Mexican mercenaries expand base into U.S.

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A renegade band of Mexican military deserters, offering $50,000 bounties for the assassination of U.S. law-enforcement officers, has expanded its base of operations into the United States to protect loads of cocaine and marijuana being brought into America by Mexican smugglers, authorities said.

The deserters, known as the “Zetas,” trained in the United States as an elite force of anti-drug commandos, but have since signed on as mercenaries for Mexican narcotics traffickers and have recruited an army of followers, many of whom are believed to be operating in Texas, Arizona, California and Florida.

Working mainly for the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s most dangerous drug-trafficking organizations, as many as 200 Zeta members are thought to be involved, including former Mexican federal, state and local police. They are suspected in more than 90 deaths of rival gang members and others, including police officers, in the past two years in a violent drug war to control U.S. smuggling routes.

The organization’s hub, law-enforcement authorities said, is Nuevo Laredo, a border city of 300,000 across from Laredo, Texas. It is the most active port-of-entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, with more than 6,000 trucks crossing daily into Texas, carrying about 40 percent of Mexico’s total exports.

Authorities said the Zetas control the city despite efforts by Mexican President Vicente Fox to restore order. He sent hundreds of Mexican troops and federal agents to the city in March to set up highway checkpoints and conduct raids on suspected Zeta locations.

Despite the presence of law enforcement, more than 100 killings have occurred in the city since Jan. 1, including that of former Police Chief Alejandro Dominguez, 52, gunned down June 8, just seven hours after he was sworn in. The city’s new chief, Omar Pimentel, 37, escaped death during a drive-by shooting on his first day, although one of his bodyguards was killed.

Authorities said the Zetas operate over a wide area of the U.S.-Mexico border and are suspected in at least three drug-related slayings in the Dallas area. They said as many as 10 Zeta members are operating inside Texas as Gulf Cartel assassins, seeking to protect nearly $10 million in daily drug transactions.

In March, the Justice Department said the Zetas were involved “in multiple assaults and are believed to have hired criminal gangs” in the Dallas area for contract killings. The department said the organization was spreading from Texas to California and Florida and was establishing drug-trafficking routes it was willing to protect “at any cost.”

Just last month, the department issued a new warning to law-enforcement authorities in Arizona and California, urging them to be on the lookout for Zeta members. An intelligence bulletin said a search for new drug-smuggling routes in the two states by the organization could bring new violence to the areas.

The number of assaults on U.S. Border Patrol agents along the 260 miles of U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona known as the Tucson sector has increased dramatically this year, including a May 30 shooting near Nogales, Ariz., in which two agents were seriously wounded during an ambush a mile north of the border.

Their assailants were dressed in black commando-type clothing, used high-powered weapons and hand-held radios to point out the agents’ location, and withdrew from the area using military-style cover and concealment tactics to escape back into Mexico.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada in Nogales said his investigators found commando clothing, food, water and other “sophisticated equipment” at the ambush site.

Since Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, there have been 196 assaults on Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector, including 24 shootings. During the same period last year, 92 assaults were reported, with five shootings. The sector is the busiest alien- and drug-trafficking corridor in the country.

U.S. intelligence officials have described the Zetas as an expanding gang of mercenaries with intimate knowledge of Mexican drug-trafficking methods and routes. Strategic Forecasting Inc., a security consulting firm that often works with the State and Defense departments, said in a recent report the Zetas had maintained “connections to the Mexican law-enforcement establishment” to gain unfettered access throughout the southern border.

Many of the Zeta leaders belonged to an elite anti-drug paratroop and intelligence battalion known as the Special Air Mobile Force Group, who deserted in 1991 and aligned themselves with drug traffickers.

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