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.
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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.
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.
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.