The violence associated with the cartel wars is spreading north of the Rio Grande in different ways than in the past. In April 2007, Gabriel Cardona, then 18, pleaded guilty to five murders carried out in or near Laredo at the behest of then-Gulf Cartel leader Miguel Trevino Morales. Cardona was part of a group of teens that acted as cartel hitmen on the U.S. side of the border. Among Cardona’s hits was the kidnapping and murder of a former Laredo police officer. Rosario Reta, a Cardona associate, was recently convicted of a separate murder committed in Laredo in 2006. U.S. drug officials have suggested that Cardona and Reta were part of a group known as the Zetitas, or Little Zetas, recruited from street gangs in Laredo and trained by the paramilitary group that calls itself the Zetas. Cardona and Reta both allegedly began working for the Gulf Cartel by delivering weapons from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo, and were subsequently singled out for hitman training.
Javier Sambrano, the El Paso police department’s public information officer, said there is no such spillover happening in his city. “There has been no spillover [of the violence from Juarez] at all,” he said. “Those individuals on the Mexican side of the border committing those atrocities have no incentive to come here and commit those sorts of crimes.” It’s true that some murders in El Paso are linked to drugs, he said, “but we have solved them, which is further discouragement to people imagining they could come here and commit them” without getting caught.
That might be good public relations for El Paso, but it’s also nonsense, said one border-area journalist who asked not to be named — and who pointed out that members of an El Paso gang called the Aztecas have recently been found operating in Juarez as hitmen for the Juarez cartel. The gang started in an El Paso prison, with the idea of protecting prisoners of Mexican descent, but has been suspected of cartel ties for years, particularly in connection with drug distribution and weapons smuggling. “We’ve long suspected the tie between the cartel and the Aztecas from El Paso,” the reporter said, “but now that some of them are on trial, we’ve got it in testimony being given in federal court.”
In November, El Paso children on their way to school found the body of a man tied to window bars, his feet dangling just above the ground. He was wearing a pig’s mask. A sign above his head said: “This is going to happen to all Aztecas.”
Another sign of the spillover, the reporter said, are the number of people who’ve been shot in Mexico but brought to the U.S. for treatment: “The Thomason Hospital here in El Paso has received more than 30 people this year who have been shot in Juarez. They get shot there and brought here, because if those people were targets, the gangs will go into the hospitals [in Mexico] and make sure they’re dead.”
The rumor is that federal agents are allowing Mexican cartel victims to be brought to El Paso for treatment “because they want a chance to interview them,” the reporter said. “On the other hand, a lot of people here in El Paso are worried that they might be followed into Thomason Hospital and killed.”
Two days after the reporter spoke, the El Paso Times carried a story about a wounded man whose attackers followed him into a Juarez hospital and finished the job.
If the paramilitaries in the Mexican drug trade are recruiting killers from American streets, one could say they are only returning a favor. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the United States began to train Special Forces for the Mexican government, called the Zetas, to enable them to better confront the emerging Mexican drug cartels. Earlier, in the mid-70s, the U.S. also undertook to train another Special-Forces group, in Guatemala, which then was in the midst of a civil war. That group specialized in guerilla warfare and counter-insurgency tactics.
In both cases, the American military training backfired. Many of the specially trained units defected from the Mexican and Guatemalan armies and went to work for the cartels. Then they became the cartels.
“A lot of Zetas broke away from the Mexican military in the 1990s,” said Castillo, the former DEA agent. The Zetas, he said, “began working as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, which controlled Mexico’s Caribbean coast and several inland border cities.” The Zetas were ruthless and fearless. “They were some of the best-trained Special Forces anywhere,” Castillo said. “Well now it’s gotten to the point where they pretty much control the cartels.”
When stories first broke about the Zetas working for the cartels, the Mexican government denied it. But in recent reports, Castillo said, Mexican officials have finally admitted that there is a “paramilitary arm in the Mexican military,” meaning that some members of the military are also active paramilitaries with the cartels.
And, he said, “don’t forget the Kaibiles” — although there are probably a lot of people in the U.S. government and military who would like to. The Kaibiles, named after a Guatemalan indigenous leader who fought the Conquistadors, were the Special-Forces unit the U.S. trained in Guatemala, many of whose members also went over to the drug lords, for much higher wages.
“The Kaibiles started working for the cartels, but they are now working for the Zetas, and they’re the ones responsible for the beheadings,” Castillo said. “That’s their trademark.” In one case last year, several human heads were tossed onto a dance floor in Michoacan. In October of this year, four heads in an ice chest were sent to the Juarez police headquarters.
The Zetas, Castillo said, have now realigned with corrupt elements in the Mexican army, a marriage that is spreading the infection in the military, particularly among the 32,000 troops Calderon sent into nine Mexican states specifically to stamp out the cartels. “And so the military is sort of running the whole show down there,” said Castillo. “You’ve got thousands of military put all over the country, a lot of them corrupt, a lot of them also working as paramilitaries. They’re operating under the guise of stamping out drugs when they’re actually moving [the drugs] and stamping out rivals for the drug trade.”
Calderon’s strategy of fanning out the army to try to regain some semblance of control from the cartels in those states has worked about as well as the U.S. Special-Forces training. Rather than restoring government control, in many areas the military has wreaked havoc with the citizenry, prompting calls for Calderon to remove them.
Bill Weinberg, an award-winning journalist who specializes in Latin American and drug-war issues, said the situation is incomprehensible for many Americans. “You’ve got to understand that the military and the cartels overlap, so the military isn’t necessarily worse than the cartels; they are the cartels,” he said. “Then you have the police, who in some places, like Reynosa — across the border from McAllen — have been completely co-opted.”
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission issued a report in July about four particularly grave cases of recent military abuse in different Mexican states, Weinberg said. “All of those cases involved torture of civilians, some of it very brutal, [including] electric shock and rape. … In Michoacan, soldiers at a roadblock shot up a car and killed some kids.”
Blackwater USA, the American private security firm already accused of atrocities in Iraq, is negotiating with Calderon’s government to train specialized soldiers in the Mexican army and to also act as a private security force.
Blackwater will soon have a large presence on the U.S.-Mexican border: An 824-acre training complex in California, just 45 miles from Mexico, should be open soon. The company already has a contract with the U.S. government to train Border Patrol agents, and there is speculation that once their presence is established there, they will vie for contracts to work border security alongside U.S. government agents.
The plan includes an unspecified amount of money for contracts to U.S. private security companies. A year ago, the Army Times reported that the Defense Department had just given Blackwater a sizable chunk of a grant that, over time, could total $15 billion, “to deploy surveillance techniques, train foreign security forces, and provide logistical and operational support” for drug-war initiatives.
That could mean the U.S. government is already funding a mercenary force of former U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating on both sides of the border but not accountable to anyone in Mexico. Blackwater already employs 1,200 Chileans, former members of ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military, some of whom are thought to be working in Mexico.
At least one other U.S.-based security firm is already operating in Mexico. In July, the day after Bush signed the Mexico Plan, two different videos of a torture training session for police in the city of Leon, Guanajuato, were released by the local paper El Heraldo de Leon. The tapes showed graphic images of torture techniques (as practiced on police volunteers), including images of one volunteer having his head forced into a pit of rats and feces, and another being dragged through his own vomit after he was beaten.
“There is no question that the U.S. is involved in every aspect of the drug war in Mexico,” Castillo said. And if you don’t believe the author and former DEA undercover agent, how about the departing U.S. ambassador to Mexico? Tony Garza is now saying that they United States must accept responsibility for the gun trade and for providing the market for Mexican drugs. The Dallas Morning News reported last month that Garza said in a recent speech that Mexico “would not be the center of cartel activity or be experiencing this level of violence, were the United States not the largest consumer of illegal drugs and the main supplier of weapons to the cartels.”
But Castillo has an even darker vision of what sustains the drug war. In essence, he said, the economy of Mexico is addicted to drug money, and no one, not even Calderon, would completely shut off that spigot, even if it were possible. Castillo’s judgment of the United States is similar: The war on drugs provides a huge boost to the economy, via private prisons, the gun industry, and the federal forces arrayed against it.
Calderon “absolutely would not” stop the drug trade if he could, Castillo said. “Mexico’s economy depends too heavily on drug money.”
The war may never stop.
Thanks to the Fort Worth Weekly for research.
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