By Jason Buch,
San Antonio Express-News Staff
Jorge Gomez (left) was identified in a 2009 trial as a Zetas operative; police believe that he is dead. Juan Manuel Marquez Rodriguez was sentenced to prison in connection with two murders tied to the cartel.
When the Gulf Cartel was looking for tons of marijuana that went missing north of the border in October, it turned to the experts.
The cartel needed people who knew their way around Hidalgo County, where the pot was stolen, and were familiar with local drug dealers. So they contracted members of Partido Revolucionario Mexicano, a U.S. prison gang based in the Rio Grande Valley that was started by Mexican citizens incarcerated in Texas.
The gang members made purchases from people they thought had the cartel's weed, then kidnapped them and ordered the dealers to reveal where the main stash was.
But on the way to the stash house, something went awry. Sheriff's deputies stopped the gang members and a shootout ensued. One deputy was injured and a gang member was killed. It was a rare instance of spillover violence in the area, Sheriff Lupe Treviño said.
The confrontation was the result of what state police say is an evolving relationship between Mexican drug traffickers and the prison gangs that long have had a hand in U.S. street-level drug distribution.
In the recently published Texas Gang Threat Assessment 2011, analysts for the Texas Department of Public Safety report that some of the state's most powerful gangs have formed strong ties with Mexican cartels.
Those gangs include the San Antonio-based Mexican Mafia as well as the Texas Syndicate and Tango Blast, sometimes called Orejones in San Antonio, both of which have a presence here.
“From the perspective of the gangs and cartels, the benefits of these relationships are fairly obvious,” the analysts wrote. “From a public safety perspective, the danger of these relationships is equally obvious. The gangs increase their power and acquire wholesale quantities of drugs at reasonable prices, while the cartels extend their network of connections deeper into the United States.”
Mexican drug cartels are increasingly relying on prison gangs based in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety Gang Threat Assessment 2011. The cartels have long supplied gangs with drugs. But in recent years, law enforcement officials say, the cartels started outsourcing drug transportation and violent acts to gangs in South Texas. Several examples were made public this year.
The relationship between prison gangs and the cartels is fairly new in South Texas, DPS Director Steven McCraw said.
In West Texas, the El Paso-based Barrio Azteca prison gang has for decades been associated with the Juárez Cartel and even has set up operations in Mexico. Members act as traffickers and enforcers.
In South Texas, Mexican cartels and Texas prison gangs long have done business together. But law enforcement first became aware of close ties between the groups about five years ago, McCraw said.
“The gangs are connected with the cartels really as a part of the transnational criminal enterprise,” he said. “That's the simple way to put it: It's business. Texas-based gangs provide the cartels two things: revenue and resources.”
As business relationships between the organizations have grown, the cartels have relied more and more on the Texas gangs for muscle to help them smuggle drugs and people north and guns south, McCraw said. The number of prison gangs that work with the cartels has grown too, he said.
In 2007, members of the Texas Syndicate in Laredo were contracted to carry out violent acts for the Zetas Cartel. An attempted kidnapping gone wrong and a contract killing resulted in murder charges against almost a dozen Syndicate members and associates. Among the evidence presented at trial was a picture of a Zeta operative posing with Syndicatos.
This fall, Laredo police arrested a group of people they say worked for the Zetas, identifying targets and hiring a member of the Hermandad Pistoleros Latinos prison gang to carry out killings. Police say the Zetas used the prison gang three times in 2010 to take out rivals.
In both cases, the collaboration was based on the personal relationships between cartel and gang members, police said.
High-ranking Zetas didn't meet with the prison gang bosses. Rather, Zetas who knew the prison gang members personally — sometimes since they were children — organized the hits at a fairly low level, said investigator Joe Baeza, a Laredo police spokesman.
“It's more so that they have camaradas (buddies) that are in the business and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I need this taken care of. Can you take care of it?'” Baeza said. “And they're willing to do it. Apparently they need the money.”
In other areas, the relationships are more formalized, McCraw said. And while the relationships between San Antonio's Mexican Mafia and cartel members haven't been laid out in court documents, there's reason to believe they're working together, he said.
According to a report from the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center, the Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate work with the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel to smuggle drugs to San Antonio.
In a case this year out of Austin, investigators found top bosses in the Texas Syndicate were talking to high-ranking members of the Gulf Cartel to coordinate drug shipments, said Cmdr. Donald Baker, who heads the Austin Police Department's organized crime division.
The operation with federal authorities resulted in the arrests of 13 people, including a regional leader for the Syndicate. So far, 10 people have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison.
The connection between the organizations can be fluid, with members of the same gang but in different regions working with rival cartels. The desire to make money is so great that even the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang works with Mexican cartels to smuggle drugs, according to the DPS report. But, McCraw said, it's a strictly business arrangement.
“Are gangs going to battle each other for turf? Yes. Are you going to see the same types of things in San Antonio that you've been since the Mexican Mafia made San Antonio its headquarters? Yes. You're going to see those things,” he said. “But will you see the Mexican Mafia fight the Texas Syndicate because the Mexican Mafia is now working with the Zetas, as opposed to Texas Syndicate working for the Gulf Cartel? No, we have not seen any evidence of that whatsoever.”