Nuevo Laredo, Mexico—For all the beefed-up enforcement along the border, the militialike group of drug cartel enforcers known as the Zetas appears stronger than ever, a result of better training, successful recruiting in Central America and continued desertions from the Mexican military, U.S. intelligence officials say.
The Zetas have again become entrenched in Nuevo Laredo, and they practically control the movement of people through an intricate web of spies, checkpoints and skillful use of technology, provoking an extraordinary cross-border human exodus, U.S. and Mexican authorities say.
Last year, U.S. and Mexican authorities reported that the number of Zetas was falling rapidly, the result of both government pressure and ongoing warfare with rival cartels. But the shadowy group of elite former military officers, soldiers and others has now grown to more than 500 nationwide, with hundreds more in a support network throughout the country, U.S. officials said. Some of those networks are deepening their ties to Texas cities, including Houston and Dallas, with the help of Texas gang members.
A shootout late Friday between Zetas and members of the Mexican military—reportedly acting on tips from the Sinaloa cartel—involved grenades and bazookas in a residential neighborhood of Nuevo Laredo, U.S. authorities said. The firefight killed four people suspected of drug trafficking—believed to be Zetas—and injured at least four others, authorities said.
U.S. authorities said the gulf cartel has established training camps in the states of Tamaulipas—its base of operations—and Nuevo Leon, both of which border Texas, and in the central state of Michoacan. The organization is recruiting former Guatemalan special forces military personnel known as Kaibiles and members of the notorious cross border gangs known as Maras, including the violent Mara Salvatruchas with ties to El Salvador.
“The resiliency and determination of these criminals are beyond anything I have seen in my years in U.S. law enforcement,” said one U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’re tough, and they won’t break easily. They pose a serious threat to Mexico and to security along the border.”
U.S. and Mexican authorities met in Laredo last week to discuss what one official described as Mexico’s “grave” security situation, including the killing of a judge and three senior law enforcement officials in recent weeks. In the meeting, U.S. law enforcement authorities pressed Mexico to return a large number of federal troops to Nuevo Laredo.
Federal troops occupied the city for several months last year when the entire police force was suspended in an effort to rid the department of corrupt officers working on behalf of the drug cartels. But the program, dubbed “Secure Mexico,” was considered a failure and scrapped, Mexican authorities concede.
“We also offered every possible support to Mexico to help apprehend those who murder law enforcement, judicial or investigative officers here because of their efforts to enforce the law in Mexico,” U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said of the Laredo meeting. “Uniting forces between our two countries is crucial if we are to send a clear message to all criminals . . . that we will not tolerate violence on either side of our border.”
A senior U.S. official described the meeting as positive. “This was the first time I saw our Mexican counterparts sincerely worried about the situation,” the official said. “The usual pride and nationalism wasn’t there.”
In a hearing before Mexico’s Senate in July, Gen. Gerardo Clemente Vega Garcia said that more than 100,000 soldiers have deserted over the past six years, although he said he didn’t know how many may have defected to the Zetas or other cartels. He listed, among other factors, “money, the lifestyle and women” as reasons for desertion to organized crime.
The Zetas even have a Cuban spiritual leader who performs Santeria rituals, U.S. authorities said, and they invest about 50 percent of their earnings in training, recruiting, intelligence-gathering and computer software.
“They have the Texas-Mexico border wired,” the U.S. intelligence official said, and they use Web logs as tools for recruiting—”although there’s nothing more effective than personal recommendations.”
Nowhere is the Zetas’ presence more deeply felt than in Nuevo Laredo. The number of drug-related killings in the border city across from Laredo, Texas, has surpassed 160 this year, compared with 182 for all of 2005.
About 200 Zetas operate in the city, with a support system of about 300 people, including lookout guides known as halcones, the officials said. Additionally, they depend on members of the municipal police, who earn about $500 every two weeks, U.S. authorities say.
The city is still without a police chief. Police Chief Omar Pimentel resigned in February after serving six months in the job, during which he pledged not to confront the cartels. His predecessor, Alejandro Dominguez, was gunned down just hours after being sworn in.
A self-imposed local media blackout continues on issues related to the drug battle. No news outlet here reported Friday night’s shootout.
Tourism continues to suffer, as Texans stay away. Military checkpoints around the city choke off incoming and outgoing traffic, slowing trade and commerce. On Thursday, the line to get into the city from Mexico’s interior was backed up for more than two miles, forcing angry motorists to take dirt roads. Others simply drove into incoming traffic, forcing cars to the side of the road.
At nighttime, members of the Zetas set up checkpoints inside the city and search motorists, looking for rival Sinaloa cartel members, authorities say.
The number of halcones employed by the cartels has also increased and has penetrated deep inside Nuevo Laredo society. The cartels use technology to tap into driver’s license records and even hotel check-in lists, officials said, citing U.S. intelligence.
Two weeks ago, 25 campesinos, or farm workers, on their way to work in Texas with temporary job permits were abducted from their hotel and taken to a warehouse to be shot, authorities said. They were released when cartel leaders realized they had the wrong people. But American authorities said no Mexican law enforcement agencies would take their call for help.
Meanwhile, the exodus to Laredo continues. Last week, the opening of a tony new bar there, Las Cananas, long a mainstay in Nuevo Laredo, attracted a crowd of high-society exiles. The event turned into a bittersweet reunion of the two Laredos, as self-described refugees from crime planted air kisses on the cheeks of friends and family from across the river whom they hadn’t seen for some time.
“There’s so much nostalgia,” remarked businessman Eduardo “Guayo” Gutierrez, 50, as he surveyed the crowd. “The sad thing is, they all like living here and bad-mouthing Nuevo Laredo, which tells me they have no plans to return.”
When he was 16, Gonzalo Llamas left his home in Zacatecas, Mexico, and illegally crossed the border by paying $20 to use an American citizen’s passport.
Though the passport holder was older and balding, Llamas made it across and began his new life cleaning restaurants for $9 a job.
Now 50, Llamas is a U.S. citizen and owns a construction company in San Diego. And he wants the border sealed. The reason? Violent crime.
“You have your good people and your bad people,” he says. “I’m really open-minded for people to make a better life for themselves without causing problems to anyone. But with a few bad ones, we all lose. You have to have some control.”
It’s a common perception along the border—more security means more safety. But the opposite could be true, a Star investigation found.
Along with tougher enforcement has come a spike in violence against those who police the international boundary. Assaults on U.S. Border Patrol agents, including rock-throwings, doubled from 2004 to 2005 as the number of agents increased by 4 percent, and now are occurring at a rate of more than two a day, federal data show.
As security tightens, smugglers dig tunnels under fences, disguise themselves as members of the Mexican military, and, in general, become bolder, authorities say. Around Yuma, they’ve thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails and fired paintball guns and real firearms at agents.
In response, agents are firing non-lethal pepperballs. They also use their firearms, though U.S. Customs and Border Protection won’t disclose how many illegal entrants have been killed by federal officers.
“It’s a battle at the border,” says Tyler Emblem, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol’s Search, Trauma and Rescue unit in the Yuma Sector. “It’s not like five years ago. When we showed up, they would run. It’s making it harder for these smuggling organizations to make a living, and we are the enemy.”
Last month, a Border Patrol agent in the Yuma Sector shot and killed a Mexican man U.S. officials say threw softball-sized rocks at agents. The FBI is investigating.
Data from the Tucson-based human rights group Coalición de Derechos Humanos says 11 illegal entrants since 2003 have died of gunshot wounds while crossing the Mexican border into Arizona, but the records do not indicate who fired the shots.
Aside from brazen smugglers, it’s difficult to predict what will happen to crime and violence in the United States if the border is sealed. Some worry more fences will create social unrest. Others say fences and other security measures have dramatically decreased overall crime rates in areas such as San Diego and El Paso, though such border-tightening strategies also can move crime to more remote areas that have less security.
That’s what some say has happened in Arizona during the last decade, as heavier patrols in California sent drug trafficking and violent crime to remote areas, such as the Tohono O’odham Reservation and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Ranger Kris Eggle was shot to death during a confrontation with Mexican drug smugglers at the monument in 2002.
Since Eggle’s death, the National Park Service has spent $18 million erecting 30 miles of vehicle barriers in Organ Pipe. The monument has doubled its law enforcement staff, the Border Patrol has increased its presence and the National Guard also has provided help.
Still, one-third of the monument is closed becase of public-safety concerns. Researchers in most parks along the border now must be accompanied by park personnel or agree to a buddy system and must check in with park officials daily.
Farther east, in Cochise County, Sheriff Larry Dever says his deputies now expect a fight when they see smugglers, who often are armed with high-capacity assault weapons with orders to protect their cargo at all costs.
The smugglers operate under the watchful eye of scouts equipped with sophisticated observation gear, Dever told a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee this year. Failure to deliver is not acceptable and many who fail are executed, he says.
“Their way of doing traditional business, in this case smuggling, has been disrupted, and they take a hit financially,” Border Patrol spokesman Todd Fraser says. “Their response is that they become increasingly frustrated and turn to violence to get their smuggled loads through.”
On July 11, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to border visitors that drug-related violence had increased and showed no sign of abating. Most of the violence, it said, had been aimed at drug-trafficking organizations, criminal-justice officials and journalists.
The worst was centered in the city of Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the agency said, where the FBI reports at least nine U.S. citizens have disappeared in the past two years.
Among the cases was that of two Texas women, both in their 20s. Janet Yvette Martinez and Brenda Yadira Cisneros disappeared Sept. 17, 2004, when they went to Nuevo Laredo to attend a concert.
The FBI said suspected members of Los Zetas, an enforcement group of the drug-trafficking cartel that dominates the region, kidnapped the women. They haven’t been found.
One mile of fence divides Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas, behind Laredo Community College. College officials say they put it up with $350,000 from the Department of Homeland Security after drug activity hit the campus, including stashes of marijuana left on the tennis courts.
Calling their effort “Operation Sovereignty,” members of the armed Minuteman Project, a civilian patrol, took binoculars and other surveillance gear to the Laredo area earlier this month, saying they wanted to stop another terrorist attack.
“This is our most dangerous border town and that’s why we selected it to launch Operation Sovereignty on 9/11,” Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist said when he announced the effort. “The president could solve this problem tomorrow with an executive order and the Minutemen could go home. But until he does, we’ll be here. . . We cannot afford another 9/11.”
Still, Nuevo Laredo violence hasn’t had a big impact on Laredo, Laredo Police Department spokesman Juan Rivera says.
“There are a lot of problems going on in Nuevo Laredo and we like to feel comfortable saying that those problems are staying in Nuevo Laredo,” he says. “We’ve been working for decades to keep Laredo as safe as it is now.”