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While the beheadings and dismemberments are used to punish those who oppose or betray them, to establish turf, to terrorize the citizenry against testifying against them, and to press political leaders to collaborate, random killings also have become the gang’s trademark — used by the Zetas, Mr. Grayson said, to demonstrate that no one is beyond their reach, that they can kidnap, torture and kill anyone they choose.

“Their brutal attacks on Mexican military and police personnel and their kidnapping and killing of civilians are meant to intimidate the civilian population and increase their successes in extorting funds from street vendors, business owners, political officials and others,” he said. “The mere mention of the word ‘Zeta’ in Mexico conjures images of brutal murders and decapitations.”

Sheriff Gonzalez said U.S. authorities on the border are outgunned and outmanned by drug smugglers armed with automatic weapons, grenades and state-of-the-art communications and tracking systems. He said drug profits have allowed the cartels, particularly the Zetas, to develop “experts” in explosives, wiretapping, countersurveillance, lock-picking and Global Positioning System technology.

“Their violence has emboldened them and they are expanding to cities all across the United States,” he said. “Our own country needs to stop them at the border. We know they’re coming, we just don’t want to admit it. Instead, we continue to say the border is more secure than ever, when we all know that is absolutely not true.”

Sheriff Gonzalez said Middle Eastern terrorists brought the practice of beheading their enemies to Central America and later Mexico. He said it also has become a tactic of U.S. street gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which, according to the FBI, has now spread across 42 states, with active operations in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., as well as California, Texas and New York.

With an estimated 10,000 members and an active recruitment drive under way, MS-13 is involved in crimes including drug distribution and homicide.

Still expanding

The U.S. Homeland Security Department has said that Mexican drug cartels, including the Zetas, have infiltrated 276 U.S. cities and represent the nation’s most serious organized-crime threat.

The National Drug Intelligence Center said the influence of Mexican drug gangs is “still expanding,” adding that they were more deeply entrenched than any other drug trafficking organization and operate coast to coast.

While the FBI has called the violence associated with drug trafficking along the border a daily fact of life, the boldness of the attacks and the savagery of the Zetas has shocked many veteran law enforcement authorities. Kevin L. Perkins, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, told a Senate committee last year the level and severity of violence was “unprecedented.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, has introduced legislation seeking to place six Mexican cartels, including the Zetas, on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list — a designation that would limit their financial, property and travel interests, and impose harsher punishment on those who provide material support.

“This designation will provide the necessary tools to effectively advance the national security interests of both Mexico and the United States,” said Mr. McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security oversight and investigations subcommittee.

Many of the gang’s targets have been Mexican military and police personnel, but in recent years, U.S. law enforcement authorities also have come under attack. As early as 2008, the FBI warned U.S. authorities that the Zetas were attempting to gain control of drug trafficking routes into America and had ordered its members to use violence against U.S. law enforcement officers to protect their operations.

According to an FBI intelligence bulletin, the gang stockpiled weapons in safe houses in the U.S. in response to crackdowns in this country and Mexico against drug traffickers. The bulletin said Jaime Gonzalez Duran, head of Zetas operations for the McAllen, Texas, region, or “plaza,” had ordered gang members to “regain control and engage law enforcement officers if confronted.” It said the gang members were armed with “assault rifles, bullet proof vests and grenades.”

Gonzalez Duran was arrested in November 2008 in the border city Reynosa by Mexican Federal Police and the Mexican Army, who took custody of what was then the largest weapon seizure in Mexico’s history — 540 rifles including 288 assault rifles and .50-caliber sniper rifles, 287 hand grenades, 2 M-72 anti-tank weapons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 67 ballistic vests and 14 sticks of dynamite.

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