Savage Struggle on the Border

The com-radio in “Sal” Zamora’s signature green and white Border Patrol Chevy Tahoe crackled with chatter. There had just been two possible sniper shootings at construction crews working on a strategic stretch of the new border fence.
The reports came in while I was on patrol with Zamora in October. As we drove to the scene of the reported shootings, Zamora, a 15-year Border Patrol veteran, said this was the fifth time in two weeks that construction crews were shot at “with something.”
The Assistant Patrol Agent in Charge of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) El Paso Station, Zamora said the projectiles probably were rocks flung from a “wrist rocket” or BBs fired from an air gun, but he couldn’t rule out “a low-powered rifle.” And that clearly had him worried.
The day after the assaults, FBI agents arrived to investigate. Intelligence indicated the attacks were related to similar incidents nearer to El Paso, one of which involved night vision surveillance cameras catching a man with a rifle who crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico and took aim at motorists before returning across the border. Additional reports of gunfire led to special enforcement operations to prevent other incidents. Then, a week later, a human trafficker threatened a Border Patrol agent with what was believed to be a weapon, forcing the agents to shoot at him.
Within days, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced a state initiative to combat rising cartel violence in the Lone Star State. He declared that a brutal “war is raging” along the Rio Grande—a war that “increasingly [involves] brazen assaults and kidnappings in the southwestern United States. These people don’t hesitate to kill, to kidnap, to torture, as a means of eliminating their criminal competition or, for that matter, terrorizing citizens into silence.”
Following a spree of bloodletting unprecedented even by Mexican standards, in October the US State Department was forced to warn citizens against travel to Mexico. Four hundred bodies piled up on border streets in less than two weeks. Seventy were killed in Juarez over the course of a few days. Twenty-one were gunned down in Nogales in under 24 hours.
CBP Deputy Commissioner Jayson Ahern told the Associated Press last May he doesn’t “think … the American public has any sense of the level of violence that occurs on the border.”
The war on drugs in Mexico (which is the central battleground in this war) is getting bloodier by the day. More than 8,000 people have been killed in Mexico since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón ordered Mexico’s first serious crackdown on the cartels. Some 3,000 people were murdered in 2007 and 5,000 last year, hundreds of whom were law enforcement officers. Hundreds more have been kidnapped or maimed or have just vanished.
The level of barbarism and sadistic butchery employed by the cartels against one another, police, politicians and civilians in their path is nauseating. In early November, a kidnapping gang linked to a cartel killed a 5-year-old boy they’d abducted from a Mexico City street by injecting acid into his heart when his indigent family couldn’t pay the $23,000 ransom. They burned the child’s body on a hill outside the city.
In Tijuana, where nearly 500 people were killed last year, AK-47 wielding narco-dealers slaughtered two teenagers sitting outside their home because they’d witnessed a drug-related murder. A toddler died when his mother crashed her car swerving to avoid a gunfight between state policemen and cartel assassins.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The carnage is wreaking so much havoc that it’s pushing Mexico to the brink of being a failed state. Large chunks of the country are already under the control of the cartels.
A November 11 Investors Business Daily editorial noted “two years ago, when Mexico went on the offensive against the drugs, every analyst dismissed the idea of Mexico becoming ‘another Colombia.’ No one believed that the impact of the drug trade could ever be as pervasive as in that South American country.”
But that’s exactly what has happened. And what’s important for the United States is that the war on narco-terrorists has begun to spill over onto American soil. Overlooked during the presidential campaign, this war may become the nation’s most immediate homeland security threat. As a confidential Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report emphasized, the cartels are far more sophisticated and dangerous than any of the other organized criminal groups in America’s law enforcement history.
An April 2008 National Drug Intelligence Center “Situation Report” stated that the Mexican cartels “are the most pervasive organizational [criminal] threat to the United States” and “dominate the illicit drug trade in every area [of the US] except the Northeast.”
Although none of the broad daylight lead-slinging mayhem that’s commonplace on the streets of Ciudad Juarez, Nogales—or even Mexico City—has taken place in the United States, every official interviewed by HSToday feared that it’s just a matter of time before it does. They’re worried the cartels will engage in blood-spattering shootouts with police and that citizens will be gunned down in rival cartel firefights.
Raymond Cobos, the sheriff of Luna County, New Mexico, which borders the cartel-controlled state of Chihuahua, told HSToday he’s been “concerned for quite some time that it’s just a matter of time before what’s been happening over there spills over here.”
A war over control
The bloodletting is due to the vicious battle raging between Mexico’s two dominant cartels for control over dwindling narcotics and human trafficking routes into the United States. It’s a war US officials insist is evidence that counter-cartel operations have put the cartels’ “cojones in a tight vise,” as one official candidly put it.
“They’re fighting over smuggling routes into the United States and over control of the border area,” said Beth Kempshall, special agent in charge of the DEA Phoenix office.
“We’re applying enormous stress on the cartels’ ability to get their drugs through,” Zamora said.
“We’ve become more effective in disrupting the cartels’ ability to bring narcotics across the border,” added J. Patrick O’Burke, the seasoned head of counter-narcotics intelligence for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“The bottom line is, [the warring is] all about the money,” said DEA El Paso Assistant Special Agent in Charge Daniel Stitt.
The conflict is all about which cartel is going to control the mega-billion narco/human-trafficking trade that’s been made more difficult because of the squeeze that’s been put on their smuggling operations, federal officials told HSToday.
Thus, it’s no surprise that “the Sinaloa Cartel … went to war against [the Fuentes Cartel] over getting access to more productive [trafficking] corridors across the border,” according to O’Burke.
Described by officials as “a rabid dog,” the Tijuana-based Sinaloa Cartel is led by 54-year-old Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman and his 19-year-old bride. Guzman became Mexico’s most wanted criminal after paying off prison guards and escaping from a maximum security prison in 2001. Guzman’s rival is the brazenly ferocious Juarez Cartel. Its patriarch is 46-year-old Vicente “Viceroy” Carrillo Fuentes, who was indicted in the United States by a federal grand jury in 2000 on 46 drug trafficking-related charges, including 10 counts of murder.
With smuggling routes being choked by strengthened border enforcement and increasingly successful counter-cartel operations, the Guzman and Fuentes organizations’ bottom lines are shrinking. Out of desperation, both cartels overtook their rivals to consolidate their respective bases of power, then launched a paranoid war against one another over control. And the United States is taking full advantage of the situation by sewing discontent into the fabric of the cartels’ rank and file.
“We’re hoping this will result in self-attrition,” one official said.
Tucson Border Patrol Station Chief Robert Gilbert bluntly told me that “we hope” the cartels’ desperate reaction to the dismantling of their operations and amplified border security will continue to fuel their warring. “We’re hoping it’ll leave little of the cartels left to put up a fight,” he said.
And “that’s what we want. We want them disorganized and off balance. When they’re disorganized and battling themselves, they don’t function so well. We want them to fall apart,” Eileen Zeidler, a DEA spokesman, said candidly.
So far, officials said, the “squeeze” on the cartels has been effective. In October, the Feds announced the arrests of hundreds of operatives of Juarez Cartel trafficking enterprises in the United States and the seizure of $22 million in cash and hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana.
In September, a DEA-led operation substantively crippled the sadistic Gulf Cartel’s infrastructure, in turn weakening the Sinaloa Cartel, which earlier acquired the Gulf Cartel as a subsidiary in its war against the Fuentes family.
Called “Project Reckoning,” more than 500 alleged Gulf Cartel members were arrested and more than 40 tons of narcotics and $60 million in US dollars confiscated, as were millions more in vehicles and realestate. In late October, the Mexican military finally arrested one of the Cartel’s top capos, 47-year-old Antonio “El Amarillo” Galarza Coronado.
DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement: “We have arrested US cell heads … imprisoned their brutal assassins and significantly disrupted their US infrastructure.”
In October, thousands of Sinaloa Cartel members were arrested in raids. Co-leader, Jesus “The King” Zambada, and 16 other cartel members were arrested in Tijuana following a gunfight.
Elsewhere, the debris of the heavily damaged Arellano Félix Cartel—a former rival to the Sinaloa Cartel that was acquired in a hostile takeover—was put in cuffs in a Tijuana suburb in October. Among those arrested was Eduardo “The Doctor” Arellano Félix, the aged leader of the cartel known for beheading and submersing rivals in acid.
But while authorities have had significant successes in injecting anarchy into the Sinaloa Cartel, the effort has been only partially paralyzing. That cartel continues to consolidate its power and remains free to shoot it out with the Juarez Cartel on the streets, back alleys and deserts of Mexico for supremacy over narco/human-trafficking “plazas.”
The Ciudad Juarez region of the state of Chihuahua has become the epicenter of the swelling pandemonium of cartel butchery. It’s here that more than 60 percent of the narcotics—the most important of which is cocaine, Stitt said—bound for the United States is transported across the border under the control of the Fuentes Cartel.
Overall, the two Mexican cartels control about 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin that’s smuggled into the United States.
A border better controlled
The US Border Patrol has been integral to closing down cartel smuggling plazas.
Evidence of the effectiveness of US counter-cartel efforts was illustrated by Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Deputy Director Scott Burns in February 2008. He told lawmakers that “the latest DEA reporting indicates a sharp increase in the street price of cocaine” and a concurrent 15 percent drop in purity, all indicators that less cocaine was being smuggled into the United States.
“Authorities in 37 US cities reported various levels of decreased cocaine availability; some of these reports indicate cocaine has been diluted with a variety of substances to stretch limited supplies. In short … there is less cocaine available on our streets,” Burns emphasized.
DEA’s Stitt told HSToday that cocaine prices continue to rise and purity continues to drop—further evidence of the compression on distribution.
Stitt said the pinch on cocaine is also the result of the constraint law enforcement has put on marijuana and methamphetamine, the illicit proceeds from which the cartels use to buy cocaine from Colombia, which is now the cartels’ main cocaine supplier.
Major pot busts and disruption of cartel meth distributors and infrastructure have had a significant financial impact on the cartels’ bottom lines. They control some 80 percent of the meth and half the pot smuggled into the United States.
But with trafficking corridors under the thumb of Border Patrol, the bulkiness of pot has made it much harder to transport in large quantities through the Patrol choke points. As a result of this crackdown, CBP seizures of all cartel-smuggled narcotics in the El Paso Station has fallen dramatically, from $230 million in fiscal year 2004 to less than $80 million by the end of fiscal year 2008. Border crossing busts have plummeted all along the southwest border.
Concurrent with narcotics seizures and decreased importation, there’s been a precipitous drop in apprehensions of illegal aliens—who today more often than not are caught with drugs, a development attributed to the cartels’ control of the profitable business of human trafficking and their need to utilize whatever means they can to transport narcotics. These apprehensions have dropped from a high of more than 122,000 in fiscal year 2005 to 28,000 by the end of September 2008.
CBP Laredo Sector Field Operations Supervisor Eugenio Rodriquez told HSToday that narcotics busts and apprehensions are down all across the Arizona border, but especially in chronic problem zones where there’s enhanced enforcement. In one Arizona sector, apprehensions dropped 78 percent last year.
Across the Yuma, Ariz., CBP sector, where there’s 100 miles of fencing, apprehensions have consistently dropped each year since 2005—from 138,492 to 8,363 in FY 2008.
Border Patrol, DEA and state and local law enforcement attribute these statistics to their aggressive strategy of putting the squeeze on smuggling routes and their busting up of the cartels’ stateside operations.
In the El Paso and other southwest Border Patrol sectors, the border fence is strategically being built along the most problematic smuggling zones. By eliminating these chronic crossing corridors, CBP effectively created “choke points” that are geographically more manageable.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said during a November 14 visit to the University of Arizona that “this was something that was born from the Border Patrol … that would put the right assets in the right location, and it has yielded positive results.”
Chertoff said the decrease in the number of apprehensions of illegals is an indicator that points “very strongly in the direction of getting control of the border.”
Data provided by CBP and other federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence sources show new border barriers along at least 200 miles of what had been some of the most intense smuggling zones have effectively blocked traffickers’ use of vehicles to smuggle drugs and humans acrossthe border.
Every El Paso Station Border Patrol agent I talked to—some of whom are from Hispanic immigrant families—agreed that the fencing is helping to hold back the tide of both illegals and narcotics.
“I don’t care what anyone says, I’m out here every day and I can tell you what we’re doing is working,” one agent told me while on a night patrol.
“It’s working … there’s no question about it,” agreed Border Patrol Field Supervisor Rose Medrano, a 17-year veteran who took me on a twilight border patrol. “I’m a believer in this fence. We’ve needed it, and where we’ve got it, it’s working.”
“We’re the first line of defense,” agreed Rodriquez.
CBP, DEA and other federal and state law enforcement officials were adamant that the decrease in apprehensions of illegals and narco-traffickers has had much more to do with increased patrols in unfenced areas now that fencing is going up in problematic “zones.”
Contrary to critics’ claims, Zamora said, the fencing is allowing Border Patrol agents to “patrol smarter” because the strategic use of fencing allows for smarter enforcement where fencing is absent. “We can better control these areas. The fence is working.”
Gilbert said the fencing won’t stop traffickers, but is certain that it’s redirecting them sufficiently so that Border Patrol agents can better police their cross-border forays. “It controls the flow of people and goods that are coming illegally into the US,” he said.
Fencing, vehicle barriers and surveillance technology were critical to the decrease in arrests in the Yuma Station in FY 2008, Gilbert said.
“The fence is effectively changing crossing patterns,” agreed Doug Mosier, El Paso’s Border Patrol Station public affairs officer, pointing to the nearly impenetrable fencing that’s been constructed along those corridors where it had previously been very easy to slip across the border.
Defenders under assault
A year ago, senior US counter-narcotics officials at a classified meeting in Arizona presciently prophesied that “trafficking organizations have begun to feel the ‘squeeze’ and pressure against their illegal activities,” and, thus, “these criminal groups increasingly resort to violent means to conduct smuggling operations.”
“And that is exactly what’s happening,” said a federal official involved in counter-narco intelligence who asked not to be identified.
Consequently, the greatest fear of the Border Patrol agents I met is that, as the pressure on the cartels increases, they will become emboldened to react even more violently toward Border Patrol agents and any other law enforcement officers that get in their way.
The first day I went on patrol with Zamora, he expressed concern that cartel leaders had implied as much to their “expendable” couriers. And that, he said, would “be a game-changing” event.
Zamora’s fears are valid; violence against Border Patrol agents has exploded. Zamora worried that the Border Patrol’s “green and whites” will become the targets of lethal sniper fire, especially in areas where agents are scarce.
A 2006 report by the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Investigations disclosed that sniper fire so far had involved “snipers … on the Mexican side of the border” who “fire a few shots at agents, then move to cover—only to fire again from another location. The tactics are typical of military sniper training” and “more than likely the snipers are creating a diversion so that smugglers can cross in another location.”
But snipers may begin to put Border Patrol agents in their crosshairs. The FBI warned law enforcement officers along the southwest border that Mexico’s cartels have ordered their operatives to begin killing any police who get in the way of their operations.
The FBI San Antonio Field Office intelligence advisory strongly warned that the Sinaloa Cartel had ordered former Gulf Cartel enforcers integrated into its ranks to engage US law enforcement officers to protect their operations.
The warning said cartel enforcers are bolstering their ranks with members of US-based gangs (like the El Paso-based Barrio Azteca gang) that the cartel uses to distribute narcotics on US streets.
“The Mexican cartel people may decide what do they have to fear, really? A lot is their own perception that they can’t get away with this stuff in the US. But, sadly, I think they could,” Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist and narco-trafficking expert at the University of Texas at El Paso, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in October.
In Mexico, cartels have had no compunction about snuffing law enforcement officials. Between Jan. 12 and Oct. 10, 2008, more than 50 local, state and federal police—including women—were assassinated in the Juarez area alone. Seventeen more were wounded in attempted assassinations and a handful of soldiers involved in counter-cartel operations were gunned down.
Across Mexico, more than 500 police and law enforcement officers, soldiers and prosecutors have been killed by cartel assassins. Most recently, in early November, Sonora State Police Chief Juan Manuel Pavon Felix, his bodyguard and several other officers were killed in a hail of automatic weapons fire and grenade shrapnel as they entered a hotel across the border from Nogales, Texas. Elsewhere, gunmen killed three state police detectives in Guanajuato at a restaurant and eleven policemen near Mexico City.
Three years ago, US Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar warned the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Investigations that, “as we continue to bring larger areas of the border under operational control, we can expect spikes in border violence as border criminals discover they can no longer operate with impunity and are prevented from using the border for their criminal activities.”
“My sources in Juarez are saying the worst of the violence is yet to come,” Campbell said.
So does Santa Cruz County, Ariz., Sheriff Tony Estrada, who told Tuscon’s KOLD-TV on Oct. 30 that, “as [the cartels] fight for the lucrative routes, there’s going to be more violence. There’s going to be more killings.”
Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden echoed Estrada. He told KOLD that “the violence has increased tremendously. The profit margin
for both smuggling people and drugs has increased—so the battle has escalated all the way up. It’s basically a war right now.”
Alarmingly, cartel operatives in the United States “are believed to be armed with assault rifles, bullet proof vests and grenades and are occupying safe houses,” stated the FBI San Antonio Field Office advisory. The alert cautioned that Jaime González Duran, an overseer of the Zetas, the former Gulf Cartel enforcers who were absorbed by the Sinaloa Cartel, had instructed his cells (including those in the United States) to “engage law enforcement with a full tactical response should law enforcement attempt to intervene in their operations.”
Weeks later, on Nov. 7, Duran, a deserter from the Mexican Army, was arrested by the Mexican military in Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, Texas, along with a staggering supply of weaponry. Mexican Assistant Attorney General Marisela Morales said at a press conference that the munitions haul was the biggest “seizure … in the history of Mexico involving organized crime.” Indeed, hundreds of assault rifles, .50-caliber sniper rifles, handguns, grenades, dynamite and 500,000 rounds of ammunition were taken from the house where Duran was apprehended.
Last spring, a Juarez Cartel hit list was uncovered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that contained the name of a New Mexico police officer “marked” for assassination. In January 2006, officials at the Department of Homeland Security warned Border Patrol agents in a confidential memo that they could be the targets of assassins hired by human traffickers. In May, the Zapata County, Texas, sheriff’s office received information that the cartels planned to threaten or kill as many police officers as possible.
“Fearful of disobeying their cartel boss’s orders, these violent gangs are going to take these marching orders to heart,” a senior US counter-cartel intelligence official told HSToday. “I’m afraid we’re going to start seeing Juarez-style shootouts on American streets!”
Zamora said the cartels’ smugglers might be more willing to risk a shootout than go back to their employers empty handed. “They’re in a desperate situation,” he said.
Phil Jordan, a retired, 31-year veteran DEA official and ex-director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, stated in several news reports last year that he’s worried the cartels will engage in killings in the United States to protect their increasingly stressed interests.
Jordan’s fear was manifested in the FBI’s “full tactical response” warning to law enforcement.
What is more, the cartels are stockpiling heavy firepower, as the bust in Reynosa alarmingly illustrated.
Intelligence sources had told HSToday prior to the bust that the quantity of military-grade weaponry the cartels have stashed “is enormous—the new FBI advisory doesn’t even begin to outline the seriousness of what they’ve got,” said one intelligence source.
The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations’ report noted that, in January 2006, federal and state law enforcement officers seized an enormous cache of weapons in Laredo, Texas. Authorities found two completed improvised explosive devices, materials for making 33 more, military grenades, 26 grenade triggers, a large stockpile of AK-47s and AR-15 assault rifles and 1,280 rounds of ammunition, silencers, machine gun assembly kits, 300 primers, bulletproof vests, police scanners, sniper scopes and, of course, drugs and cash.
Shortly after I left the border, at a problem area I had visited, a Border Patrol agent was forced to open fire on an apparent “coyote” who pointed a handgun at him. The man ran back across the border from the United States when Border Patrol agents drove up on him as he was trying tosmuggle illegals into El Paso. The man took cover behind a tree, took aim at the agents and yelled that he was going to kill them.
“It has all our agents more alert and cautious,” Zamora said.
In FY 2006, there were 65 assaults on Border Patrol agents in the El Paso Station. In FY 2007, there were 78. Last year there were 131, Border Patrol Agent Joe Romero told me.
In the San Diego area, Border Patrol agents experienced a dramatic 358 percent increase in assaults between 2006 and 2007, including Molotov cocktails being thrown at them.
Across the entire southwest border, assaults have risen at record pace. There were 250 assaults in FY 2007, compared to 181 assaults in FY 2006—a 38 percent increase.
“Assaults on agents has been increasing … It’s something we are very concerned about,” Border Patrol Supervisor Medrano stressed, with audible worry in her voice.
The violence spills over
The day Zamora took me out on a patrol of the border, suspected members of the Sinaloa Cartel posing as local police (a tactic the cartel’s enforcers have used in kidnappings and assassinations in Mexico) abducted 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger from his home in Las Vegas.
Puffinburger is the grandson of Clemons Fred Tinnemeyer, who allegedly stole perhaps as much as $20 million from the cartel from the meth sales that pay for the cartel’s Colombian cocaine. The young boy was found wandering along a street following considerable publicity about his kidnapping.
Whether Puffinburger’s abduction is linked to the cartel or not (the truth of his abduction had yet to manifest at press time), veteran cartel experts nevertheless told me that cartel-related kidnappings are common.
Law enforcement officials I interviewed in El Paso said that, in Mexico, the Fuente and Sinaloa cartelshave kidnapped rivals, children and civilians. As of last August, there were as many as 65 kidnappings each month.
But most disturbing is the cartels’ kidnapping of rival cartel henchmen and family members and fleeing operatives in the United States, Stitt said, noting DEA had managed to thwart several kidnappings in progress as a result of its eavesdropping on cartel communications.
According to law enforcement sources, there were more than 200 cartel-related kidnappings and 300 cartel-linked home invasions in 2008. Some law enforcement authorities, in El Paso said there were as many as 50 cartel-related kidnappings in 2008.
Former El Paso Police Chief Richard Wiles said El Paso residents with suspected cartel ties have been killed in Juarez after being lured across the border or kidnapped and taken to Mexico.
“We don’t have dead bodies on our streets,” he told the San Antonio Express-News in October, “but we know they kidnap people.”
In November, cartel enforcers kidnapped a young mother and her 3-year-old daughter in Phoenix. They wanted money the father allegedly owed the cartel from meth sales. The mother and daughter were eventually released unharmed.
The FBI San Antonio Field Office advisory explained that cartel cells in the United States are tasked with seeking “out people owing the cartel money for lost, stolen, seized drug loads or profits” and proactively eliminating rival cartel members.
ONDCP’s John Walters pointed out that Mexico’s cartels are crossing the border to kidnap and kill inside the United States. “Some of these groups not only engage in crime and violence not only in Mexico and along the border, but they come across and kidnap, murder and carry out assassinations,” he said.
“Drug-related kidnappings along the border are a significant problem,” O’Burke agreed.
Another disturbing development US authorities fear will spill across the border is the practice of cartel assassins killing crowds of bystanders in public places—sometimes in broad daylight—just to ensure they eliminate the person they were ordered to take out, including members of Mexico’s law enforcement community. US federal authorities say cartel gunmen have assassinated former cartel members who fled to the United States thinking they would have a safe haven here. US officials fear future “hits” in the United States will leave innocent bystanders dead and dying.
“We’re dealing with monsters here,” a federal counter-cartel official said to me.
“What is going on is an intimidation technique to let anyone who leaves Mexico to hide from them know they will be pursued here,” Jordan confirmed.
What’s even more disturbing is that cartels and the gangs in the United States that they use to distribute narcotics have begun to kidnap Americans from American streets—particularly members of wealthy families and business people—for ransom. It’s a new criminal enterprise that officials say is another unfortunate byproduct of the cartels’ desperate response to the crackdown on their narco/human trafficking enterprises.
American and Mexican intelligence officials said dozens of Americans were abducted last year in southern California and taken to Tijuana, where they were held for ransom.
FBI agents in San Diego confirmed that they investigated more than a dozen instances of US residents kidnapped and held in Tijuana last year. Some of the abductions were attributed to ruthless elements of the Sinaloa Cartel, which, weakened by its war with the Fuentes Cartel and US counter-cartel operations, is believed to have taken over the Arellano Felix Cartel because of the lure of the revenue the cartel was reaping from kidnappings.
FBI agents said several Americans also were kidnapped in Texas last year and held for ransom in Mexico. They said kidnappings of Americans in Mexico jumped from 10 in 2005 to 26 last year. And according to an announcement last August by Mexico’s Office of Public Security, since 2001 authorities have arrested more than 1,000 kidnappers—dozens of whom were Mexican public officials.
“Alien smuggling operations are turning to kidnapping and extortion to boost their revenue,” said FBI Director Robert Mueller at the 5th Annual Border Security Conference in El Paso last August.
The paucity of discussion of the bloodletting on the US southern border during the presidential election campaign was glaring. But that silence won’t make the problem go away. As the violence escalates and threatens US law enforcement and citizens, the issue of the security of America’s border with Mexico may well be the first homeland security challenge confronting President-Elect Barack Obama and the new Democratic Congress—or else it may become their backyard quagmire.
In Mexico, the government’s efforts to bring down the cartels suffered a tragic setback on Nov. 4 when the plane carrying Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino and top security advisor and former counter-cartel prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos crashed upon landing in Mexico City. Both men were killed. Mourino was central to Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s war on the narco-terrorists.
The tactics and strategies of CBP, DEA and other law enforcement agencies that have curbed the cartels’ ability to smuggle narcotics and illegals into the United States and provoked the warring between them must be continued and reinforced, officials said. Law enforcement officers and agents must continue to be given the resources they need to combat the cartels, which homeland security officials unanimously told HSToday constitute the most immediate security threat facing the United States.
“We need to uncompromisingly push drug czar John Walters’ philosophy,” a senior federal law enforcement official told me. And that is: “they surrender, or they die.”
But until that happens, said the Washington, DC DEA spokesman, Special Agent Michael Sanders, we’re “fighting a war, and there’s going to be a lot of violence.”
Yet, “amidst all of these border violence challenges that face us as an agency, I have to say that we are more prepared and better trained and equipped than ever before to meet any and all threats head on,” Agent Zamora assured me. HST
Next month: Analyst and author Brian Jenkins on the terrorist threat in Mexico and America’s options.

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