Posted on November 29, 2004

Drug Cartel Targets Agents

Jerry Seper, Washington Times, Nov. 25

A band of Mexican army deserters that smuggles illicit drugs into the United States across the southern Texas border has offered bounties of up to $50,000 for the assassination of U.S. Border Patrol agents and state and local police officers, U.S. law-enforcement authorities said.

The gang, known as the “Zetas” or the “Z’s,” is suspected in nearly 90 deaths of rival gang members in the past two years as part of a violent drug war to control trafficking across the Mexico-Texas border. Members use their military training and stolen equipment, including high-powered weapons, to fight competing organizations.

Law-enforcement authorities said the gang is targeting border agents and police and Mexican military and law-enforcement personnel.

“They are extremely violent, and they are very much feared in the region because of the bloodshed they unleash,” Jose Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico’s top anti-drug prosecutor, said recently.

The leaders of the Zetas have been identified by Mexican authorities as former members of an elite paratroop and intelligence battalion known as the Special Air Mobile Force Group, which formerly was assigned to the border state of Tamaulipas — along southern Texas — to fight drug traffickers.

They abandoned the Mexican military in 1991, first protecting drug smugglers for Mexico’s infamous Gulf cartel and later establishing their own trafficking routes into the United States. A force of about 30 former members of the group are thought to be involved.

Mexican authorities said dozens of rival gang members have been killed on the streets of Nuevo Lareda, just south of Laredo, Texas. Many of them were ambushed with assault rifles, and others were killed in drive-by shootings.

U.S. law-enforcement authorities said the Zetas have offered bounties of between $30,000 and $50,000 for the killing of border agents and state and local officers.

Fourteen suspected members of the Zetas, including a reputed gang leader, Rogelio Gonzalez Pizana, also known as “El Kelin,” have been ordered to stand trial in Mexico City on organized-crime, money-laundering and weapons-possession charges.

They were arrested after an Oct. 29 shootout in Matamoros, Mexico, as part of an investigation by the Mexico Attorney General’s Office known as “Operation Corsorio.” Mexican authorities have increased their presence significantly in Tamaulipas in a law-enforcement showdown aimed at the Zetas gang.

Accused of overseeing cocaine shipments for reputed Mexican drug lord Osiel Cardenas, who headed the Gulf cartel, Zetas’ leader Gonzalez Pizana also is wanted in the United States on drug-smuggling charges.

Pizana is accused of taking part in the 1999 detention of two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, who were surrounded on a Matamoros street by heavily armed members of Cardenas’ drug gang — some wearing Mexican police uniforms. At the time, the DEA agents were transporting an informant, authorities said, and Cardenas, who was among those who stopped the agents, demanded they hand over the informant for execution.

“This is my territory,” he was quoted as telling the agents. “You can’t control it.”

The DEA agents refused to hand over the informant and drove off, after telling Cardenas that it would be a bad idea to kill U.S. federal agents.

During the Matamoros incident, Mexican police said Pizana was meeting with gang members at a bar when Mexican police raided the place, acting on a tip. A number of hand grenades were tossed at the police, who also came under fire from assault rifles. One Mexican federal agent and two suspected gang members died in the predawn shootout.

Mexican authorities seized grenades, assault rifles and a dozen rocket-propelled grenades and a grenade launcher.

The suspected gang members are being held at the maximum-security La Palma prison just west of Mexico City pending trial. Cardenas was arrested last year by Mexican authorities and is awaiting trial.