Mexican Cartels Infiltrate Houston

Dane Schiller, Houston Chronicle, March 7, 2009

The order was clear: Kill the guy in the Astros jersey.

But in a case of mistaken identity, Jose Perez ended up dead. The intended target–the Houston-based head of a Mexican drug cartel cell pumping millions of dollars of cocaine into the city–walked away.

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His murder and the assassination gone awry point to the perilous presence of Mexican organized crime and how cartel violence has seeped into the city.

Arrests came in December when police and federal agents got a break in the 2006 shooting as they charted the relationship and rivalries between at least five cartel cells operating in Houston. A rogue’s gallery of about 100 names and mug shots taken at Texas jails and morgues offers a blueprint for Mexican organized crime.

Houston has long been a major staging ground for importing illegal drugs from Mexico and shipping them to the rest of the United States, but a recent Department of Justice report notes it is one of 230 cities where cartels maintain distribution networks and supply lines.

At Chilos, the real crime boss was sitting at another table, as were two spotters. The hitman waited in the parking lot for Perez to leave the restaurant.

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Problem ‘far-reaching’

The gangster–captured on surveillance video–blended in with other customers as they gawked at the aftermath. A few months later, he was dead too, gunned down two miles from the restaurant.

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Washington is taking notice, even if the toll on U.S. streets is nowhere near as pervasive as in Mexico, where cartels are locked in a war against one another and with the government.

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Shifting alliances

[In the last three years] more than 70 people in Houston have been prosecuted as a result of the ongoing operation [Operation Three Stars] and more than $5 million has been seized, as well as about 3,000 pounds of cocaine, according to court documents and law enforcement officers.

How many people are involved in cartel business is unknown, authorities said. Alliances shift quickly, as can the need to shut down to evade the law. Federal agents concede that numbers garnered by the operation pale compared to the cash and drugs pumped through Houston, but contend they’ve headed off countless crimes.

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Hard to spot connections

In the murky underworld, it takes time and luck to connect dots.

The accused mastermind of the Chilos attack, Jaime Zamora, 38, is charged with capital murder. He lived modestly, worked for Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department and was a Little League volunteer. State prosecutor Colleen Barnett said in court that such a profile was how he avoided detection.

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Authorities, saying it’s tough to spot cartel connections because the gangsters work in several jurisdictions, point to at least seven homicides in the Houston area since 2006, as well as nine home invasions and five kidnappings tied to cartels. They believe there are many more.

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