Tom Diaz

Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category


In Crime, Drugs, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, RICO, RICO indictments, Transnational crime on August 30, 2009 at 9:28 pm
Cartels and Drug Routes Depicted in 2008 by Stratfor, Private Intelligence Service

Cartels and Drug Routes Depicted in 2008 by Stratfor, Private Intelligence Service

This three part series posting excerpts from federal court cases on the Mexican Mafia (“Eme” or “La Eme”) continues with a look at the powerful prison gang’s trans-border connections.  (The first posting, here, provided an overview of Eme’s organization and its operations).

U.S. government reports about drugs and gangs often discuss the links among U.S. prison and street gangs, drug trafficking, and the Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), or cartels.

But these reports are more often than not maddening in their generality.  They lack what some call fine detail or “granularity.”  Empty calories come to mind.

A recent federal RICO case brought against members of the Mexican Mafia in San Diego provides some interesting detail to fill in some of the blanks, at least in one major racketeering case.

First, the generalities.

The Mexican Side — The Drug Trafficking Organizations

Probably every sentient being in the United States gets it by now that the Mexican DTOs are the wholesale source of most illicit drugs trafficked in the United States.  To set the stage, however, here is an excerpt describing the nature and role of the DTOs from the National Drug Threat Assessment 2009, published by National Drug Intelligence Center (December 2008).  The excerpt touches on the relationships between U.S. gangs and the DTOs, but only in the most general way:

Mexican DTOs are the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States; they control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, advanced communications capabilities, and strong affiliations with gangs in the United States. Mexican DTOs control a greater portion of drug production, transportation, and distribution than any other criminal group or DTO. Their extensive drug trafficking activities in the United States generate billions of dollars in illicit proceeds annually. Law enforcement reporting indicates that Mexican DTOs maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 U.S. cities. Mexican drug traffickers transport multiton quantities of drugs from Mexico into the United States annually using overland, maritime, and air conveyances. The use of varied conveyances enables Mexican drug traffickers to consistently deliver illicit drugs from Mexico to warehouse locations in the United States for subsequent distribution.

Mexico- and U.S.-based Mexican drug traffickers employ advanced communication technology and techniques to coordinate their illicit drug trafficking activities. Law enforcement reporting indicates that several Mexican DTOs maintain cross-border communication centers in Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border to facilitate coordinated cross-border smuggling operations. These centers are staffed by DTO members who use an array of communication methods, such as Voice over Internet Protocol, satellite technology (broadband satellite instant messaging), encrypted messaging, cell phone technology, two-way radios, scanner devices, and text messaging, to communicate with members. In some cases DTO members use high-frequency radios with encryption and rolling codes to communicate during cross-border operations.

Mexican DTOs continue to strengthen their relationships with U.S-based street gangs, prison gangs, and OMGs for the purpose of expanding their influence over domestic drug distribution. Although gangs do not appear to be part of any formal Mexican DTO structure, several Mexican DTOs use U.S.-based gangs to smuggle and distribute drugs, collect drug proceeds, and act as enforcers. Mexican DTOs’ use of gang members for these illegal activities insulates DTO cell members from law enforcement detection. Members of most Mexican Cartels–Sinaloa, Gulf, Juárez, and Tijuana –maintain working relationships with many street gangs and OMGs.

The U.S. Side — The Prison and Street Gangs

The National Gang Threat Assessment 2009 (National Gang Intelligence Center, January 2009) discusses — again in a general way with a few lame “examples” — the interfaces of U.S.-side gangs with the Mexican DTOs and other criminal organizations:

Gang Relationships With DTOs and Other Criminal Organizations

Some larger gangs have developed regular working relationships with DTOs and other criminal organizations in Mexico, Central America, and Canada to develop sources of supply for wholesale quantities of illicit drugs and to facilitate other criminal activities. According to law enforcement information, gang members provide Mexican DTOs with support, such as smuggling, transportation, and security. Specific examples include:

Some prison gangs are capable of directly controlling or infuencing the smuggling of multihundred kilograms of cocaine and methamphetamine weekly into the United States.

Cross-Border Gang Activity

U.S.-based gang members are increasingly involved in cross-border criminal activities, particularly in areas of Texas and California along the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of this activity involves the trafficking of drugs and illegal aliens from Mexico into the United States and considerably adds to gang revenues. Further, gangs are increasingly smuggling weapons from the United States into Mexico as payment for drugs or to sell for a significant profit. Examples of such cross border activities include:

Street and prison gang members have established networks that work closely with Mexican DTOs in trafficking cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the United States for distribution.

Some Mexican DTOs contract with gangs in the Southwest Region to smuggle weapons from the United States to Mexico, according to open source information.

A Case In Point

This is where specific facts alleged in an actual case help fill in the picture.

The following excerpt from an affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint in the pending case of United States V. Mauricio Mendez (U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Docket No. 3:09-mj-00473-RBB, filed Feb. 13, 2009) alleges in some detail how the drug trade is actually working on the ground between at least this Mexican Mafia crew and a Mexican DTO:

Beginning in early 2008, a drug trafficking group associated with the Arellano-Felix drug trafficking organization began to interact with, and pay “taxes” to, the Mexican Mafia.  The Arellano-Felix group paid its “taxes” to the Mexican Mafia primarily by providing representatives of the Mexican Mafia with drugs.

In early September 2008, agents recorded a meeting between the leader of the Arellano-Felix group and defendants [Mauricio] Mendez and [Ruben] Gonzalez.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the Arellano-Felix group’s aiding another Mexican drug trafficking group associated with the Mexican Mafia.  One of the leaders of the other drug trafficking group was defendant Jorge Lerma-Duenas.  Lerma-Duenas’ group claimed to have a means of smuggling bulk shipments of marijuana and other drugs through the international ports of entry by using commercial trucking from Mexico.  However, Lerma-Duenas’ group claimed that a switch in the drivers of the commercial trucks had interfered with their smuggling scheme.  Mendez stated that he and other gang members intended to travel to Mexico in order to disable the uncooperative driver so that the other, co-opted driver could retake the route — it was Mendez’s stated intent to break both of the uncooperative driver’s legs.  Mendez sought the Arellano-Felix group’s aid in providing additional security for Mendez for the trip to Mexico.  The leader of the Arellano-Felix group agreed to provide security for Mendez but also sought to form a larger relationship with Lerma-Duenas’ drug trafficking group in order to use Lerma-Duenas’ trucking route to smuggle marijuana for the Arellano-Felix group.  Over the next weeks, agents recorded more meetings in which these topics were discussed between the leader of the Arellano-Felix group, Mendez and Lerma-Duenas.  Mendez also brought members of his crew to these meetings…

Cross-border relations apparently are not limited to the business of drugs.  The affidavit also describes a 2008 kidnapping and attempted murder in San Diego that was commissioned from Mexico:

The next series of events arises out of the armed kidnapping and subsequent attempted murder of a male victim by defendant Mendez’s crew.  In a recorded meeting, Mendez admitted that the kidnapping was committed on behalf of individuals in Mexico.  The kidnapping was foiled when the victim succeeded in fleeing his kidnappers.  At the time, one of the kidnappers…attempted to shoot the victim but missed.  Officers recovered a .40 caliber shell casing at the scene of the shooting.

The affidavit and a subsequent indictment detail many other violent criminal acts committed by this Eme crew.  But these paragraphs speak directly to the relationship of at least this crew and the Mexican side of the violent drug trade.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from


In Crime, Drugs, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, RICO, RICO indictments, Transnational crime on August 30, 2009 at 6:50 pm
Aztec Number 13
Aztec Number 13

Rene Enriquez warns that La Eme is “spreading like an incurable cancer.”  While incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion [Illinois], La Eme’s Ralph “Perico” Rocha in 2001 wrote to Rene Enriquez at Pelican Bay [California] — using code words — that he was “trying to get involved in the NAFTA


to expand negocios [business] overseas y [and] borders…the family [Eme] is looking to open a few more restaurants [legitimate businesses] in Colorado, Texas, Chicago, etc.”

Chris Blatchford, The Black Hand:  The Bloody Rise and Redemption of “Boxer” Enriquez, A Mexican Mob Killer (New York:  William Morrow, 2008), p. 297.

So, just how scary is the Mexican Mafia?

Bloody scary.

With a core of only about 200 “made” members — but remorseless command over tens of thousands of Latino street gangster “soldiers” through a network of “associates” and “facilitators” —  the Mexican Mafia (“Eme” or “La Eme,” for “M,” the 13th letter of the alphabet) is no longer the “California prison gang” many think.  It has gone federal, national, and transnational.

One good place to start studying this phenomenon is Chris Blatchford’s compelling biography of Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, a surrealistically bloody former killer for the Mexican Mafia prison.   The book at once attracts and repels.

It attracts not only because its bona fides are well attested by people who know — experts Bruce Riordan and Al Valdez endorsed the book, for example and retired LASD Sgt. Richard “Super Val” Valdemar personally recommended it to me — but because it has what literate critics used to call “verisimilitude” ( a word from the Latin that is as out of fashion as that excellent language’s study in today’s world of tweeting and texting teeny tiny thoughts).  There is nothing forced or sparse about the impasto of blood, gore, and paranoid treachery lathered onto Blatchford’s canvas.

Rene "Boxer" Enriquez in His Gangster Days:  Black Hand Tattoo Symbolizes Meixan Mafia, "Arta" Was His Local Gang
Rene “Boxer” Enriquez in His Gangster Days: Black Hand Tattoo Symbolizes Mexican Mafia, “Arta” Was His Local Gang

Yet the very density of The Black Hand’s crimson carnage casts a sort of claustrophobia over the reader.  The matter-of-fact recitation of so many bloody murders and assaults brings to mind the lyric from Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower:  “There must be some kind of way out here, said the joker to the thief.”  For the reader, the way out is to close the book for a while and breathe free air.  For the carnales of Eme, there is no exit — save for the few, like Enriquez, who in a life-changing moment of redemptive perception decide to drop out and cooperate with law enforcement.  Such an act, of course, flies directly into the face of the powerful prison gang’s (indeed, all Latino street gang’s) most fervently held rules — “blood in, blood out,” and no cooperating ever with law enforcement.  Such drop-outs and cooperators are marked with death for life.

However chaotic the gory and seemingly endless scrum of murders, counter-murders, assaults, and gratuitous whack jobs recounted in The Black Hand may seem, the story of the rise and redemption of Rene Enriquez  directly pinches the very sensitive nerve that worries U.S. federal law enforcement officials.  After having slept through the years of the American Mafia’s consolidation and growth to power in the early 20th Century, the Department of Justice is determined that no Latino “super mafia” be allowed to rise to power in the United States.

Some observers would argue that the race is a close thing.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

In this three part series, Fairly Civil will post material about Eme from federal court documents.  The first part, this post, includes a description of the prison gang’s structure and operations.  The second part (here) posts information about Eme’s apparently growing links with Mexican cartels  The final post will feature a case that illustrates Eme’s reach across the United States to cities geographically far removed from California.

EME’s Structure and Operations

There are, of course, other books and treatises about Eme, but the following material from a criminal complaint filed by an FBI agent in the pending case of United States V. Mauricio Mendez in San Diego is a compact and thorough primer. (U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Docket No. 3:09-mj-00473-RBB, filed Feb. 13, 2009):

3.  The Mexican Mafia is the largest and most established prison gang in the United States.  The Mexican Mafia was initially formed in the California state penal system and has been in existence for over thirty years.  As of the present date [February 2009], the Mexican Mafia operates both in the California state prison system (as well as in other states) and in the federal Bureau of Prisons.  The Mexican Mafia operates under a hierarchical system with three basic levels – members, associates, and soldiers.  The EME is further governed by a basic set of rules and operating procedures which are enforced through internal discipline, including acts of violence.
4.  The Mexican Mafia conducts and controls illegal activities not only in penal facilities but also on the street.  The Mexican Mafia’s primary illegal activities are drug trafficking, extortion, internal prison discipline, and violent crimes.  Although most Mexican Mafia members are incarcerated, members and their associates control large, violent criminal gangs that operate outside of the federal and state penal systems under the general authority of the Mexican Mafia.  The Mexican Mafia exerts significant control over most Southern California Hispanic street gangs – also known as “Sureño” gangs.
5. Through a variety of means, incarcerated Mexican Mafia members and their associates communicate with their subordinates out of custody, who carry out various criminal activities on behalf of the respective Mexican Mafia member or associate.
6.  A percentage of the profits of these illegal activities outside of the federal and state penal systems is then transferred to the respective Mexican Mafia member or associate, or to other designated individuals, such as family members – these monetary transfers are accomplished in a variety of ways, including the use of money orders.  Money generated from illegal activities (primarily extortion and drug trafficking) taking place inside penal facilities is transferred in the same ways.

8.  The highest level of authority in the Mexican Mafia is membership (members may also be known as “Brother” or “Carnal” or “Tío”).  The Mexican Mafia does not have a single individual who runs the entire organization.  Rather, under the rules of the gang, members are considered to have equal authority and power within the organization; there are approximately 200 members of the Mexican Mafia, according to intelligence gathered by state and federal investigators.  New members are elected into the gang through a vote of existing members…
9.  To carry out the illegal activities of the gang, Mexican Mafia members utilize high-level associates (also known within the gang as “camaradas”).  Members invest these high-level associates with authority to oversee Mexican Mafia operations in specific areas, both in penal facilities and on the street.
10.  The delegation of authority to control a specific area on behalf of the Mexican Mafia is known within the gang as giving “the keys” to the individual. Thus, a “key-holder,” (also called a “llavero” or “shot-caller”) is an individual who has been placed in charge of a gang, neighborhood, prison, or prison yard for the purpose of overseeing the Mexican Mafia’s illegal operations.  As an example, an associate can be given “the keys” to run a specific yard in a prison.  These associates are able to order Sureño gang members to carry out illegal activities in the area over which the associates have authority.
11.  The associates are responsible for ensuring that Mexican Mafia operations (including extortion and drug trafficking) run smoothly, that Mexican Mafia rules and authorities are enforced, and that the proceeds of illegal activities are properly distributed.  For example, a “llavero” would be responsible for ensuring that part of the proceeds from the illegal activities in his area of control are sent to the Mexican Mafia member(s) for whom the associate works.
12.  The Mexican Mafia also uses a command system known as the “mesa” – the table.  A “mesa” is a group of “camaradas” and soldiers who are responsible for overseeing different areas under Mexican Mafia control – in essence, a governing council.  For example, in a prison setting, a “mesa” would consist of individuals responsible for overseeing various neighborhoods in a city.
13.  The largest subgroup of the Mexican Mafia are the soldiers – i.e., Sureño gang members.  These soldiers are responsible for carrying out the orders of the Mexican Mafia and for enforcing the authority of the Mexican Mafia, both inside penal facilities and on the street.  As a result, soldiers are tasked with helping collect “taxes” (extortion payments) with drug trafficking activities or with the commission of violence.


In Corruption, Crime, Drugs, Gangs, Guns, Informants and other sophisticated means, Latino gangs, Mexico, RICO, RICO indictments, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on July 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm

MS-13 Gangsters Flash Devil's Horns

MS-13 Gangsters Flash Devil's Horns

Since the early 1980s when they were a fledgling gang, to this very day, MS-13 has been a blight on every street where they exist.  Whether house to house, street to street, or city to city, MS-13 has spread like a cancer.  These indictments, arrests and warrants represent one success in an ongoing effort to rid the community of an element that lacks a single redeeming quality.

Chief William Bratton, Los Angeles Police Department, June 24, 2009

Gangbuster:  LAPD Chief William Bratton

Gangbuster: LAPD Chief William Bratton

A 16-count federal indictment unsealed June 24, 2009 in Los Angeles contained two shocking allegations — a plot to kill a well known cop, and a double life lived by a prominent anti-gang activist.  The pleadings also provided a handy window into the history and unrelenting violence of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.  I wrote at length about the genesis and depredations of this transnational Latino gang in my recently released book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.

As Chief Bratton was careful to note in his statement quoted above, the strike against the gang is “one success” in what will be a long, bitter struggle to excise this cancer.  The case is in fact only the latest in a series of federal RICO (anti-racketeering) cases against street gangs that began with the successful 2002 prosecution of members of the Mexican Mafia and the Columbia Little Cycos, an 18th Street gang clique, detailed in No Boundaries. More cases are certain to unfold, and not just in Los Angeles.  The federal government, working with state and local authorities, has brought enormous resources to bear on these gangs, using “sophisticated techniques” of investigation such as informants, domestic and international wiretaps, and possibly undercover agents. The U.S. Department of Justice is determined that no Latino gang morph into another Mafia.

Gangbuster: U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien, Central District of California

Gangbuster: U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien, Central District of California

That said, the indictment is a portent:  it represents the maturity of an intensive joint federal and local effort, not only in Southern California, but all over the United States.   The U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, Thomas O’Brien, has set his teeth into these gangs, reeling out a string of indictments against several notorious cliques.

The back story of sources, methods, and accumulated evidence here is yet to be revealed.  You can be sure the governments involved did not bring this case lightly, and they will have a truckload of evidence to present, if and when it goes to trial.  But for now, the public is dealing with a skeletal public record:  The 66-page indictment, statements of officials at a press conference, the media’s reports of background interviews, and a number of documents filed by defense counsel. Anyone who has delved into such cases in detail — including defense counsel — knows that this is the tip of an iceberg.  Prosecutors say the case has been open for three years.  Since the  case builds on earlier investigations, that is plenty of time to accumulate a mountain of detail.

Do not be surprised if further indictments spin off from this and related cases, possibly including charges based on federal public corruption statutes.  One aspect only hinted at in public is that the investigation is being aided by a person or persons — i.e., a well-placed “rat,””informant,””cooperating witness,””asset,” etc. — with long-term and intimate knowledge of MS-13 players and activities.

MS-13 and The Mexican Mafia (La Eme)–Joined at the Hip in Southern California

The indictment in this case (U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Docket No. CR09-00466), and a long filing by defense counsel seeking the anti-gang activist’s release on bail are well worth reading.  They each lay out the long, painful history of Mara Salvatrucha’s ascent into the grisly transnational criminal consortium it has become.

Here are selected paragraph’s from the indictment.  They describe a key relationship  between MS-13 and the dominant prison gang in California, the Mexican Mafia (also known as La Eme):

14.  In Los Angeles, each clique contributes a portion of its profits towards a tax paid by MS-13 to the Mexican Mafia.  Like all gangs associated with the Mexican Mafia, MS-13 is required to pay a specified sum of money on a regular basis to a member of the Mexican Mafia.  Members of the Mexican Mafia are commonly referred to as “big homies,” “tios” (Spanish for “uncles”), “carnals” [sic] (Spanish slang for “brothers”), and/or “senors” ( a Spanish title of respect for a man).  In return for the tax payments, the Mexican Mafia provides protection to all MS-13 members incarcerated in county, state, and federal prisons and jails in California.  Failure to pay the tax will result in a “green light” being placed on MS-13, that is, a general order from the Mexican Mafia to assault or kill any incarcerated MS-13 member in any facility controlled by the Mexican Mafia.  Also in return for these tax payments, the Mexican Mafia ensures that no other gang operates in MS-13’s territory or otherwise interferes with the criminal activities of MS-13.

15.  Since the mid-1990s, when MS-13 became associated with the Mexican Mafia, a single powerful MS-13 member in Los Angeles has been appointed to act as MS-13’s representative to the Mexican Mafia (“the EME representative”).  The EME representative works as a “soldier” for the Mexican Mafia and is responsible for, among other things, ensuring that MS-13 pays its tax; setting policies to manage and discipline MS-13 members and associates; organizing and conducting meetings among MS-13 shot callers on a regular basis; resolving disputes between MS-13 cliques and members; organizing MS-13 cliques to generate money through, among other things, narcotics trafficking; and providing support to, and requesting assistance from, MS-13 leaders in El Salvador.

16.  In addition to the tax paid to the Mexican Mafia, MS-13 utilizes the profits obtained through its illegal activities by sending money to MS-13 members in prison in El Salvador, purchasing weapons and narcotics, paying attorney’s fees for gang members who have been charged with committing crimes, contributing to funeral costs for gang members who have been killed, and putting money on [sic] the prison accounts of MS-13 members incarcerated in the United States.

I wrote in No Boundaries about a little known but extraordinarily powerful and complex man, who likely was the first “EME representative,” Nelson Comandari.  The U.S. media completely missed the boat on Comandari, and his full story is yet to be told, but I have a good part of it in the book.

The Plot to Whack a Cop

Los Angeles Police Department Detective Frank Flores is a nationally-recognized expert on MS-13.  No Boundaries tells Flores’s life story as an example of the conundrum of gang recruitment. Why are the gangs irresistible to a minority of Latino youth, while other kids from the same barrio climb out of adversity to become part of the great American dream? Flores grew up in Boyle Heights, a gang-infested neighborhood, the child of a single parent. His uncles belonged to White Fence, one of the oldest gangs in L.A.

Yet all Frank Flores can remember ever wanting to be was to be an LAPD cop, even though as a child he had on occasion felt the LAPD’s famous “muscle.”

I first interviewed Flores in March 2007, and talked to him or communicated by email several times since. I had no idea that just months before I met him he had been the target of an assassination plot by MS-13. I learned of the scheme only when it became public after the indictment was unsealed. The government charges that in December 2006 “shot-callers” (leaders) of the gang’s Hollywood “clique” set in motion a plan to whack Flores, designating a hit-man and even providing a handgun to do the job.

Here, for the record, are the allegations in the indictment, which give the bare outlines of the plot:

(138) On or about December 21, 2006, defendants LOPEZ and MELGAR had a phone conversation with each other and with other MS-13 members during which LOPEZ, MELGAR, and others discussed a plot to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

(139) On or about December 23, 2006, defendants LOPEZ and MELGAR had a phone conversation during which they discussed a plot to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

(140) In or about late December 2006, defendants CUENTAS and MELGAR ordered another MS-13 member to follow through with defendant LOPEZ’S orders to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

(141)  In or about late December 2006, defendants MORALES and SALAZAR showed another MS-13 member a handgun that the MS-13 member was ordered to use to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

The plot to murder Frank Flores was derailed. But the story epitomizes the stakes in the ongoing struggle against Latino gangs like MS-13.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Latino Gang World?

Alex Sanchez--Subject of a Grossly Mistake Charge or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Gang World?

Alex Sanchez--Subject of a Grossly Mistaken Charge or the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Gang World?

The indictment contains another shock that has rocked circles concerned with gangs like a 7th magnitude earthquake.

Among 24 defendants is Alexander (Alex) Sanchez, probably the most well-known anti-gang activist in the Latino gang world. Federal officials claim Sanchez, executive director of Homies Unidos – a group dedicated to saving kids from the gang life— led a double life. They allege that he has been a secret shot-caller posing as an anti-gang activist. The indictment charges that Sanchez conspired in May 2006 to murder an MS-13 member (who was executed weeks later in El Salvador). Here are relevant excerpts:

(108) “On or about May 6 and 7, 2006, defendants CENDEJAS, FUENTES, PINEDA, and SANCHEZ had a series of phone conversations with each other and with other members of MS-13, during which they conspired to kill Walter Lacinos, aka “Cameron.”

(109) On or about May 15, 2006, an MS-13 member shot and killed Walter Lacinos, aka “Cameron,” in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Scores of prominent figures have filed letters with the court attesting to Sanchez’s character and good works. All are convinced that Sanchez could not have faked his anti-gang efforts while operating as a shot-caller.

But he is held without bond at this writing.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from


In Crime, Drugs, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on June 24, 2009 at 11:29 am
Jesus Malverde

Jesus Malverde

Sometimes I wonder how I will die, by the bullet wound or a knife in my side.

Give my heart peace so I won’t have to fight. Heavenly father, please hear me tonight.

Sarah Garland, “In a Suburban Gangland, Young Lives Cut Short,” The New York Times, June 19, 2009.

It seems odd and vaguely disconcerting to consider that Latino gangsters who practice the cruelest imaginable violence (drive-by shootings, throat-slashing, mass beat-downs, etc.)  also believe in and attempt to communicate with God.

They do.  After a fashion.  In their own way.

The plaintive doggerel quoted above is reportedly a prayer in favor with the gangsters of Salvadorans With Pride (S.W.P.), a rival of MS-13, in suburban New York.  Jesus Malverde (illustrated above) is a cult religious figure in favor among the ruthless ranks of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

This intersection of criminal thuggery and religion strikes one as a great research project for a theologian and a gang expert.  (Hey, a new book idea!) Is this religiosity just so much cognitive dissonance in the gangster’s minds?  (“Dear Lord of Peace, please help me cut this throat just so, and forgive me for murdering this pendejo“?)

Or does it reflect genuine human longing for a redemptive connection with the eternal?

If, as many believe, personal redemption is the ultimate purpose of religion, gangster piety makes a certain sense.  One can understand it in the same way that one can understand how aggressively religious politicians–the ones who, like so many oppressive regimes in history want to make their beliefs enforceable by law–are so often exposed as adulterers, philanderers, and poly-sexual transgressors of their publicly professed and state-enforced morality.  Their spirit is willing, but their flesh is weak.

On the other hand, it could all just be a cynical front, or frightened whistling in the dark alley of human imperfection, greed, and lust. The agnostic’s prayer comes to mind: “O, God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.”

Here’s another example.  The Christian Science Monitor has one of the better articles on the burgeoning use by drug traffickers of semi-submersible vessels, each of which is reported to be capable of carrying a load of cocaine worth $250 million.  The crews of these vessels are apparently well-paid but expendable.  They are not fairly described as “gangsters,” but their situations are similar to that of many of the mopes who make up the rank and file of your typical Latino street gang, i.e., exploited workers in the sweatshops of the drug industry.  Here is a telling paragraph from the June 23, 2009 article:

“I don’t think anything will change, because the organizations take advantage of the poverty in Colombia to lure crew members to make the trip for $10,000 or $20,000,” says Mr. Montoya, a Mexican physician who was involved with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels until 2004. Montoya says the four- or five-man crews he met in the secret jungle shipyards went through a ritual the night before they set off. “They would pray to the Divine Child and to the Virgin. Then, they would be given a hearty meal. It was like they were on death row,” he says, adding that it was a well-known secret that many crews never returned.

In my latest book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, 2009), I describe and remark on the pious expressions of several members of a Mexican Mafia–18th Street gang combine involved in taxing drug traffic in Los Angeles, meanwhile merrily whacking each other with paranoid abandon.  Several of the principals in this criminal enterprise make reference to such things as “trusting God,” and putting oneself in the hands of the “big man above us all.”  This juxtaposition is amusing–in a chilling sort of way–but more basically illustrates the fundamental moral emptiness of the gang culture.

It will all remain a conundrum until someone invents the human soul reader, a Kindle of religiosity.  (Someone, please, stop this metaphor before it kills again!)


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on June 10, 2009 at 1:02 am

Here is the top of  a new post I have written on The Crime Report (

Could Latino Street Gangs Transform Themselves into Transnational Drug Mafias?

By Tom Diaz

Tom Diaz, author of a new book, “No Borders: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement,” looks at the potentially ominous future of criminal street gangs in the U.S.

In the 1980s, few law enforcement officials had heard of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) or the 18th Street gang. Yet within two decades, these gangs metastasized from local urban-based organizations in Los Angeles and other California cities into transnational criminal enterprises operating throughout the Western Hemisphere, including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. As Mexico’s violent drug-fueled turf wars threaten to spread north of the border, many wonder whether the gangs have become integrated with Mexican drug cartels.

You can read more of this post here, and you can order the book from here.

Here is a description of The Crime Report from its “about” page:

The Crime Report (TCR) is independent and non-partisan, and it advances no single view or approach – except to promote informed discussion and debate. It is a collaborative effort by two national organizations that focus on encouraging quality criminal justice reporting: The Center on Media, Crime and Justice, the nation’s leading practice-oriented think tank on crime and justice reporting and Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only membership organization of crime-beat journalists.


In Corruption, Crime, Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, Mexico, Transnational crime on June 2, 2009 at 11:08 am
Axis of Corruption: U.S. - Mexico Border

Axis of Corruption: U.S. - Mexico Border

[For background on corruption of U.S. officials at the border, see Mexico: Crimes at the Border, PBS Frontline / New York Times Report.]

In addition to the complexity brought about by the multiple jurisdictions, agencies and levels of government involved, there simply is not one single agency that can be tasked with taking care of the corruption problem. It is just too big and too wide. Even the FBI, which has national jurisdiction and a mandate to investigate public corruption cases, cannot step in and clean up all the corruption.


A Counterintelligence Approach to Controlling Cartel Corruption

May 20, 2009

Global Security and Intelligence Report

By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton

Rey Guerra

Rey Guerra

Rey Guerra, the former sheriff of Starr County, Texas, pleaded guilty May 1 to a narcotics conspiracy charge in federal district court in McAllen, Texas. Guerra admitted to using information obtained in his official capacity to help a friend (a Mexican drug trafficker allegedly associated with Los Zetas) evade U.S. counternarcotics efforts. On at least one occasion, Guerra also attempted to learn the identity of a confidential informant who had provided authorities with information regarding cartel operations so he could pass it to his cartel contact.

In addition to providing intelligence to Los Zetas, Guerra also reportedly helped steer investigations away from people and facilities associated with Los Zetas. He also sought to block progress on investigations into arrested individuals associated with Los Zetas to protect other members associated with the organization. Guerra is scheduled for sentencing July 29; he faces 10 years to life imprisonment, fines of up to $4 million and five years of supervised release.

Guerra is just one of a growing number of officials on the U.S. side of the border who have been recruited as agents for Mexico’s powerful and sophisticated drug cartels. Indeed, when one examines the reach and scope of the Mexican cartels’ efforts to recruit agents inside the United States to provide intelligence and act on the cartels’ behalf, it becomes apparent that the cartels have demonstrated the ability to operate more like a foreign intelligence service than a traditional criminal organization.

Fluidity and Flexibility

For many years now, STRATFOR has followed developments along the U.S.-Mexican border and has studied the dynamics of the cross-border illicit flow of people, drugs, weapons and cash.

One of the most notable characteristics about this flow of contraband is its flexibility. When smugglers encounter an obstacle to the flow of their product, they find ways to avoid it. For example, as we’ve previously discussed in the case of the extensive border fence in the San Diego sector, drug traffickers and human smugglers diverted a good portion of their volume around the wall to the Tucson sector; they even created an extensive network of tunnels under the fence to keep their contraband (and profits) flowing.

Likewise, as maritime and air interdiction efforts between South America and Mexico have become more successful, Central America has become increasingly important to the flow of narcotics from South America to the United States. This reflects how the drug-trafficking organizations have adjusted their method of shipment and their trafficking routes to avoid interdiction efforts and maintain the northward flow of narcotics.

Over the past few years, a great deal of public and government attention has focused on the U.S.-Mexican border. In response to this attention, the federal and border state governments in the United States have erected more barriers, installed an array of cameras and sensors and increased the manpower committed to securing the border. While these efforts certainly have not hermetically sealed the border, they do appear to be having some impact — an impact magnified by the effectiveness of interdiction efforts elsewhere along the narcotics supply chain.

According to the most recent statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration, from January 2007 through September 2008 the price per pure gram of cocaine increased 89.1 percent, or from $96.61 to $182.73, while the purity of cocaine seized on the street decreased 31.3 percent, dropping from 67 percent pure cocaine to 46 percent pure cocaine. Recent anecdotal reports from law enforcement sources indicate that cocaine prices have remained high, and that the purity of cocaine on the street has remained poor.

Overcoming Human Obstacles

Customs Agents at Work Checking Cars from Mexico

Customs Agents at Work Checking Cars from Mexico

In another interesting trend that has emerged over the past few years, as border security has tightened and as the flow of narcotics has been impeded, the number of U.S. border enforcement officers arrested on charges of corruption has increased notably. This increased corruption represents a logical outcome of the fluidity of the flow of contraband. As the obstacles posed by border enforcement have become more daunting, people have become the weak link in the enforcement system. In some ways, people are like tunnels under the border wall — i.e., channels employed by the traffickers to help their goods get to market.

From the Mexican cartels’ point of view, it is cheaper to pay an official several thousand dollars to allow a load of narcotics to pass by than it is to risk having the shipment seized. Such bribes are simply part of the cost of doing business — and in the big picture, even a low-level local agent can be an incredible bargain.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 21 CBP officers were arrested on corruption charges during the fiscal year that ended in September 2008, as opposed to only 4 in the preceding fiscal year. In the current fiscal year (since Oct. 1), 14 have been arrested. And the problem with corruption extends further than just customs or border patrol officers. In recent years, police officers, state troopers, county sheriffs, National Guard members, judges, prosecutors, deputy U.S. marshals and even the FBI special agent in charge of the El Paso office have been linked to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. Significantly, the cases being prosecuted against these public officials of all stripes are just the tip of the iceberg. The underlying problem of corruption is much greater.

A major challenge to addressing the issue of border corruption is the large number of jurisdictions along the border, along with the reality that corruption occurs at the local, state and federal levels across those jurisdictions. Though this makes it very difficult to gather data relating to the total number of corruption investigations conducted, sources tell us that while corruption has always been a problem along the border, the problem has ballooned in recent years — and the number of corruption cases has increased dramatically.

In addition to the complexity brought about by the multiple jurisdictions, agencies and levels of government involved, there simply is not one single agency that can be tasked with taking care of the corruption problem. It is just too big and too wide. Even the FBI, which has national jurisdiction and a mandate to investigate public corruption cases, cannot step in and clean up all the corruption. The FBI already is being stretched thin with its other responsibilities, like counterterrorism, foreign counterintelligence, financial fraud and bank robbery. The FBI thus does not even have the capacity to investigate every allegation of corruption at the federal level, much less at the state and local levels. Limited resources require the agency to be very selective about the cases it decides to investigate. Given that there is no real central clearinghouse for corruption cases, most allegations of corruption are investigated by a wide array of internal affairs units and other agencies at the federal, state and local levels.

Any time there is such a mixture of agencies involved in the investigation of a specific type of crime, there is often bureaucratic friction, and there are almost always problems with information sharing. This means that pieces of information and investigative leads developed in the investigation of some of these cases are not shared with the appropriate agencies. To overcome this information sharing problem, the FBI has established six Border Corruption Task Forces designed to bring local, state and federal officers together to focus on corruption tied to the U.S.-Mexican border, but these task forces have not yet been able to solve the complex problem of coordination.

Sophisticated Spotting

Efforts to corrupt officials along the U.S.-Mexican border are very organized and very focused, something that is critical to understanding the public corruption issue along the border. Some of the Mexican cartels have a long history of successfully corrupting public officials on both sides of the border. Groups like the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) have successfully recruited scores of intelligence assets and agents of influence at the local, state and even federal levels of the Mexican government. They even have enjoyed significant success in recruiting agents in elite units such as the anti-organized crime unit (SIEDO) of the Office of the Mexican Attorney General (PGR). The BLO also has recruited Mexican employees working for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and even allegedly owned Mexico’s former drug czar, Noe Ramirez Mandujano, who reportedly was receiving $450,000 a month from the organization.

In fact, the sophistication of these groups means they use methods more akin to the intelligence recruitment processes used by foreign intelligence services than those normally associated with a criminal organization. The cartels are known to conduct extensive surveillance and background checks on potential targets to determine how to best pitch to them. Like the spotting methods used by intelligence agencies, the surveillance conducted by the cartels on potential targets is designed to glean as many details about the target as possible, including where they live, what vehicles they drive, who their family members are, their financial needs and their peccadilloes.

Historically, many foreign intelligence services are known to use ethnicity in their favor, heavily targeting persons sharing an ethnic background found in the foreign country. Foreign services also are known to use relatives of the target living in the foreign country to their advantage. Mexican cartels use these same tools. They tend to target Hispanic officers and often use family members living in Mexico as recruiting levers. For example, Luis Francisco Alarid, who had been a CBP officer at the Otay Mesa, Calif., port of entry, was sentenced to 84 months in federal prison in February for his participation in a conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens and marijuana into the United States. One of the people Alarid admitted to conspiring with was his uncle, who drove a van loaded with marijuana and illegal aliens through a border checkpoint manned by Alarid.

Like family spy rings (such as the Cold War spy ring run by John Walker), there also have been family border corruption rings. Raul Villarreal and his brother, Fidel, both former CBP agents in San Diego, were arraigned March 16 after fleeing the United States in 2006 after learning they were being investigated for corruption. The pair was captured in Mexico in October 2008 and extradited back to the United States.

‘Plata o Sexo’

When discussing human intelligence recruiting, it is not uncommon to refer to the old cold war acronym MICE (money, ideology, compromise and ego) to explain the approach used to recruit an agent. When discussing corruption in Mexico, people often repeat the phrase “plata o plomo,” Spanish for “money or lead” — meaning “take the money or we’ll kill you.” However, in most border corruption cases involving American officials, the threat of plomo is not as powerful as it is inside Mexico. Although some officials charged with corruption have claimed as a defense that they were intimidated into behaving corruptly, juries have rejected these arguments. This dynamic could change if the Mexican cartels begin to target officers in the United States for assassination as they have in Mexico.

With plomo an empty threat north of the border, plata has become the primary motivation for corruption along the Mexican border. In fact, good old greed — the M in MICE — has always been the most common motivation for Americans recruited by foreign intelligence services. The runner-up, which supplants plomo in the recruitment equation inside the United Sates, is “sexo,” aka “sex.” Sex, an age-old espionage recruitment tool that fits under the compromise section of MICE, has been seen in high-profile espionage cases, including the one involving the Marine security guards at the U.S Embassy in Moscow. Using sex to recruit an agent is often referred to as setting a “honey trap.” Sex can be used in two ways. First, it can be used as a simple payment for services rendered. Second, it can be used as a means to blackmail the agent. (The two techniques can be used in tandem.)

It is not at all uncommon for border officials to be offered sex in return for allowing illegal aliens or drugs to enter the country, or for drug-trafficking organizations to use attractive agents to seduce and then recruit officers. Several officials have been convicted in such cases. For example, in March 2007, CBP inspection officer Richard Elizalda, who had worked at the San Ysidro, Calif., port of entry, was sentenced to 57 months in prison for conspiring with his lover, alien smuggler Raquel Arin, to let the organization she worked for bring illegal aliens through his inspection lane. Elizalda also accepted cash for his efforts — much of which he allegedly spent on gifts for Arin — so in reality, Elizalda was a case of “plata y sexo” rather than an either-or deal.

Corruption Cases Handled Differently

When the U.S. government hires an employee who has family members living in a place like Beijing or Moscow, the background investigation for that employee is pursued with far more interest than if the employee has relatives in Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana. Mexico traditionally has not been seen as a foreign counterintelligence threat, even though it has long been recognized that many countries, like Russia, are very active in their efforts to target the United States from Mexico. Indeed, during the Cold War, the KGB’s largest rezidentura (the equivalent of a CIA station) was located in Mexico City.

Employees with connections to Mexico frequently have not been that well vetted, period. In one well-publicized incident, the Border Patrol hired an illegal immigrant who was later arrested for alien smuggling. In July 2006, U.S. Border Patrol agent Oscar Ortiz was sentenced to 60 months in prison after admitting to smuggling more than 100 illegal immigrants into the United States. After his arrest, investigators learned that Ortiz was an illegal immigrant himself who had used a counterfeit birth certificate when he was hired. Ironically, Ortiz also had been arrested for attempting to smuggle two illegal immigrants into the United States shortly before being hired by the Border Patrol. (He was never charged for that attempt.)

From an investigative perspective, corruption cases tend to be handled more as one-off cases, and they do not normally receive the same sort of extensive investigation into the suspect’s friends and associates that would be conducted in a foreign counterintelligence case. In other words, if a U.S. government employee is recruited by the Chinese or Russian intelligence service, the investigation receives far more energy — and the suspect’s circle of friends, relatives and associates receives far more scrutiny — than if he is recruited by a Mexican cartel.

In espionage cases, there is also an extensive damage assessment investigation conducted to ensure that all the information the suspect could have divulged is identified, along with the identities of any other people the suspect could have helped his handler recruit. Additionally, after-action reviews are conducted to determine how the suspect was recruited, how he was handled and how he could have been uncovered earlier. The results of these reviews are then used to help shape future counterintelligence investigative efforts. They are also used in the preparation of defensive counterintelligence briefings to educate other employees and help protect them from being recruited.

This differences in urgency and scope between the two types of investigations is driven by the perception that the damage to national security is greater if an official is recruited by a foreign intelligence agency than if he is recruited by a criminal organization. That assessment may need to be re-examined, given that the Mexican cartels are criminal organizations with the proven sophistication to recruit U.S. officials at all levels of government — and that this has allowed them to move whomever and whatever they wish into the United States.

The problem of public corruption is very widespread, and to approach corruption cases in a manner similar to foreign counterintelligence cases would require a large commitment of investigative, prosecutorial and defensive resources. But the threat posed by the Mexican cartels is different than that posed by traditional criminal organizations, meaning that countering it will require a nontraditional approach.

Are Drug Legalizers Smoking Dope? A Range of Strong Opinions on What to Do

In Corruption, Crime, Mexico, politics, Transnational crime on May 7, 2009 at 9:09 pm
Should This Be Legal?  And What Else?

Should This Be Legal? And What Else?

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has done what many politicians in Washington only do off-the-record and preferably alone in a sail boat thirty miles off-shore:  suggest a national debate about legalization or decriminalization of some currently illegal drugs (in this case, marijuana).

The subject is percolating, perhaps because of the hurricane of drug violence battering Mexico.  Mark Kleiman wrote a long piece in The American Interest two years ago that is worth reading now.  Here is an excerpt:

…the first step toward achieving less awful results is accepting that there is no one “solution” to the drug problem, for essentially three reasons. First, the potential for drug abuse is built into the human brain. Left to their own devices, and subject to the sway of fashion and the blandishments of advertising, many people will wind up ruining their lives and the lives of those around them by falling under the spell of one drug or another. Second, any laws—prohibitions, regulations or taxes—stringent enough to substantially reduce the number of addicts will be defied and evaded, and those who use drugs in defiance of the laws will generally wind up poorer, sicker and more likely to be criminally active than they would otherwise have been. Third, drug law enforcement must be intrusive if it is to be effective, and enterprises created for the expressed purpose of breaking the law naturally tend toward violence because they cannot rely on courts to settle disputes or police to protect them from robbery or extortion.

More recently, Moises Naim  wrote a short, provocative article titled “Wasted” for Foreign Policy magazine in which he stated:

As a result of this utter failure to think, the United States today is both the world’s largest importer of illicit drugs and the world’s largest exporter of bad drug policy.

I was curious what thoughtful people think about our drug policy and its results.  So I sent the link to a bunch of serious people I know.  I would estimate that about half replied.  (Some no doubt thought that the better part of a career is not putting any views about drugs in writing.) I assured my correspondents that I would not attribute their remarks.  So no names are attached to any of what follows.  But the diversity of their views is impressive, at least to me.  (I made only a few minor edits to correct misspellings and the written equivalents of “you know” and “uh…”):

Health professional

This parallels an article in The Economist a few months back, which made the case that alcohol prohibition entrenched the mafia into US society and that the global drug lords are a modern version of the ‘untouchables’.

The worldwide shortage of Morphine should be included in any analysis of Afghanistan’s heroin industry, though it’s seldom mentioned.

Scholar at a Defense Institute

In general I think that we have to continue with some level of drug trade suppression, but that if we define it as a war it will never be won….The drug war has to be divided conceptually according to the various drugs because they are so distinct in terms of source, shipment variables and toxicity…

Legalization or degrees of permissiveness in use are generally bad ideas in spite of my tendency to believe in the power of the free market.  This is because of the power of the free market.  Although the government could make heroin use legal, for instance, it could not keep people from suing the makers and distributors of such a substance in tort, thus forcing it back to a black market anyway, etc.

In a society wherein cigarettes are being made illegal slice by geographic slice, it is tough to envision a successful movement to make more dangerous substances legal. Additionally, the drug trade fuels other organizations, most of which are bad, so suppression is not just about keeping a kid in Kansas safe, its is about Chavez not having quite as much money with which to screw us.  More or less there it is in a nutshell.

Former Senior Federal Law Enforcement Official

Our government should have been spending far more money for demand reduction for many years, and most anyone you talk to in DEA will agree with that statement.  However, the author alludes to legalization as the answer, and I could not disagree more.  The worst period in our nation’s history for drug abuse and addiction was the 30-40 year period after our Civil War.  One in every 200 Americans were addicted to cocaine or heroin/morphine/opium, and far more were abusing one or more of those drugs.  Those drugs were unregulated and could be purchased off the shelf of any drug store in the country.  ‘Legalization’ didn’t work then and I don’t believe it will now.  The Netherlands’ parliament is now routinely debating the success of their lax drug policies/laws, after they’ve experienced continually rising crime rates and declining quality of life in their city parks, etc.  The bottom line—you can’t control the actions of people under the influence of powerful stimulant and depressant drugs; people simply don’t act responsibly while under their influence.  That’s why there are countless examples of cocaine, meth, GHB, PCP, etc. addicts shooting their next door neighbor or siblings, because they thought they were going to kill them.

Legalizers will often say that alcohol prohibition didn’t work, so drug prohibition will never work.  The numbers of Americans treated for alcoholism and liver disease decreased significantly during the prohibition years, as did the numbers of alcohol related highway deaths.  The vast majority of Americans who use alcohol, do not abuse alcohol.  When I mow the lawn on a hot summer day, I thoroughly enjoy a cold beer or two when I’m done, but I do not drink those beers to alter my behavior.  When my wife cooks my favorite Italian pasta dish, I enjoy complementing the meal with a glass or two of red wine.  I do not drink the wine to alter my behavior in any way.  However, those who use the drugs I mentioned earlier, or any other illicit mind altering drugs, including marijuana, are doing it for one reason and one reason only—to seek a sense of euphoria and ultimately an alteration of their behavior.

No responsible nation has ever decriminalized drugs that did not eventually re-criminalize them, because they experienced skyrocketing addiction and abuse rates, workplace accidents, highway deaths, insurance rates, etc.; at the same time experiencing significant decreases in school equivalency/efficiency test scores, workplace output, etc.  And what drugs would we legalize, and who/what would regulate their manufacture (to pharmaceutical standards), marketing, distribution, taxation, etc.?  The federal government (you’ve got to be kidding me)?  Will we legalize PCP, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, GHB (the date-rape drug), ecstasy?  How about 3-methyl fentanyl, a synthetic form of heroin 1,000 times more potent then heroin?  Do we allow the user of cocaine hydrochloride to ‘crack’ it up on the kitchen stove with basic household products?  By the way, what’s the age limit we attach to drug use?  Is it 21?  Is it 18?  And do we really want the traffickers, after we legalize drugs, to suddenly prioritize their focus on our fellow citizens under the designated legal age—our kids?

The reality of the situation is that we do a pretty damn good job of keeping a lid on our drug problem here in the U.S.  We did not experience over 6,000 drug related deaths on our streets last year; we did not have over 200 drug related beheadings in the U.S. last year; we did not have our Deputy Attorney General arrested for taking multi-hundred thousand dollar payoffs from drug lords; we did not have to throw our military into the fight domestically because our federal, state and local law enforcement community had become so corrupted by drug cartels that they could not be trusted; etc.  This should at least be considered as one of the ways we measure success against drug abuse and trafficking in our country.  There are somewhere between 40% to 50% fewer Americans abusing illicit drugs today than in 1979 at the height of the most recent era of drug abuse in our country.  If some medical research team had reduced the number of cases of diabetes by 40% to 50% since 1979, someone would be getting a Nobel prize.

Finally, we’re not winning the War on Domestic Violence.  Should we legalize it?  We’re not winning the War on Racism?  Should we legalize it?  We’re not winning the War on Corporate Fraud.  Should we legalize it?  We’re not winning the War on Child Pornography.  Should we legalize it?    The only thing we accomplish by legalizing drugs, is that we provide our kids and other citizens with greater access to cheaper, more potent and powerful mind-altering, addictive substances.  Don’t we have enough problems to deal with?

Lawyer in criminal division of a federal law enforcement agency

Very interesting – it does seem clear that the war is a failure, and we are losing.  The new ONDCP Director (Kerlikowski) will focus on demand reduction as well, but it certainly seems reasonable to explore ways to take the vast criminal profit out of the drug trade.  Unfortunately, no one can say that politically – though, who knows, maybe Arlen Spector will lead the charge as a Democrat?

Personal friend, retired from government, lives in Colorado

I totally agree with this article. In fact, I believe that failed US policies are largely responsible for the Mexican drug wars and their spillover here. If we 1) legalized marijuana and 2) had the same gun policies as Mexico itself, where it is very hard to buy guns, then much of the drug-fueled violence would cease. But what are the chances that either of those things could happen? Even Obama seems afraid of the NRA!

Retired gang investigator, California

…seems logical, but a few things I observe:  Yes, we are losing the war on drugs, just like Viet Nam, and in some respect Iraq.  We have no real political spine for wars.  Our congress has no general consensus on either.  The ideological lock that is occurring in Congress prevents anything meaningful from passing.  I agree we need prevention and treatment, but we also need border control and to toughen the import routes.  Narcotic crimes are not victimless, we have a lot of violence associated with it, and legalizing it is not an acceptable answer.  We have many murders not related to narcotics, in fact, more than those that are.  Should we legalize the murder of wives by irate husbands, or soiled daughters like the Taliban advocates?  The obvious answer if NO, absolutely not.  Let us seal the borders against the importation of human traffickers and narcotics.  It could be done with minimal legislative change, and with the support of Congress.  That is unlikely, so we will probably be having this same argument 10 years from now.

Congressional staff member

I’ve long believed that the “war on drugs’ (another asinine “contribution” to our national lexicon from the guy who gave us the suffix “gate”) has been more than a colossal failure; it has inflicted great harm on the nation, and on other nations (see e.g. Mexico at the moment).  Would the drug gangs in the US and Mexico (and Colombia, Afghanistan, etc.) have that much money and influence if RJ Reynolds sold grass in the corner bodega for $5 a pack?  Hardly.  What would happen to the shooting war?  When was the last time someone got wasted over a shipment of bathtub gin?  When was the last time someone went blind drinking bathtub gin?  Do our kids even know what bathtub gin is?  Prohibition made local gangs into the modern mob, and we’ve done the same with the war on drugs.  Public opprobrium, and the war on drugs lobby, which includes everything from prison industrial complex to the guys who make those idiotic “DARE” t-shirts, are substantial impediments to a more rational policy.  It is also the case that many illegal drugs are extremely harmful.  The only question for policy makers is whether the current legal regime is the best, or at least the least bad, way to deal with those harms.  Decades of experience tell us no.  We can’t even get a consensus for treatment on demand, or guaranteed treatment for people ready to get clean.  I had the experience in [New York]  of trying to get junkies who showed up in my office looking for treatment.  Even calling from an Assembly office I couldn’t get them in.  Our way of treating these people is with prison.  We also make the richest guy in the neighborhood the pusher.  That may be self-satisfying for some people, but it’s not really a solution. We get the problems associated with drug use, plus a failure to help addicts, and we create significant deleterious associated problems.  Not terribly helpful.

Prominent criminal defense lawyer

…we pay a tremendous price for the legalization of alcohol—drunk drivers, alcoholism, etc. I am not advocating abstinence, but in reality we suffer greatly for legalization.  We will pay a much higher price if drugs are legalized.

I agree the war on drugs has not been won, but continuing to fight the war is better than giving up.  The “war” has saved lives, other social ills in our society and will continue to so even if we never achieve anything close to total victory.  If we legalize say even marijuana it will become a slippery slope to much more.  I am more concerned about what I believe will be a drug pandemic in our country— is far more important than angst caused in Afghanistan, etc.

Moreover, if we give up—what does it say about our resolve in other areas when the going gets tough?  Another black hawk down maybe of which Ben Laden took note.

If when we can not fully control something, we surrender, what a sorry state that will be.

Retired senior federal law enforcement official

1. Just like with wine allow every family to have two pot plants for personal use
2. Provide drug addicts amnesty with free drugs
3.Increase penalty for all drug traffickers to death – send special ops teams to other countries to bring ‘em back dead or alive if needed.

I wonder what you think?


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on April 17, 2009 at 1:08 pm
Peaceful View of Violence-Wracked Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Peaceful View of Violence-Wracked Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

As the aerial map below demonstrates, El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico lie cheek to jowl along the border.  The Barrio Azteca prison gang had its roots among offenders in the Texas prison system from El Paso.  BA is now firmly planted on both sides of the border.

The U.S. Gang Intelligence Center describes the role of border gangs generally in Mexican drug trafficking:

Some larger gangs have developed regular working relationships with DTOs and other criminal organizations in Mexico, Central America, and Canada to develop sources of supply for wholesale quantities of illicit drugs and to facilitate other criminal activities. According to law enforcement information, gang members provide Mexican DTOs with support, such as smuggling, transportation, and security.

Barrio Azteca is one of those gangs, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Gang Unit:

The Barrio Azteca is one of the most violent prison gangs operating within the U.S…primarily in federal, state and local correctional facilities in Texas, as well as on the outside in communities located in Southwestern Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. Barrio Azteca’s main source of income is derived from the smuggling of heroin, powdered cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. for distribution both inside and outside the prison systems. Members of the Barrio Azteca often transport illicit drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border on behalf of DTOs.

Parts One and Two of this series have described the BA’s organization and provided an overview of its operations.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

This Problem of Border Control Is Apparent From This Aerial View Of The El Paso-Juarez Area

This Problem of Border Control Is Apparent From This Aerial View Of The El Paso-Juarez Area

But, how exactly are drugs smuggled into the United States from Mexico — whether by BA or another gang? This is a vague area of public knowledge.  It is revealed through serial anecdotes and often treated in summary description.

The private intelligence service Stratfor issued an excellent report and analysis this week going into much-needed detail about this process.  “Drug smuggling,” Stratfor reports, “is one of the most accessible ways for a gang member to make money when he is released from prison.”  The full report can be read here, but here are a few excerpts to provide a background for a look into a Texas appeals court’s description of one smuggling attempt involving a Barrio Azteca member that went awry:

As products move through the supply chain, they require more specific handling and detailed knowledge of an area, which requires more manpower. The same, more or less, can be said for drug shipments. This can be seen in interdiction reports. When narcotics are intercepted traversing South America into Mexico, they can be measured in tons; as they cross the border into the United States, seizures are reported in kilograms; and by the time products are picked up on the streets of U.S. cities, the narcotics have been divided into packages measured in grams. To reflect this difference, we will refer to the movement of drugs south of the border as trafficking and the movement of drugs north of the border as distributing.
The only certainties are that drugs and people will move from south to north, and that money and weapons will move from north to south. But the specific nature and corridors of those movements are constantly in flux as traffickers innovate in their attempts to stay ahead of the police in a very Darwinian environment. The traffickers employ all forms of movement imaginable, including:

* Tunneling under border fences into safe houses on the U.S. side.
* Traversing the desert on foot with 50-pound packs of narcotics. (Dirt bikes, ATVs and pack mules are also used.)
* Driving across the border by fording the Rio Grande, using ramps to get over fences, cutting through fences or driving through open areas.
* Using densely vegetated portions of the riverbank as dead drops.
* Floating narcotics across isolated stretches of the river.
* Flying small aircraft near the ground to avoid radar.
* Concealing narcotics in private vehicles, personal possessions and in or on the bodies of persons who are crossing legally at ports of entry.
* Bribing border officials in order to pass through checkpoints.
* Hiding narcotics on cross-border trains.
* Hiding narcotics in tractor trailers carrying otherwise legitimate loads.
* Using boats along the Gulf coast.
* Using human “mules” to smuggle narcotics aboard commercial aircraft in their luggage or bodies.
* Shipping narcotics via mail or parcel service.

These methods are not mutually exclusive, and organizations may use any combination at the same time. New ways to move the product are constantly emerging.

What A "Kilo" -- 1 Kilogram = 2.2 Pounds -- Of Cocaine Looks Like.  This Was Smuggled Into Montreal In A Bucket Of Frozen Mango Puree.  Yummee!

What A "Kilo" -- 1 Kilogram = 2.2 Pounds -- Of Cocaine Looks Like. This Was Smuggled Into Montreal In A Bucket Of Frozen Mango Puree. Yummee!

A 2004 Texas appellate court decision, Ojeda vs. Texas, contains a nitty-gritty description of the reality of the cross-border pipeline in a particular kind of transport — the use of the body cavities of human “mules.”  Stratfor reports that “a large part of the process simply involves saturating the system with massive numbers of expendable, low-skilled smugglers who are desperate for the money.”

The story unfolds as Alejandro Ojeda and his female passenger attempted to cross the border into the United States.  They seem to be their own worst enemies — but, remember that these are not masterminds, just the lowest level of fodder, workers in the modern sweat shops of gang criminal enterprise:

At approximately 8 p.m. on November 3, 1999, [Ojeda] driving a gray 1991 Chrysler Caravan, approached the U.S. Customs inspection booth at the Paso Del Norte Bridge. Martha Guerra was sitting in the front passenger seat.

During routine questioning, Customs Inspector Armando San Roman asked [Ojeda]for his citizenship, his purpose for traveling to Mexico, and inquired about the vehicle’s ownership. [Ojeda] responded that he was a U.S. citizen, and that he had bought the vehicle about thirty days prior in Mexico. As he was conducting the questioning, Inspector San Roman noticed [Ojeda] “moving around and sitting upright and getting nervous.”

Noticing that the vehicle did not have a front license plate, Inspector San Roman asked [Ojeda] and Ms. Guerra for identification and proceeded to the back of the vehicle.  Inspector San Roman testified at trial that [Ojeda’s] demeanor by this time was unusual; [Ojeda] was talking loud, getting tense, and then he sat upright and appeared to be getting anxious. According to Inspector San Roman, [Ojeda’s] nervous behavior was out of the ordinary.

In addition, Ms. Guerra, with the exception of declaring her citizenship, did not utter a word, although Inspector San Roman testified that he directed some questions towards her.  Inspector San Roman testified that she was sitting at the edge of her seat, just looking at him; she appeared to be nervous and anxious. Inspector San Roman testified that [Ojeda’s] behavior and Ms. Guerra’s silence made him get suspicious.

Inspector San Roman walked to the back of the vehicle and saw that the vehicle’s plates were from Kansas. He returned back to the driver’s side and proceeded to ask the same questions he had asked before to verify that the answers were the same. This time, [Ojeda]stated that he had been in Juarez for about two to three hours and that the reason for his trip was to take Ms. Guerra’s cousin to Mexico. Inspector San Roman then noticed that the names on [Ojeda’s] and Ms. Guerra’s ID’s matched the names provided on a “be on the lookout” bulletin. Inspector San Roman sent the vehicle to the secondary inspection station.

At this point, Ojeda and Guerra are fixed like a bug on an entomologist’s needle.  It’s all over but the details for them.  But keep in mind that at most busy border crossings, time is not standing still.  Other vehicles with other mules or concealed packages are getting through.  The next bit of the story describes the quotidian work of winkling out the dope:

Inspector John Maxwell, trained as a canine enforcement officer, was asked to screen [Ojeda] and Ms. Guerra with the canine. He testified that the canine is trained to alert to marijuana, hash, cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth, and that he is what is called a passive alerter. This means that if the canine gets the odor of narcotics, he changes his behavior by wagging his tail, his ears come up, his breathing gets heavier, and then he sits next to where the odor is detected. On this occasion, Inspector Maxwell testified that the canine alerted to both the Appellant and Ms. Guerra, who were standing about a foot apart. The canine then went over to the open door of the vehicle, sniffed the passenger seat and alerted to it as well.

[Senior Inspection Officer Maria Elena] Frazier testified that she saw Ms. Guerra walking funny, as if she was holding something between her legs, but that she had not suspected she was hiding contraband, until the heroin was found. Inspector Criss-man testified that Ms. Guerra was taking very small steps, as if she was having a hard time walking.

Frazier placed Ms. Guerra in a holding cell and then requested the assistance of Inspector Dianne Crissman in conducting a pat-down of Ms. Guerra. Inspector Frazier asked Ms. Guerra to stand, put her hands against the wall, and spread her legs. Initially, Ms. Guerra did not want to comply and had to be asked several times before Inspector Frazier had to push open her legs. In conducting a pat-down of Ms. Guerra, Inspector Frazier felt a foreign substance in Ms. Guerra’s groin area. Inspector Frazier asked Ms. Guerra to remove the object, but it was not until she asked Ms. Guerra if she needed medical assistance in removing the object that Ms. Guerra complied. Ms. Guerra removed from her vaginal cavity a condom containing about four to five golf size balls of a black tar like substance which were wrapped in another condom. The two condoms combined formed a cylinder like shape. The substance field tested positive as heroin. Further laboratory testing con-firmed that the substance was in fact pure heroin containing some adulterants and dilutants, and that it weighed 125.19 grams.

Upon searching Ms. Guerra’s purse, Inspector Crissman testified that she found among other things, a condom. A search of vehicle uncovered an open plastic bag sitting in between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat that contained an unopened box of condoms, an open box of condoms, two open condom wrappers, and lubricants, one container which was open. The condom in Ms. Guerra’s purse matched the brand on the condom wrappers and both boxes.

Cocaine pellets confiscated from detained body packers in Jamaica. Left: Multiple=

Cocaine pellets confiscated from detained body packers in Jamaica. Left: Multiple pellets spontaneously evacuated. Right: Surgically extracted pellets from the stomach of an offender.

Note that this incident happened ten years ago, so procedures of gang and law enforcement alike could have changed.  For an engaging and counter-trend analysis of drug trafficking and terrorist networks, and how they learn, read Michael Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation.
In fact, a recent study of similar smuggling attempts through Jamaica found that the drug traffickers have indeed changed their methods in response to law enforcement’s having developed a profile of their old method.  Here is the abstract from “The Changing Demographics of Cocaine Body Packers in Jamaica” in The Internet Journal of Forensic Science (2009):

Cocaine trafficking by body packers has become epidemic in Jamaica. In 1999 the Jamaican government created a specialized anti-drug task force aimed at intercepting body packers at international airports. An important method used to identify these packers is passenger profiling. International experience suggests that the majority of body packers are single females from under-privileged backgrounds with multiple dependents. This retrospective study describes the demographics of Cocaine body packers detained at the largest international airport in Jamaica between January 2002 and December 2006.

There were 189 body packers identified, with a marked preponderance of male offenders (81% vs 19%). There were 153 males, with a mean age of 34.3 +/- 9.5 years (Range 17 to 57; Median 33; Mode 38). Only 35 offenders were female, with a mean age of 29.9 +/- 10.4 years (Range 17 to 55; Median 27; Mode 27). The demographics of the Cocaine body packer in Jamaica have changed. The typical body packers are now young males. The anti drug task forces must be aware of these trends in order to effectively identify and detain offenders.

Gangster life sells itself to its young recruits as a font of family, respect, and glamor.  It reality, it is a sordid, dangerous, and poisonous tool of exploitation, as these cases illustrate at the grittiest level.  While the drug lords live lives of flashy opulence, the desperate and the poor pack poison into their bodies, gram by gram.


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Informants and other sophisticated means, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on April 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm
Perp Wal in El Paso -- FBI Agents Walked Barrio Azteca Gang Members Jose Martin Garcia (foreground) and John Michelleti (Rear) to U.S. Federal Courthouse from El Paso County Jail.  Michelleti Cut Deal, Flipped, and Testified Against His Carnales

Perp Walk in El Paso -- FBI Agents Walked Barrio Azteca Gang Members Jose Martin Garcia (foreground) and John Michelletti (Rear) to U.S. Federal Courthouse from El Paso County Jail. Michelletti Had Been Working for FBI Since 2005 and Testified Against His Carnales

The Texas prison gang Barrio Azteca (BA) is one of the most violent gangs in the United States.  It is intimately tied into the trans-border drug traffic from its home base in El Paso, and has a counterpart organization across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  (Go here for Part One and here for Part Three of this series on BA.)

A federal RICO indictment resulted in the conviction of six alleged members and associates in December 2008.  Testimony and other evidence in the trial opened a window into the gang’s operations — aided by a “flipped” member, Johnny (“Conejo” or “Rabbit”) Michelletti, who snitched for several years and then testified in open court about BA’s organization and criminal deeds.  These gangsters swear all manner of blood oaths about loyalty and the fabled code of silence.  But when the big federal-prison-time-with-no-parole generator cranks up and starts to hum, somebody usually breaks and starts singing. In addition to Michelletti, who revealed in court that he had been working for the FBI since 2005, another gangster — Gustavo “Tavo” Gallardo — blinked and decided to cooperate and testify at trial against his homies, his barrio, and his gang.  Oh, well.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

Here is the rundown on Barrio Azteca from the National Drug Intelligence Center’s May 2008 West Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis:

Barrio Azteca controls cocaine, heroin, and marijuana distribution in El Paso. Because of its connections to Mexican DTOs operating in the El Paso/Juárez plaza, Barrio Azteca has a direct source of supply for heroin and other illicit drugs. However, the gang’s activities have been limited as a result of a “safe zone” injunction initiated in 2003 that prohibits its members from being on the street after dark…Barrio Azteca’s activities may be further limited as a result of the recent arrest and indictment [and since this report was issued, conviction, see] of several of the gang’s key members.

Among details that came out in the trial, according to news reports:

  • Barrio Azteca was heavily into drug dealing and collection of “taxes” or “quotas” from drug dealers.  Such collections are nothing less than old-fashioned extortion, a staple of organized crime in the U.S. for decades.  I write about similar operations run by the Mexican Mafia (with a “clica” of the 18th Street gang) in Los Angeles, and the Chicago “Motherland” Latin Kings in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press, No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.
  • BA supplied cocaine to working women in El Paso area strip joints, who sold the drug to customers.
  • The gang infiltrated the Federal Public Defender’s office in El Paso.  A paralegal there, Sandy Valles New, acted as a “bridge,” forwarding messages from gangsters inside prison to those on the outside.  More importantly, according to federal prosecutors, New also tried through her job to find out about the FBI’s investigation of the gang and to obtain court filings.  These could be used to track down informants within the gang.  Attempted infiltration by female associates of law enforcement offices, public defenders, and public utilities is a common gang tactic in the U.S. and abroad.
  • The BA gang has a paramilitary style structure, with specific ranks.
  • Like most of these fraternal love-ins, the gangsters went at each other in the trench warfare of internal power struggles.  One erstwhile boss, or “capo,” David “Chico” Meraz, was allegedly murdered in a knife attack in Juarez, Mexico after he was forced from power by his beloved homies.
  • BA gangsters turned some of their own over to Mexican gangsters to face charges of skimming drug money or otherwise disobeying cartel rules.  The offending gang members were typically bound, gagged, wrapped in tape, stuffed in a vehicle,  and dropped off in Juarez to be brutally disposed of with several rounds to the back of the head.
New Problems For Old El Paso

New Problems For Old El Paso

Michelletti told the court how he got into Barrio Azteca.  Originally a member of a local gang called “Los Fatherless,” he was sent to prison for assaulting a police officer.  In prison he was approached by a BA “sponsor” who invited him to join the gang.  “He (the sponsor) becomes your representative.  Your padrino, your godfather.  You have to show you are down for the organization.”  Throughout gangland, “being down” for the gang means being prepared to step up and commit brutally violent acts.

In the next part of this three-part series, Fairly Civil will look at a specific case that illustrates the mechanics of physically getting drugs across the border.  In the meantime, the private intelligence and security service Stratfor has issued a truly excellent report and analysis of this drug movement, which can and should be read here.


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on April 8, 2009 at 2:55 pm
El Paso From The North -- Mexico Beyond (Wikimedia)

El Paso From The North -- Mexico Beyond (Wikimedia)

El Paso is the very avatar of the problems of the U.S.-Mexico border.  The city — which lies just across the border from Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez — is the Texas prison gang Barrio Azteca’s  home base.  Barrio Azteca (BA) was born in the Texas prison system among prisoners from El Paso in the mid-1980s.   The gang and the city of El Paso are intimately entwined in the drug trade and the violence associated with it.  (Go here for Part Two and here for Part Three of this series.)

From its earliest days, El Paso has embodied the special relationship between Mexico and territory that was once Mexico, and the peculiarities of the old “Wild West.”  This description is from the Online Handbook of Texas:

El Paso is at the far western tip of Texas, where New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua meet in a harsh desert environment around the slopes of Mount Franklin on the Rio Grande, which has often been compared to the Nile. As they approached the Rio Grande from the south, Spaniards in the sixteenth century viewed two mountain ranges rising out of the desert with a deep chasm between. This site they named El Paso del Norte (the Pass of the North), the future location of two border cities-Ciudad Juárez on the south or right bank of the Rio Grande, and El Paso, Texas, on the opposite side of the river. Since the sixteenth century the pass has been a continental crossroads; a north-south route along a historic camino real prevailed during the Spanish and Mexican periods, but traffic shifted to an east-west axis in the years following 1848, when the Rio Grande became an international boundary.

Most authorities agree that the arrival of the railroads in 1881 and 1882 was the single most significant event in El Paso history, as it transformed a sleepy, dusty little adobe village of several hundred inhabitants into a flourishing frontier community that became the county seat in 1883 and reached a population of more than 10,000 by 1890. As El Paso became a western boomtown, it also became “Six Shooter Capital” and “Sin City,” where scores of saloons, dance halls, gambling establishments, and houses of prostitution lined the main streets. At first the city fathers exploited the town’s evil reputation by permitting vice for a price, but in time the more farsighted began to insist that El Paso’s future might be in jeopardy if vice and crime were not brought under a measure of control. In the 1890s reform-minded citizens conducted a campaign to curb El Paso’s most visible forms of vice and lawlessness, and in 1905 the city finally enacted ordinances closing houses of gambling and prostitution.

Today, El Paso is struggling with its connections to the drug traffic, Mexican drug trafficking organizations, and U.S.-based gangs, including one of the most violent in the nation — BA.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

The private intelligence service Stratfor has an excellent report on Barrio Azteca. This excerpt from that report describes the gang’s formation and growth:

Spanish for “Aztec Neighborhood,” BA originated in a Texas state penitentiary in 1986, when five inmates from El Paso organized the group as a means of protection in the face of the often-brutal ethnic tensions within prisons. By the 1990s, BA had spread to other prisons and had established a strong presence on the streets of El Paso as its founding members served their terms and were released.

According to the El Paso Police Department:

Most of the original members were from the Second Ward (Segundo Barrio) area of El Paso, which is located in the south central region of the city. As the Aztecas grew in numbers, they became involved in the now standard activities of prison gangs: narcotics, extortion, assaults, murders, theft and intimidation. The Aztecas recruit directly from the pool of street gang members who have been arrested or imprisoned; however, [they] also form alliances and intimidate various street-level gangs who have not progressed to the prison system.

Here is how the U.S. Department of Justice’s Gang Unit sums up Barrio Azteca as it exists today:

The Barrio Azteca is one of the most violent prison gangs operating within the U.S. Barrio Azteca is a highly structured criminal entity and has an estimated membership of 2,000 persons. Most members of the Barrio Azteca are either Mexican nationals or Mexican-American males. Barrio Azteca is most active in the Southwestern region of the U.S., primarily in federal, state and local correctional facilities in Texas, as well as on the outside in communities located in Southwestern Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. Barrio Azteca’s main source of income is derived from the smuggling of heroin, powdered cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. for distribution both inside and outside the prison systems. Members of the Barrio Azteca often transport illicit drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border on behalf of DTOs. Barrio Azteca members are also involved in crimes such as alien smuggling, arson, assault, auto theft, burglary, extortion, intimidation, kidnapping, robbery and weapons violations.

The reach of prison gangs like BA outside of the walls is not unique.  I write about the street gang connections and associated drug trafficking operations of two such gangs — the Mexican Mafia in California and the Latin Kings in Chicago — in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press (No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement).

Simply put, prison gangs control offender life inside the walls.  Any street gang, or individual renegade gangster, who bucks the authority of the relevant prison gang will be “green-lighted” — targeted for punishment, which often means death.  Originally, members of Latino street gangs learned that they could and would be whacked inside prison if they did not cooperate.  Only a few street gangs still operate independently in California, for example.  And prison gangs now assign hits outside of the prison walls to members of street gang affiliates or to made members of the prison gang after their release from confinement.

Here  is an overview of the relationship between Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and U.S. street and outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs), from the National Drug Intelligence Center’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 :

Although gangs do not appear to be part of any formal Mexican DTO structure, several Mexican DTOs use U.S.-based gangs to smuggle and distribute drugs, collect drug proceeds, and act as enforcers. Mexican DTOs’ use of gang members for these illegal activities insulates DTO cell members from law enforcement detection. Members of most Mexican Cartels–Sinaloa, Gulf, Juárez, and Tijuana)–maintain working relationships with many street gangs and OMGs…Most gang-related criminal activity along the U.S.-Mexico border occurs in South Texas and California… Street and prison gangs… transport and distribute illicit drugs throughout the South Texas area. Some of these gangs have established associate gangs or chapters in border cities in Mexico…

Barrio Azteca fits this pattern.  (Its counterpart on the Mexican side of the border is known as the Aztecas.)

In subsequent posts, Fairly Civil will examine in more detail the specific structure and operations of the U.S.-based Barrio Azteca gang.


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