Saturday, March 22, 2008

Drug cartels terrorize Mexico border region

"Drug traffickers are waging a terror campaign. The security of the nation is at stake." Yes, that's what is going on. So far the response, from either side of the border, has been completely inadequate to the scale of the problem.

Drug cartels terrorize Mexico border region

TIJUANA, Mexico — The killers prowled through Loma Bonita in the pre-dawn chill.

In silence, they navigated a labyrinth of wood shacks at the crest of a dirt lane in the blighted Tijuana neighborhood, police say. They were looking for Margarito Saldana, an easygoing 43-year-old district police commander. They found a house full of sleeping people.

Neighbors quivered at the crack of AK-47 assault rifles blasting inside Saldana's tiny home. Rafael Garcia, an unemployed laborer who lives nearby, recalled thinking "it was a fireworks show," then sliding under his bed in fear.

In murdering not only Saldana, but also his wife, Sandra, and their 12-year-old daughter, Valeria, the Loma Bonita killers violated a rarely broken rule of Mexico's drug cartel underworld: Family should remain free from harm. The slayings capped five harrowing hours during which the assassins methodically hunted down and murdered two other police officers and mistakenly killed a 3-year-old boy and his mother.

The brutality of what unfolded in the overnight hours of Jan. 14 and early Jan. 15 is a grim hallmark of a crisis that has cast a pall over the United States' southern neighbor. Events in three border cities over the past three months illustrate the military and financial power of Mexico's cartels and the extent of their reach into a society shaken by fear.

More than 20,000 Mexican troops and federal police are engaged in a multi-front war with the private armies of rival drug lords, a conflict that is being waged most fiercely along the 2,000-mile length of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The proximity of the violence has drawn in the Bush administration, which has proposed a $500 million annual aid package to help President Felipe Calderon combat what a Government Accountability Office report estimates is Mexico's $23 billion-a-year drug trade.

A total of more than 4,800 Mexicans were slain in 2006 and 2007, making the murder rate in each of those years twice that of 2005. Law enforcement officials and journalists, politicians and peasants have been gunned down in the wave of violence, which includes mass executions, such as the five people whose bodies were found on a ranch outside Tijuana this month.

Like the increasing number of Mexicans heading over the border in fear, the violence itself is spilling into the United States, where a Border Patrol agent was recently killed while chasing suspected traffickers.

"The situation is deteriorating," said Victor Clark, a Tijuana human rights activist and drug expert. "Drug traffickers are waging a terror campaign. The security of the nation is at stake."

More than 1,900 miles southeast of Tijuana, the city of Reynosa stretches along the Rio Grande across from south Texas. This is Gulf cartel country, a region dominated by the cartel's private army, Los Zetas. Their arsenal befits a military brigade, exceeding those of some Mexican army units.

Led by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, Los Zetas are a highly disciplined mercenary squad composed of former elite Mexican troops, including officers trained by the U.S. military before they deserted. The group has become an obsession of Calderon's administration, which has sent more than a thousand troops to Reynosa and neighboring cities.

Soldiers crowd the slender canal bridges that crisscross Reynosa, stopping drivers at random and staring across the cityscape with their fingers on the triggers of heavy weapons.

The tense atmosphere has led to mistakes. On Feb. 16, soldiers fatally shot Sergio Meza Varela, a 28-year-old with no apparent ties to the drug trade, when the car he was riding in did not stop at a checkpoint.

"You're scared to leave your house," Alejandra Salinas, Meza's cousin, said outside the family tire shop. "We're just in the way."

In Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, the growing Sinaloa cartel is fighting rivals over smuggling routes. But in Reynosa, police say, only Mexican soldiers threaten the Gulf cartel's control.

To prepare for battle, Los Zetas have stocked safe houses with antitank weapons, assault rifles, grenades and other heavy weapons, including some that Mexican law enforcement authorities believe once belonged to the U.S. Army.

"How can I fight them?" asked Juan Jose Muniz Salinas, Reynosa's police chief. "It's impossible."

The mounting evidence that cartels have infiltrated many border police forces has prompted drastic action. In Reynosa, soldiers disarmed the entire police force in January, leaving them without weapons for 19 days while ballistics tests were conducted. Police officers, who make $625 a month, were also forced to provide voice samples for comparison with recordings of threats made over police radios.

"It wasn't worth it," said Muniz Salinas, the police chief. "They come after us, but it's other authorities that are really involved. Look at the state police, the federal police and the military."

One of every two police officers murdered in Mexico today is directly involved with drug gangs, according to estimates by police officials, prosecutors and drug experts.

Tijuana's new police chief, Jesus Alberto Capella, nicknamed "Tijuana Rambo" because he fought his way out of an assassination attempt shortly before taking office, estimates that 15 percent of the city's 2,300 police officers work for drug cartels, earning a monthly stipend as bodyguards, kidnappers or assassins. In Baja California alone, Mexican justice officials estimate that 30 percent of the local and federal police force is on a cartel payroll.

"We have the enemy in our house," Capella said.

In response, authorities in Baja California and several other border states have begun giving police polygraph tests. The questions range from the innocuous to queries such as "Have you ever worked with a drug trafficker?"

Rommel Moreno Manjarrez, Baja California's attorney general, said in an interview that out of every 1,000 officers tested, 700 fail.

"It's impossible for the narco to succeed without the help of the police," he said. "The success that the narco has been having is because of the police."

Original Story Here


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