The order gives U.S. law enforcement officials extra tools to go after the Zetas and its financial empire. The U.S. government considers the cartel a global threat to public safety and political stability, along with mafias from Italy and other countries.
In fact, Italian government officials recently announced that the Zetas were working with Italian mobsters.
U.S. officials have said the Zetas changed the modus operandi for drug-traffickers in Mexico through brutal violence and a military-type discipline that its founders employed. Some of the early Zetas were former Mexican Army special forces soldiers.
U.S. officials have reported the presence of Zetas in the El Paso-Juárez and Columbus-Palomas regions, most recently in relation to alleged branches smuggling and stockpiling military-grade weapons.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating arms-smuggling allegations involving the Zetas between Dallas and the El Paso border area, said Tom Crowley, a spokesman for the ATF in Texas.
"We cannot provide details at this time because it is an ongoing investigation," Crowley said.
The Zetas are also training recruits on both sides of the border.
"Cartel-run training camps are typically located in Mexico," testified Zapata County Sheriff Gonzalez. "However, in 2008, law enforcement authorities discovered a training camp in South Texas that was operated by members of the Gulf cartel's (former) enforcement arm, Los Zetas."
The Sinaloa cartel, which is waging a bloody battle against the Carrillo Fuentes cartel for control of the Juárez-El Paso corridor, also employs a military-type approach.
According to another U.S. government document, "the Sinaloa cartel uses military-style training camps high in the Sierra-Durango mountains."
This cartel ordered a series of terrorist activities, including orders to "assassinate an SSP (federal public safety) colonel in Nogales, Sonora ... in an effort to replace that colonel and install a person controlled by the Sinaloa cartel," the document states.
McAllen's police chief said there is a war going on between drug-trafficking organizations. "It has taken the form of direct challenges and firefights with authorities in Mexico," Rodriguez said. "If they, the drug trafficking organizations, were forces from another country, Mexico could be seen as being at war and not winning."
Horne, the Arizona attorney general, testified that the best symbol of the cartels' militarization is the armored-tank-like vehicles that Mexican soldiers seized in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. He prefers to refer to the cartels as "criminal enterprises," or CE's, because of their increased diversification.
"The societal impact of the CE's campaign of terror is well encapsulated in the presence of .50-caliber machine guns mounted in CE SUVs patrolling the streets of Mexican border cities," Horne testified. "This weapon, in the hands of a CE, is a brazen assassination about to happen.
"The 'war wagon' is a rolling advertisement that business must capitulate -- or else -- and that investment in Mexico includes the associated risks," Horne added.
According to the experts, the activities of Mexican criminal enterprises now include the thefts of petroleum, agricultural crops and cargo, counterfeiting and piracy, kidnapping and extortion, and import-export fraud.
"These all require substantial business-directed infiltration, subversion, and corruption in the target industries," Horne testified.
Horne praised approaches like "Todos Somos Juárez," which seeks to provide youths with alternatives to joining the cartels through sports and other positive community activities.
Juárez officials said this week that creating jobs for young people is at the top of the list of priorities to rebuild the city ravaged by unprecedented drug violence.