Border violence pushes north

Times Staff Writer

Violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border, which has long plagued the scrubby, often desolate stretch, is increasingly spilling northward into the cities of the American Southwest.

In Phoenix, deputies are working the unsolved case of 13 border crossers who were kidnapped and executed in the desert. In Dallas, nearly two dozen high school students have died in the last two years from overdoses of a $2-a-hit Mexican fad drug called “cheese heroin.”

The crime surge, most acute in Texas and Arizona, is fueled by a gritty drug war in Mexico that includes hostages being held in stash houses, daylight gun battles claiming innocent lives, and teenage hit men for the Mexican cartels. Shipments of narcotics and vans carrying illegal workers on U.S. highways are being hijacked by rival cartels fighting over the lucrative smuggling routes. Fires are being set in national forests to divert police.


In Laredo, Texas, a teenager who had been driving around the United States in a $70,000 luxury sedan confessed to becoming a Mexican cartel hitman when he was just 13. In Nogales, Ariz., an 82-year-old man was caught with 79 kilograms of cocaine in his Chevrolet Impala. The youth was sentenced to 40 years in prison in one slaying case and is awaiting trial in another; the old man received 10 years.

In Southern California, Border Patrol agents routinely encounter smugglers driving immigrant-laden cars who try to escape by driving the wrong way on busy freeways. And stash houses packed with dozens of illegal immigrants have been discovered in Los Angeles.

But a huge U.S. law enforcement buildup along the border that started a decade ago has helped stabilize border-related crime rates on the California side; a recent wave of kidnappings in Tijuana has been largely contained south of the border.

The sprawling border has been crisscrossed for years by the poor seeking work and by drug dealers in the hunt for U.S. dollars. For decades neither the United States nor Mexico has managed to halt the immigrants and narcotics pushing north. But with the Mexican government’s newly pledged war on the cartels, and an explosion of violence among rival networks, a new crime dynamic is emerging: The violence that has hit Mexican border towns is spreading deeper into the United States.

U.S. officials are promising more Border Patrol and federal firearms officers, more fences and more surveillance towers along the desert stretches where the two nations meet.

But law enforcement officials are wary of how this new burst in violence will play out, especially because the enemy is better armed and more sophisticated than ever. Among their concerns are budget cutbacks in some agencies -- including a hiring freeze in the Drug Enforcement Administration -- and community opposition to the surveillance towers.

Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said he would need at least 20,000 new Border Patrol agents in El Paso alone to hold back the tide. But that is the total number of agents that Washington hopes to have along the whole border by the end of 2009.

In six years, Sutton’s office has tried 33,000 defendants, about 90% of them on drug and immigration violations. “We’re body-slamming them the best we can,” he said.

In Phoenix, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said there were 10,000 inmates in his jail and overflow tents; 2,000 of them are “criminal aliens” from the border, he said. His deputies are investigating the deaths of 13 people executed in the desert.

Jennifer Allen, director of Border Action Network, a Tucson nonprofit that supports immigrants’ rights, said Washington and Mexico City need fresh approaches. “The smugglers are no longer mom-and-pop organizations. Now it’s an industry,” she said. “So the violence increases. That’s incredibly predictable.”

Raul Benitez, an international relations professor in Mexico City who also taught at American University in Washington, blames both countries for the crime wave. As long as Americans crave drugs and the cartels want money, Benitez said, “security in both directions is jeopardized.”

Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Houston sociologist, said people on both sides of the Rio Grande viewed themselves as one community.

“People say, ‘The river doesn’t divide us,; it unites us,’ ” he said. “When you’re at ground zero at the border, you see yourselves as one community -- for good or bad.”

Rodriguez knows. His first cousin, Juan Garza, born in the United States but trained by criminals in Mexico, ran his own murder-and-drug enterprise out of Brownsville, Texas. He was executed in 2001 by the United States.

“Of course there is a spillover of violence into this country,” Rodriguez said.

“It’s pouring across our border, and anybody can get caught up in it.”

The small town of Sierra Vista, Ariz., learned firsthand of the rising violence in 2004, when police chased a pickup carrying 24 illegal immigrants on the border town’s main drag, Buffalo Soldier Trail. Speeds reached up to 100 mph. The truck went airborne, hit half a dozen cars and killed a recently married elderly couple waiting at a stoplight.

“It was just the worst kind of tragedy,” said Cochise County Atty. Ed Rheinheimer. “The coyotes [smugglers] are just more willing to either shoot at the police, fight with the police, or to try to flee.”

Even more brazen have been several kidnappings of 50 to 100 immigrants by rival cartels, which hide them in stash houses in and around Phoenix until families pay a ransom. One captive’s face was burned with a cigarette, another person nearly suffocated in a plastic bag. A woman was raped. Fingers have been sliced off and sent back to families with demands for money.

The border-crime issue became so urgent in Arizona that top officials met in Tucson in June with their counterparts from Sonora, Mexico. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano agreed to help train Sonoran police to track wire payments to smugglers. Sonoran Gov. Eduardo Bours agreed to improve police communications with U.S. authorities.

In the first nine months of the fiscal year, Tucson officials have surpassed last year’s record of 4,559 arrests over migrant smuggling.

And so far this year, in tiny Douglas, Ariz., the Mexican consulate has identified the bodies of five Mexican nationals who died under suspicious circumstances while crossing into the United States, and he is awaiting the identification of another five he presumes were Mexicans as well. There were only seven such deaths last year.

Statewide the picture is equally bleak. Homicides of illegal crossers is up 21% over last year.

Another visible effect of the cross-border crime wave is the flood of drugs into the country.

Anthony J. Coulson, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA in Arizona, said records indicated that cocaine and heroin seizures may end up twice as high as last year. Marijuana seizures are increasing 25%. Nine months into the current fiscal year, he said, his team had already seized more pot than all of last year. “And 2006 was a record year,” he said.

In the Tucson sector alone there has been a 71% increase in marijuana seizures over the last fiscal year, with the Border Patrol reporting 648,000 pounds confiscated since October.

In the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Arpaio said, a cartel operative was openly selling heroin to high school students. “He was getting 150 calls a day on his cellphone,” the sheriff said.

The DEA believes 80% of the methamphetamine in the United States is coming from labs in Mexico, which were set up after police raids shut down many of the labs in the U.S.

In Dallas, police are dealing with the deaths of 21 high school students from “cheese heroin,” a mixture of Mexican heroin and over-the-counter cold medicine. A hit sells for $2 to $5. Several arrests of dealers have been made; now officials are bracing for the coming school season.

“It’s a small packet,” said Lt. Tom Moorman of the Dallas Police Department. “They can carry it in a pack of gum. Very, very small.”

Antonio Oscar “Tony” Garza Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has issued repeated notes to the Mexican government. Last year he sent an advisory to American tourists that “drug cartels, aided by corrupt officials [in Mexico], reign unchecked in many towns along our common border.”

A House subcommittee on domestic security has investigated the “triple threat” of drug smuggling, illegal border crossings and rising violence, and it found that “very little” passes the border without the cartels’ knowledge.

The panel found that cartels send smugglers into the United States fully armored with equipment -- much of it imported to Mexico from the United States -- including high-powered binoculars and encrypted radios, bazookas, military-style grenades, assault rifles and silencers, sniper scopes and bulletproof vests. Some wear fake police uniforms to confuse authorities as well as Mexican bandits who might ambush them.

The panel’s report cited numerous recent crimes. In McAllen, Texas, “two smuggled women from Central America were found on the side of a road badly beaten and without clothing. Their captors intimidated the victims by shooting weapons into the walls and ceiling as they were raped.” In Laredo, Texas, Webb County sheriff’s deputies came upon 56 illegal immigrants locked in a refrigerator trailer; 11 were women, two children. After six hours, “many were near death by the time they were rescued.”

It was in Laredo last summer where police encountered Rosalio Reta, then 17, a Houston native who fell under the spell of the Gulf Cartel across the river. Known as Bart, the youth was 13 when he started visiting Mexico.

“They walk across the bridge,” said Laredo Det. Robert Garcia, who investigated a murder that involved Reta. “They see all the nightclubs with no age limit. They see the guys their age spending money, throwing money around, paying for everything. They like the lure, the women, the fancy cars. They start moving weapons and guns and pretty soon they start asking for money for hits.”

Garcia said Reta told him how he helped break a cartel leader out of a Mexican prison. From there he moved up to become a hit man and returned to Texas behind the wheel of a $70,000 Mercedes Benz, Garcia said.

Then last year a Laredo man, Noe Flores, was killed in front of his home, shot by mistake because the cartel thought Flores was his half-brother.

In a written statement to police, Reta admitted to driving the car with two accomplices. One of them, identified by Reta as Gabriel Cardona, jumped out and “shot two rounds at first,” he wrote.

“That was when he fell to the floor and then shot em 13 more rounds and that was when Jesus Gonzales [the other alleged accomplice] started shooting from the rear windows.

“Then we left the sene of the crime and we left the car like 3 blocks away. The work was done for the Gulf Cartel of Mexico.”

At trial last month, a witness said Reta and the accomplices were paid a total of $15,000 for the hit. But the case ended abruptly when Reta pleaded guilty in return for a 40-year sentence; he had faced 99 years.

Webb County Judge Joe Lopez told the youth: “It’s a young life. Come to terms with your God and your faith, or whatever it may be.”

Cardona also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 80 years. Gonzales was arrested but made bail, and he disappeared back into Mexico.

Reta awaits trial in a second case, involving the ambush slaying in December 2005 of Moises Garcia, shot in his car in a Laredo restaurant parking lot as his pregnant wife and family watched helplessly.


Times staff writer Richard Marosi in San Diego contributed to this report.