Violence on the US-Mexico Border
(International Relations and Security Network 29/1/2008)
With Casey McCarty in Washington, DC
Dozens of murders have resulted from battles between the Mexican security forces and armed criminals along the US-Mexico border since the beginning of this year. It is a spike in violence that has many in the US worried that gun fights may spill across the border, carrying all the reprisals that left a string of Mexican border towns without journalists, mayors, police chiefs and musicians in 2007.
In another bloody encounter for what has already been a violent year, on 7 January, a van full of gunmen ran a roadblock outside the border town of Reynosa, Mexico. Mexican soldiers and federal police chased the van to a small house across the street from the Reynosa police station. The gun battle began soon after. In the aftermath, 10 suspects were arrested and five policemen were dead.
Along with the suspects, Mexican police seized three automatic rifles, an Uzi submachine gun, grenades and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
The US Border Patrol has not taken any extra precautions, but is keeping its agents in the field "abreast of the situation," according to Border Patrol spokesman Oscar Saldana, who recently spoke with ISN Security Watch.
"We're advising everyone to be on the alert and be extra cautious because of the situation on the Mexican side," he said.
Others, however, argue that more action must be taken to prevent the establishment of a significant presence of Mexican organized criminals inside the US. However, preparations on the US side of the border are directly linked to a lack of resources from the federal and state levels.
"What has been appropriated is likely spent," Kent Lundgren, chairman of the National Former Border Patrol Organization, told ISN Security Watch in a recent telephone interview.
And what may come from the federal government in the future will almost certainly be delayed by US presidential elections.
When the lives of officers are at stake, Lundgren said, law enforcement must prepare for the worst case scenario, which could be the possibility that a small group of armed men could cross the border and encounter a patrol cruiser. The resulting firefight would be no contest. The heavily armed Mexican criminals would easily overcome one or two Border Patrol agents most likely armed with only pistols.
"We have seen no indication that law enforcement in South Texas is prepared for the worse case in this matter," he said.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government has shifted its posture from reactive to proactive. No longer interested in waiting for Mexican organized crime to strike before responding, Mexican President Felipe Calderón wants to hunt them down, starting with Los Zetas in the northeastern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.
Commonly known as the enforcement branch of a top tier Mexican drug trafficking organization (DTO) known as the Gulf Cartel, the founding members of this elite group of hit men are former Mexican soldiers who, once trained, left the rank and file to earn money protecting the black market economy.
During their tenure as a paramilitary force overseeing the transshipment of multiple tonnes of cocaine across the border into the US, Los Zetas was then given orders and controlled by Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, the former head of the Gulf Cartel now awaiting trial in the US.
The extradition of Cardenas in January 2007 caused a rift in his organization's structure, removing the one power that had been able to contain Los Zetas and solidifying its status as the real power at the border.
Both before and after this change in leadership, the brazen nature of their attacks could be easily discerned from the day-to-day violence in Mexico. Some corpses left in the wake of a hit had the letter "Z" carved into their backs; standoffs in broad daylight against rival DTOs, police and/or military included hi-tech weaponry such as machine guns and RPGs. Newspapers refer to them as narco-soldiers due to their past military training. Their tactics are smooth and confident and their movements organized.
Los Zetas has seen their status exalted from that of hired goons to full-fledged gatekeepers. And the group is now likely a drug trafficking organization itself, having taken over the Gulf Cartel in a slow but steady process during 2007.
Formerly reserved for members of an elite enforcement unit, the term Zeta has begun to encompass members of the antiquated Gulf DTO, rendering the Gulf Cartel to little more than a name, with Los Zetas running the day-to-day operations from a ground-based standpoint.
Their numbers have been reported in the hundreds, but for Calderon there are now only two that matter. The reputed second in command of Los Zetas, Miguel Treviño Morales, is said to be running Nuevo Laredo's daily operations, while Heriberto "El Verdugo" Lazcano (The Executioner) is said to be moving between Gulf-controlled cities in Tamaulipas to remain out of site.
It was reported that Lazcano was shot to death in October 2007, but he is now believed to be in the Gulf-controlled state of Tamaulipas, possibly the city of Tampico, the same seaside city where authorities seized 11 tonnes of cocaine in October 2007.
Rather than back off and acquiesce to the din of cries over human rights and increased violence in the wake of a bloody year, Calderon has stepped up the pressure on Los Zetas. He has focused on the state of Tamaulipas on the US-Mexico border where the group has the strongest presence, and where he can apply high pressure.
Considering that the Gulf Cartel's headquarters is likely in the town of Rio Bravo, between McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, and that many of Los Zetas' members are still in the state, the first step of Calderon's operation was to use soldiers to make a literal cordon around the state.
With the Gulf of Mexico to the east and the US-Mexico border to the north, Calderon has focused on blocking the main roads in Tamaulipas that lead from the neighboring state of Nuevo Leon into the state of Coahuila with the help of some 2,300 Mexican soldiers, according to Patricio Patiño Arias, the deputy minister for intelligence and strategy at Mexico's Ministry of Public Security.
The deputy minister acknowledges that their fight with Los Zetas has reached a new level of importance since the start of the new year. Now it is a man hunt, and they are after Lazcano and Treviño, the latter believed to control the lucrative route from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas: one of the most hotly contested border crossings in all of Mexico.
Patiño Arias told reporters days after the 7 January shootout in Reynosa that the new strategy was "no longer just patrolling" but was now a direct fight "against specific objects, against specific targets that has grown out of important intelligence work."
Holding the border
But will the border hold? This is a question not so much asked in Washington as in small towns and cities in southern Texas where locals read every day about violent shootouts occurring less than 16 kilometers away across a border that anyone can simply traverse on foot in many areas.
Blocked from escape in any direction but north, leaders and other members of Los Zetas could cross the border into the US as Calderon turns up the pressure in Tamaulipas. If Los Zetas begins running its smuggling operations from inside the US, law enforcement in small Texas towns across the border could be saddled with a serious security threat. But beyond the border, in cities such as Dallas and Houston, law enforcement will also likely feel the brunt of organized crime.
The 10 gunmen arrested after the recent Reynosa shootout are all suspected members of Los Zetas, men who report to Treviño. Three of them have US citizenship, suggesting closer ties to the US, specifically Texas, than some may be willing to admit.
Sheriffs of border counties from El Paso to Brownsville as well as members of the Texas Border Sheriffs Association have come together to help one another along the Texas-Mexico border in an atmosphere where funds from the federal level are lacking.
"I could use another 50 officers," Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio told ISN Security Watch, adding, "I have 1,267 square miles to cover. It's an area larger than the state of Rhode Island."
Lundgren believes that no local sheriff or law man in Texas has the resources or the training necessary for the task. "We believe that in a limited set of circumstances there ought to be military resources on the border that can respond immediately when somebody is in over his head in what is essentially a large-scale fire fight," he said.
"There's no reason why two border patrolmen or a sheriff's deputy or anybody else should have to stand there and die just because we're not prepared to send the troops over to take care of the bad guys in the way it should be done."