Drug cartel members are using a variety of fronts and subterfuges - from fake tamale stands to child decoys - to gather intelligence about enhanced U.S. border security and exploit weaknesses to send in people and drugs, according to a new report obtained by The Washington Times.
The findings, by the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, underline the growing threat to U.S. security from a porous border. Mexican drug cartels continue to probe for gaps in border defenses while fighting one another and Mexican authorities in a violent conflict that has killed more than 7,000 people in Mexico since the beginning of 2008. U.S. authorities also worry that terrorist groups could exploit vulnerabilities in border security.
According to a report earlier this month by the warfare group about the San Diego-Tijuana border area, the cartels are finding novel ways to move contraband and people into the U.S., including wedging children into gaps in the cement pylons at border barriers.
“The smuggling facilitator or families of the illegal migrants will use children to lodge them in the gaps of the cement pylons, at which point a U.S. fire department is called in to free the child,” the report said. “This tactic relies on the U.S. first responders’ initiative to rescue or save a human life and subsequently creates a physical gap - which generally takes two weeks to repair - to use for border breaching.”
The cartels also use torches in backpacks to cut through fences and tamale stands and personal watercraft for surveillance, the report said. They ship drugs through sewers and may be planning to send them into the U.S. on the backs of men parachuting out of planes.
Cartels already have used hang gliders and other ultralight aircraft to move narcotics into the U.S. These craft can carry about 200 pounds of drugs.
The report suggested that the cartels were looking to upgrade the technique by using newer equipment, allowing them to bring in bigger loads.
“Civilian or military trained tandem jumpers could deliver a payload of 750 pounds, while the delivery aircraft would be able to avoid United States airspace,” the report said. “The jumpers would be able to land successfully at desired locations using off the shelf GPS and equipment, and at locations previously inaccessible to ultra-light aircraft. This tactic also will permit multiple jumpers to converge on a location increasing payload delivery.”
It is estimated that Mexican cartels earn more than $25 billion a year from narcotics trafficking in the U.S. alone, military officials said. A good portion of the money goes to purchase equipment such as semi-submersible boats, submarines and airplanes as well as to pay for spotters, hired to watch U.S. border security personnel.
Military and law enforcement officials also have gathered intelligence that suggests cartels are continuing to build tunnels along the San Diego corridor and to use “sewers and storm drains under the southwest border to smuggle personnel and cargo into the United States.”
A roadside tamale stand was part of a strategy to alert middlemen and smugglers to open entry points along San Diego’s border fence with Tijuana.
U.S. military intelligence personnel “observed a woman setting up a road-side tamale stand on the south side of the primary fence with the nose of her vehicle pointing towards known fence breach points,” the report said. It added that the woman did not have a single customer all day in the sparsely populated area.
In addition, cartel members used taxis and legitimate businesses to smuggle people and drugs without arousing suspicion, according to the report.
The warfare group conducted the operation with Joint Task Force North, part of the Defense Department’s counternarcotics and anti-terrorist operations, from Feb. 15 until March 31. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, and state and local law enforcement in the San Diego sector helped the group “observe asymmetric infiltration operations and emerging asymmetric threats” from the cartels.
The report, “Asymmetric Observations Along the U.S.-Mexican Border,” was tasked with identifying enemy vulnerabilities and to mitigate terrorist threats as cartel violence escalates. The operation “will provide insight relevant to U.S. Army operations worldwide,” the report added.
“We’re going to have to pay very, very close attention to Mexico and certainly for this administration,” a U.S. Defense Department official told The Times on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue. Mexico “clearly understands their problem. They, like us, are trying to figure out ways to solve it.”
The official added that the U.S. and Mexico are cooperating closely to deal with the situation.