NOGALES, Ariz.—Hundreds of Mexican nationals who wear government-issued uniforms, carry official identification cards and are authorized to use weapons are helping smugglers move tons of drugs into the United States, U.S. law-enforcement officials say.
Known as “madrinas,” from the Spanish word for “godmothers,” they negotiate bribes for corrupt Mexican government officials from drug cartels and are suspected in numerous confirmed incursions into the U.S. by heavily armed men escorting smugglers of cocaine, marijuana and heroin.
“Madrinas are unaccountable middlemen who can negotiate with the drug cartels on behalf of whoever has appointed them and wants his or her government agency to thrive under this practice,” El Paso County, Texas, Sheriff Leo Samaniego told a House committee last month.
“If a complication arises, they are expendable, because the Mexican government officially doesn’t recognize them, but turning a blind eye allows this practice to exist.”
The madrinas, who are not on the government payroll, are paid through a bribe system known as the “mordida,” a slang use of the word for “bite,” which usually involves a percentage of the street value of the drugs they help transport. The madrinas then kick back a percentage of what they collect to those who issued the Mexican identification cards, the officials said.
Law-enforcement officials said they suspect the madrinas were involved in incursions into the U.S. by heavily armed men dressed in uniforms and driving military-style vehicles while escorting drug smugglers. More than 200 such incursions have been documented since 1996 in California, Arizona and Texas, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.
The officials also suspect they are playing a role in rising violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in border towns where cartels have been accused of killing law-enforcement officials.