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EXCLUSIVE: Border drug wars threaten U.S.

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

An escalating turf fight between warring drug cartels in Mexico is spreading into the United States with federal officials warning that deadly shootouts and ambushes along the southwestern border pose a serious threat to both U.S. law enforcement and American citizens, according to a confidential multi-agency government report.

The Aug. 29 report predicts a rise in the use of "deadly force" against U.S. police officials, first responders and residents along the border, and further spillage of drug-gang violence deeper into the United States.

Written by the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (AcTIC) and the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Investigative Support Center, the report also said the drug cartels are expected to hire members of deadly street gangs now in this country, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), to "carry out acts of violence against cartel members in the U.S."

"U.S. law enforcement and first responders need to maintain a heightened awareness at all times," the report said.

According to the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, cartel members and police officials in Mexico, in a bid to spare their families from the violence that has overwhelmed many Mexican border towns, could begin relocating them to the United States, resulting in more homicides and home invasions along the southwestern border, increased availability of high-powered weapons to Mexican drug smugglers already in the U.S., and the potential for the family members to continue drug operations in the U.S.

The report also predicted an increase in assaults against illegal immigrants and rival cartel members in this country, suggested that the presence of cartel members in the U.S. would allow them to gather intelligence on police enforcement activities, and would facilitate their "transport of weapons and currency southbound in tractor trailers."

While not widely reported throughout most of the U.S., the increased border violence is not new to the federal, state and local law enforcement authorities assigned along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Thousands more U.S. Border Patrol agents have been assigned to the region as part of a Department of Homeland Security strategy to gain "operational control" of the border. As a result of the increased pressure, the cartels have resorted to more violent means of guaranteeing their drug loads into the United States.

Shawn P. Moran, a 10-year U.S. Border Patrol veteran who serves as vice president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, added that the drug gangs are heavily armed and well-equipped, and can easily outman and outgun U.S. authorities.

"They've got weapons, high-tech radios, computers, cell phones, Global Positioning Systems, spotters, and can react faster than we are able to," Mr. Moran said. "And they have no hesitancy to attack the agents on the line, with anything from assault rifles and improvised Molotov cocktails to rocks, concrete slabs and bottles. There are so many agent 'rockings' that few are even reported anymore. If we wrote them all up, that's all we would be doing."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the investigative arm of Homeland Security, said in a report this year that the drug gangs were becoming increasingly ruthless against rivals, and also were targeting federal, state and local police. ICE said violence on the border has been rising dramatically over the past three years in what it called "an unprecedented surge."

During a January raid on a gang operation in Laredo, Texas, an ICE-led task force of federal agents seized two completed improvised explosive devices, materials for making 33 more devices, 300 primers, 1,280 rounds of ammunition, five grenades, nine pipes with end caps, 26 grenade triggers (14 with fuses and primers attached), 31 grenade spoons, 40 grenade pins, 19 black powder casings, a silencer and cash.

The border violence is the result of a bitter and often brutal battle between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels in Mexico for control of lucrative drug smuggling corridors into the United States - established routes generally located between Nogales, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas. Many of the gangs' victims have been police officials and rival cartel members who have been executed in the border states of Chihuahua and Sonora.

The Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is a primary mover of Colombian cocaine, Mexican marijuana, and Mexican and Southeast Asian heroin into the United States.

The Juarez cartel controls one of the primary shipping routes for billions of dollars worth of drug shipments entering the U.S. from Mexico annually, and has publicly posted lists of Mexican police officers it intends to kill - many of whom ended up dead or fled the country.

"Mexican law enforcement and cartel members seeking refuge in the United States increased the risk of killings on U.S. soil," the Arizona report said. "Rumors indicate the cartels authorized their operatives in the U.S. to hunt down and kill cartel members who have defected."

During June and July, four Mexican police officers in Agua Prieta, just south of Douglas, Ariz., were killed and, according to the report, several others sought asylum in the United States. Last month, seven drug cartel leaders and members were killed in Mexican border towns south of Nogales, along with the young daughter of one of the men who was caught in an ambush.

On Aug. 25, the commander of the Policia Estatal Investigadora and his driver also were ambushed and killed in Baviacora, Sonora, about 150 miles southwest of Douglas.

According to the report, the victims were killed with AK-47 assault rifles and .45-caliber handguns. Three of them were decapitated. One of the vehicles involved in the killings was identified as having an Arizona license plate.

Rising violence on the U.S.-Mexico border has significantly affected the Border Patrol. The number of agents assaulted between the ports of entry along the southwestern border between October and July in fiscal 2008 was 892 - nearly three a day - compared with 638 during the first 10 months of fiscal 2006.

"We've seen an increase in violence all along the southwest and believe it is the result of our effort to gain effective control of the border," said CBP spokesman Michael Friel. "Our deployment of additional manpower and resources has made the smuggling of drugs and people into the United States much more difficult.

"We believe the violence has increased because the smugglers are frustrated and they have used it as a diversion to get their cargoes into the United States," Mr. Friel said. "But we will continue to deploy the agents and resources we need to effectively secure this nation's border."

The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBPO) has said efforts by Mexican military efforts to crush heavily armed drug-smuggling operations in five cities along the U.S.-Mexico border have resulted in a "grave threat" to U.S. authorities and a half-million Americans in the area.

"What we face is more of a challenge than law enforcement can be expected to cope with," said NAFBPO Chairman Kent Lundgren. "The best solution is for the U.S. military to assume armed positions along the border ... and use whatever force is necessary to control the border zone."

The NAFBPO, whose more than 800 members include several former Border Patrol chiefs, has argued that as the Mexican military closes the "noose on the gangs" south of the border, the predictable consequence is that "those bandits will retreat across the Rio Grande into the United States. They will not surrender to Mexican authorities."

"We need not expect Mexican authorities to inhibit their departures," said Mr. Lundgren. "With grisly executions being the tool of persuasion when money won't do, when they come here, they will be looking for new bases of operations," bringing with them what he described as "new, unimaginable levels of venality and violence."

AcTIC is an intelligence and domestic preparedness operation for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Among other things, it provides information on officer safety, intelligence bulletins and terrorism notices. HIDTA enhances and coordinates drug control efforts among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.