Sunday, October 9, 2011
Cartel connection reveals why "La Familia" targeted Austin
By Jeremy Schwartz
The two men were returning to the small, one-story house in Northeast Austin from Alabama. Hidden in the back of their SUV was $110,000 in carefully wrapped bundles, money authorities said came from cocaine sales.
But responding to an informant's tip, federal drug agents found the men in the parking lot of a bar in Baton Rouge, La., where they searched the truck. As the officers pulled out the cash, the men grew terrified.
"I wish you would put me in jail," one of them said, according to a criminal complaint. "They are going to kill me over this missing money."
According to court documents, the money was destined for an Austin resident the couriers had reason to fear: Jose Procoro Lorenzo-Rodriguez, who authorities say is a local leader for Mexico's brutal La Familia cartel.
The raids that followed revealed that La Familia, a quasi-religious, hyper-violent group born five years ago in the mountains of Michoacán, used Austin as a base of operation to funnel large quantities of cocaine, marijuana and especially methamphetamine to places such as Atlanta and Kansas.
But in addition to providing a glimpse of the cartel's operations in Austin — at least four autonomous cells stretching from Round Rock to South Austin — the investigation revealed a crucial clue:
The men at the top of the Austin organization hailed from the same small Mexican town.
For more than three decades, the remote, desperately poor city of Luvianos, along with other neighboring towns in the mountains of central Mexico, has sent the majority of its northbound migrants to Austin, where they have worked as landscapers, opened restaurants and built a thriving community. One corner of Northeast Austin has been dubbed "Little Luvianos" by residents.
But Luvianos is also a prize coveted by Mexican cartels. Traffickers from the northern border — first the Gulf Cartel and later the Zetas — controlled the town until 2009, when La Familia won the region in a violent war.
Officials emphasize that the vast majority of Luvianos immigrants are law-abiding residents without cartel ties. But increasingly, authorities add, the cartel members who prey on Mexicans in Luvianos have begun to find their way to Central Texas.
"It's not surprising that (cartel members) are migrating to Austin as well," said Francisco Cruz Jimenez, a Mexican journalist who chronicled the recent history of Luvianos in his 2010 book "Narco-Land." "It's very natural that they look for communities where they have paisanos because they can go unnoticed."
Yet it's a development that local officials have been slow to acknowledge. Only last year Travis County joined the long-standing High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which coordinates and funds joint law enforcement efforts against organized crime groups. Other large Texas cities have been members for years.
As law enforcement agencies work to catch up, the Luvianos connection could hold important answers for officials trying to understand how and why La Familia set up shop in Austin. A thousand miles away, the sometimes bloody, often tragic history of Luvianos has become intertwined with Austin's future.
'A problem in Austin'
In 2008, more than 125 cities — including Des Moines, Iowa, and Dayton, Ohio — reported the presence of specific Mexican trafficking organizations in an annual Justice Department report. Austin was not one of the cities. That year, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas all reported that cartels dominated local drug distribution networks.
Since then, Austin officials have learned that as many as four cartels operate inside the city. Law enforcement agencies have arrested human smugglers connected to the Zetas, targeted local prison gang members connected with the Gulf cartel and conducted numerous raids on La Familia members. The Drug Enforcement Administration says members of the Beltrán-Leyva cartel also operate within Austin.
Local drug agents now say that though Austin has long been home to cartels and cartel-affiliated traffickers, better intelligence sharing among agencies and increased cartel activity have brought the problem to the surface.
"We've been a little slow to recognize" the cartels' local growth, said Michael Lauderdale, the head of the city's Public Safety Commission. "We're starting to feel the consequences of that benign neglect."
The July raids, part of a larger nationwide sweep that resulted in more than 1,000 arrests, confirmed the trend.
"If they busted four cells, you have a problem in Austin," said Phil Jordan, a retired federal agent and former director of the Department of Justice's El Paso Intelligence Center, which tracks drug trafficking networks along the border.
The cartel presence in Austin has sparked concerns about the possibility of increased organized crime violence, already experienced in small doses by cities such as Dallas.
Drug war experts predict that bloody outbreaks of violence in Austin are unlikely because it's bad for cartel business.
Jordan said any future cartel violence in Austin is likely to be isolated and targeted against rivals. "It won't be a shootout at the OK Corral," he said. "They try to do it in the quietest way possible. They don't want to create a hysteria."
Yet Austin already has a history of Luvianos-related drug violence. In 1992, a Luvianos man was fatally shot and dumped in the Colorado River. Prosecutors charged three men from Luvianos in the killing.
"These men came charging into (the dead man's home) with guns blazing," Travis County Detective Mark Sawa said at the time. "We believe they were looking for some marijuana that was just smuggled in."
A 2009 Austin murder also bears the marks of a cartel killing. Officials say the suspect is from the Luvianos area.
Stroll through the small, bustling main plaza in Luvianos and you're likely to hear residents sprinkle their conversations with references to nightclubs on Riverside Drive and taquerias on Cameron Road. Immigration to Austin began in the 1970s, according to local residents, driven by deep poverty and a lack of opportunity in the rural, mountainous region. Since those first migrants landed in Austin to work in construction and open restaurants, money sent home from Austin has helped keep the Luvianos economy afloat, paying for quinceañeras, weddings and retirements.
The municipality of 25,000 is part of a region called the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Lands, which straddles the borders of Michoacán, Guerrero and the state of Mexico. The location inside an inhospitable and hard-to-access region of central Mexico has made it attractive to Mexican crime groups. The region has a light police presence: As recently as 2010, only 40 officers patrolled the hundreds of tiny pueblos in the municipality belonging to Luvianos, according to author Cruz.
And crucial to the cartels, the region around Luvianos is crisscrossed with unmapped backroads that lead to the largest port on Mexico's Pacific coast, providing access to ships offloading Chinese precursor chemicals used in the production of methamphetamine.
According to Cruz, the region today produces Mexico's highest quality marijuana and is home to the nation's most productive methamphetamine laboratories. "It was very natural that Luvianos turned into a narco town," Cruz said.
Cruz said the region was initially controlled by cartels from northern Mexico, whose leaders built luxurious homes in the hardscrabble town and paid for road paving to allow better access for their expensive vehicles and the heavy trucks ferrying drug loads.
Soon after La Familia formed in neighboring Michoacán in 2006, its leaders set their sights on Luvianos, which they considered their natural zone of influence, according to Cruz. What followed was a brutal war between La Familia and the Zetas, which reached its height in the summer of 2009, with daily gunbattles and dozens of killings, according to local reports. La Familia emerged triumphant and has since dominated the region, according to Mexican law enforcement.
The cartels have terrorized residents, enforcing nighttime curfews and beating civilians found outside their homes when convoys transport drugs or precursor chemicals.
"They controlled Luvianos," Cruz said. "You have an army of poor people who have either been immigrating or scratching out an existence in the fields. Then came the cartels, who arrived with money, and they hooked the local population, using them as transporters, a workforce for the labs and assassins."
Local Luvianos gangsters have also begun to rise through the ranks. According to the Mexican attorney general's office, La Familia's leader in Luvianos is a man named Pablo Jaimes, who gained notoriety after gunning down three police officers in the nearby city of Tejupilco in 2008 . Mexican authorities are hunting for the man.
At the beginning of September, seven La Familia gunman were killed in a firefight with police in Luvianos. Last week, Mexican police arrested one of the original founders of La Familia just outside the town, which police described as a haven for cartel leaders as they fight a splinter group, the Knights Templar .
A stronghold for La Familia
After making the trip north, most immigrants from Luvianos and its surrounding towns have landed in a small area of Northeast Austin near Reagan High School, filling a string of moderately priced apartment complexes.
Several restaurants and businesses have been started by Luvianos natives, and three days a week residents can board a bus at a record store on Cameron Road for a direct trip to Tejupilco, a regional capital next to Luvianos. In the middle of the neighborhood, residents walk past an idyllic mural of Luvianos, complete with the quaint gazebo that dominates its central square and the emerald Nanchititlan mountains that ring the city.
For longtime Austin residents from Luvianos, the appearance of La Familia in the city is a painful reminder. "Many people come to live here because they have fear" of La Familia, said one Luvianos-born business owner who has been here since 1985. The man did not want his name used because he feared retaliation against his family in Mexico. "Here, people aren't so scared because there have not been threats. And if the government hears about (cartel members) they grab them up."
Greg Thrash, who was named the resident agent in charge of the Austin DEA office three years ago, said decades of immigration from Luvianos to Austin have made it easier for La Familia to set up shop locally. "Austin is a stronghold for La Familia; we know that," said Thrash, who led the effort to bring Austin into the federal drug trafficking program. "I believe it's generational and familial. They will deal with those they feel comfortable with. That's why you see the presence in certain parts (of the United States), because of family."
Such ties were evident during the July Austin bust, which netted about three dozen suspects who face a range of charges in federal court, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. Among them were three men in Alabama who also were from the Luvianos region and received drug shipments from Austin, according to drug task force agents there. In 2009, local agents arrested four people with ties to the cartel as part of another nationwide bust.
According to the DEA, La Familia has operated at least four cells in Austin, each independent and unaware of what orders the others were receiving from cartel bosses in Luvianos. "It was very compartmentalized," Thrash said. The operation was also lucrative, according to Thrash, who said millions of dollars were moved through Austin stash houses. According to a sprawling, 44-suspect indictment, members of the group made several wire transfers to Luvianos.
A DEA chart outlining the structure of the organization identified four men arrested in the recent roundups as cell leaders: Lorenzo-Rodriguez, Jose Luis Jaimes Jr., Alexandro Benitez-Osorio and Jesus Sanchez-Loza. All four have pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to launder money and to distribute controlled substances. They are being held without bail at area jails.
Lawyers for the four either refused to talk on the record or did not respond to requests for comment. One lawyer said the charges against the group were overblown.
The group smuggled drugs in both traditional and innovative ways, Thrash said. In addition to using private vehicles to cross the border in Laredo, he said, the group used FedEx to ship methamphetamine to Austin — on at least one occasion inside a children's book.
Agents seized 30 kilograms of liquid methamphetamine in mini Heineken kegs, a troubling trend for drug agents because liquid drugs can be more difficult to detect than powders or pills.
The ringleaders of the four Austin cells drove inconspicuous vehicles and apparently spent little money locally. "All the money goes back to Mexico," Thrash said. Several members of the group were family men, living with their young children and wives. And Jaimes included his wife in drug trafficking trips, according to pretrial testimony.
In Colony Park, neighbors said they often saw numerous cars parked in front of the house on Bryonwood Drive, where one of those named as a cell leader, Lorenzo-Rodriguez, lived.
"They didn't talk to nobody," said a 55-year-old neighbor who lives a block from the 1,100-square-foot house, which has an appraised value of about $69,000 and is owned by a California man, according to county records. The man, after learning his neighbor was suspected of being a cartel member, said he didn't want his name used for fear of retaliation. "It surprised me when they got raided."
According to court documents, the threat of violence hung over the organization.
After the May Baton Rouge bust in which agents found the $110,000 destined for Austin, police let the men continue to Austin with a receipt for the forfeited money.
One of the men, Mark Rew, went to Lorenzo-Rodriguez's home and presented him with the paperwork. According to court documents, Rew was held captive throughout the day, both at the Colony Park home and at the nearby apartment of one of Lorenzo-Rodriguez's associates.
As dusk began to fall, Rew was brought back to the Colony Park home, where agents believed Lorenzo-Rodriguez was threatening him with a gun, according to court documents. Agents burst into the house, where they arrested the men and found cocaine, $8,000 in cash and a 9 mm pistol. Rew told agents he thought he was about to be killed over the seized money.
Street gangs a danger
Local officials and experts say large-scale cartel violence in Austin is unlikely. "It's a concern, but you have to go back to what they are using folks here for," Thrash said. "It's to move cocaine, methamphetamine to end cities." Cartels operating in the U.S. generally have avoided the kind of spectacular violence that marks their operations in Mexico. "They don't want to stir up U.S. law enforcement if they don't have to," said Ricardo Ainslie, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas who has studied drug violence along the border.
Sylvia Longmire, an independent drug war consultant for law enforcement agencies and author of "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," said there is an important reason for the disparities in violence in the U.S. and Mexico: Much of the violence in Mexico is driven by the brutal competition for a limited number of highly coveted border entry points. Cartels, she added, will fight ceaselessly for border cities such as Juárez and Nuevo Laredo because once they control them, they can guarantee the flow of merchandise .
"Once they are here, the hard part's over and it's a complete shift in strategy and in the operators," Longmire said. "Cartels are not in the business of fighting over a corner. They let the street gangs do that."
That's what worries Lauderdale, of the city's Public Safety Commission. "What I think is the major threat in Austin is that they would use street gangs in the same way they do with the Barrio Azteca gang in El Paso and Juárez," he said, referring to a violent street gang responsible for many of the killings in Juárez in recent years.
Indeed, Austin police say they've observed a 14 percent jump in youth gang activity in the past year. "I think we're just on the starting edge of this kind of stuff," Lauderdale said.
Cartel violence is not unknown in Texas, especially in Dallas, where a series of shootouts have rattled local officials. In May, a Michoacán man was found guilty of the machine gun slaying of a Familia member, who was killed while he rode in a black Hummer in a Dallas neighborhood.
Austin also might have been the scene of a cartel-related execution two years ago. Police say that in December 2009, a man from a small town near Luvianos walked up to a taco trailer in South Austin and shot a 43-year-old worker, who was preparing food alongside his wife, after ordering some food.
A fingerprint the man left on a bottle of orange soda led police to Jose Rodriguez, who was later arrested in Illinois. Rodriguez, who is awaiting trial in Travis County on murder charges, used several aliases, according to police, including Pablo Jaimes, the name of La Familia's Luvianos leader and the hitman wanted for killing three police officers in 2008. Though Rodriguez was merely borrowing the name, investigators are looking into whether one of the arrested cell leaders in Austin is related to Jaimes.
It is unclear what effect the recent arrests have had on La Familia's organization in Austin.
"If you keep whacking at the organizations, you will weaken, dilute them," Thrash said.
But driving cartels out of Austin entirely is another question. The arrests "have had little or no impact on those organizations and their ability to bring drugs across the border," Longmire said. "These guys are so replaceable."