This is something Border Narcotics Intelligence has been warning law enforcement of for months now!
Cartel Threats, Attacks on US Law Enforcement and the Question of ‘Spill Over’ Violence
Intelligence obtained by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that it deemed “reliable” was distributed in March to a number of states’ fusion centers alerting them that “the Gulf Cartel had directed [that] no more ‘drug loads’ in the US will be lost (to law enforcement),” according to a bulletin that was issued by a state fusion center obtained by Homeland Security Today.
The bulletin said DEA’s source of information had stated that “the drug transporters are to ‘shoot it out with law enforcement’ or suffer similar consequences from Gulf Cartel leadership.’”
“While this information mostly relates to those southern border states with a large Gulf Cartel influence,” the fusion center’s alert said, it also cautioned that the intelligence indicated “… a possible new trend in violence toward US law enforcement.”
In response, the Oklahoma Information Fusion Center issued a “Situational Awareness Bulletin” that stated the DEA’s information was being “provided [to state law enforcement officers] in the interest of officer safety and situational awareness,” and that “law enforcement is encouraged to promptly report any information received from confidential or other sources pertaining to this bulletin …”
The Gulf Cartel’s reported threat is of particular concern to Oklahoma law enforcement because Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have become an increasingly serious problem in the Sooner state, largely because vital north-south and east/west interstate highways intersect in Oklahoma City, where the Gulf and other cartels have established narcotics storage and distribution centers, just as they have in San Antonio and other cities along highways that are used by the TCOs to transport their narco-loads.
A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report pointed out that TCOs “have been developing sophisticated illicit drug smuggling and trafficking networks for years,” and that “these activities engender violence and associated criminal activity … along domestic interstate distribution networks …”
At a March 31 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, disclosed in his opening remarks that another law enforcement bulletin had warned that cartels were overheard plotting to kill Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] agents and Texas Rangers guarding the border using AK-47s by shooting at them from across the border ...”
Cross-border shootings from Mexico have been an ongoing problem along the border for years.
Four years earlier, in 2008, the FBI had similarly warned in an intelligence report that the Gulf Cartel had began to stockpile munitions and to recruit local gang members on both sides of the border in preparation for confrontations with US federal and border region law enforcement. FBI warned that cartel operatives in the United States “are believed to be armed with assault rifles, bullet proof vests and grenades, and are occupying safe houses” in preparation for confrontations with US border region law enforcement.
Early this May, Mexican security forces seized an arsenal from a home in Ciudad Juarez that included a weapon capable of downing aircraft.
A FBI San Antonio Field Office intelligence advisory several years ago strongly warned that the Sinaloa Cartel also had ordered its street enforcers to engage US law enforcement officers to protect cartel operations.
At a classified meeting in Arizona in 2009, counter-narcotics officials were warned that "trafficking organizations have begun to feel the 'squeeze' and pressure against their illegal activities,” and thus “these criminal groups increasingly resort to violent means to conduct smuggling operations.”
Former Los Zetas Cartel overlord, Jaime González Duran – who was arrested November 7, 2008 by Mexican Federal Police in Reynosa, Tamaulipas with a vast arsenal of firearms and ammunition – reportedly also had instructed his cells to "engage law enforcement with a full tactical response should law enforcement attempt to intervene in their operations."
More recently, Zapata County, Texas deputy sheriffs discovered .50 caliber cartridges, camouflage netting and night vision equipment in a vehicle they’d stopped that was being driven by individuals working for the Los Zetas Cartel.
“Speculation was that if the ammunition was not to be taken to Mexico, it was going to be stockpiled along the border in the event the war in Mexico would end up in Texas,” Sheriff Sigifredo “Sigi” Gonzalez, Jr. told. McCaul’s subcommittee.
Gonzalez said “more of these types of seizures have occurred in many areas of the Texas/Mexico border,” noting, for example, that “on December 16, 2010, a reputed gang member was arrested in Zapata County after 30 hand grenades were discovered hidden under the spare tire of the vehicle he was driving …”
Coinciding with the intelligence bulletin that McCaul disclosed in March, the FBI also had obtained intelligence it considered reliable indicating that a high-ranking Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) leader in El Salvador had ordered hits on ICE agents and members of their families in Maryland and northern Virginia, and that any MS-13 members who successfully carried out the assassinations would receive a $50,000 reward.
DHS officials did not pass on this intelligence to ICE agents until mid-May in the form of an internal “Officer Safety Advisory” that said the information was being provided for “rapid awareness due to the threat specificity and the current elevated concern regarding drug cartel violence against US law enforcement personnel.”
Homeland Security Today reported April 28 that the home of a San Antonio, Texas ICE Immigrations Enforcement Agent was broken into by a masked gunman looking for the officer. But because of the secrecy that’s been imposed on the incident, it’s unclear whether the home invasion was a cartel-related hit attempt, although local law enforcement reputedly suspected that it was.
The problem with these alleged threats is that none of them were ever assessed to be absolutely credible, officials familiar with them said, noting there have been many similar threats – verbal and otherwise – over the years that “just never came to pass,” as one explained.
There’s just simply been no evidence to indicate any of the cartels’ alleged orders to “take out” US law enforcement were ever carried out, a senior fusion center counter-cartel analyst told Homeland Security Today. “And that’s what we’re stuck with,” the analyst said. “Is there a threat? Absolutely! Is there a risk? Weeeeeeeelll … that’s not so clear.”
While there’s little doubt among border region law enforcement that increased and aggressive counter-cartel operations by both the US and Mexico have crippled the TCOs’ abilities to smuggle drugs across the border and to move the illicit revenue back into Mexico, there’s disagreement about just how desperate and dangerous this has made the cartels when it comes to their willingness to directly take on US law enforcement.
As a senior border state law enforcement official told Homeland Security Today, “I've seen these [warnings] from time to time; this is definitely not the first … and nothing much ever happens like the bulletins warned …”
The reality of the seriousness of the threat versus the reality of the risk
Former ICE Deputy Director Alonzo Pena, who retired late last year and is now border security technical director for ManTech, candidly told Homeland Security Today “I haven’t seen anything that would indicate to me that they [cartels] are any more frustrated out of desperation or anything” that would tell “to me” that the Gulf Cartel actually intends to begin firing on law enforcement officers on this side of the border.
Considered to have been a knowledgeable deputy ICE director with a clear-headed perspective on what’s happening on the southern border, Pena reasonably argued that the cartels “are all about profit, and that they’re not going to risk their livelihoods by provoking the wrath of US law enforcement,” which he said if they did, “would backfire on them one-hundred percent.”
There certainly has been an unprecedented US response south of the border to the cartel attack in February on two ICE agents that left one dead, and the apparent attempted assault on a DEA agent in Cuidad Juarez a week later that Homeland Security Today learned about.
Continuing, Pena said evidence indicates that the cartels’ desperation may not necessarily be so much a response to US counter-narco efforts as it is a response to the cartels having a much harder time recruiting people to work for them.
“They’re having to force people to work for them,” Pena stressed, asking: “What really has my curiosity raised” is, “why are they having to pull people from busses to work for them? This is much closer to what I see that’s happening rather than US law enforcement having an impact on their businesses.”
Pena told the Associated Press in February though that he believed “we're looking at an increase” in violence because the cartels “feel like they're cornered or they're threatened,” and that as a consequence, “they're going to react.”
Earlier that month, Pena told The Monitor, a south Texas newspaper, that “what we have seen is a … more violent Mexico in the last couple of years, and that “that, in combination with [the attack on ICE Special Agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila], will be a pivotal moment in the relationship with the US and Mexico to combat the organized crime groups.”
Top homeland security officials have steadfastly maintained - including at a congressional hearing in March - that there’s not yet been any quantifiable “spillover violence” north of the border.
Past and present senior DHS officials and other authorities pointed out that Mexican TCOs have repeatedly issued orders (openly and according to intelligence) over the years similar to the one reputedly made by the Gulf Cartel earlier this year that also stated that they would begin drawing down on American law enforcement officers who get in their way, but that none of these threats ever materialized.
Officials agreed with Pena that the cartels “aren’t stupid,” as one put it, and aren’t going to risk the wrath of the US government to wanton killings of US law enforcement officers on US soil.
As one southern border-assigned Border Patrol official put it: “I would think even the cartel[s] know how America would react to such attack[s]s. Even the liberals would want us to act.”
“I just don’t see any evidence of spill over violence,” said D. Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, who also noted that the cartels’ leaders “know not to poke the Bear; they know not to piss off the Americans.”
Van Schoik said the evidence tends to indicate that the violence we’re seeing, including shootings and assaults on US law enforcement, is being perpetrated by “lower level” cartel and gang members who aren’t necessarily acting on direct orders from the top cartel leaders.
“Threat is not risk, even though everyone thinks and says so,” Van Schoik explained, pointing out that “risk is the actuality of threat pressure across border vulnerability ‘times’ target exposure. In other words, verbal threats have the least actual weight in the calculus” of the actual risk, followed by “the equivalent of mere information being the next heavier; analyzed intelligence more weighty; and then actual hazard the final measure” using classic risk assessment methodology.
“For months now,” Van Schoik pointed out, “cops and CBP have cited verbal threats,” but, he said, “I am more concerned about the rock throwing [against Border Patrol agents that Homeland Security Today earlier reported on in detail], as they are a real risk. On the scale of all considerations, the possibility of impact may be greater from pandemic flu, or floods or firestorms, over terror over TCO threat over irregular migration.”
What is clear, authorities said, is there’s little doubt that the cartels could wreak havoc in the US if they ever decided to do so. Officials cautioned that cartels have plenty of experience gunning down police officers in Mexico.
Indeed. Cartel gunmen murdered Mexican federal, state and local police nearly every day for the last half-decade. In just the last two months, for example, more than three dozen federal, state and local law enforcement officers and various government officials were brutally slaughtered, most in ambushes using automatic weapons, but which also included military issued grenades and other weaponry.
So far, however, officials said, the cartels have yet to engage in these sorts of attacks on US soil. What these officials are concerned about, they emphasized, are the cartels’ assaults on US government law enforcement agents working in Mexico.
The attack on ICE agents Zapata and Avila - in which Zapata was killed - on February 16, and the apparent attempted attack on a DEA agent in Cuidad Juarez a week later, provoked an unprecedented influx of federal agents into Mexico to assist their Mexican counterparts to investigate these assaults.
As more robust and effective US counter-drug and counter-cartel operations by Border Patrol, CBP, ICE, DEA, federal-led task forces, the National Guard and state and local police have increased, there’s been a parallel escalation of assaults and murders of US officials – and Americans - in Mexico. The high-profile assault on Zapata and Avila is widely believed by both US and Mexican authorities to have been the work of the notorious Los Zetas Cartel.
It was an attack some authorities believe signaled a possible watershed change in anti-US aggression south of the border.
Possibly. The attackers’ modus operandi (MO) in the attack on the two ICE agents was repeated a week later in an apparently failed attack on a DEA agent.
But more alarming than that, the same MO was employed north of the border in an attack on the streets of Peoria, Ariz. on the afternoon of April 8 against a state undercover police officer.
Mexico’s crime syndicates raise the stakes
In an official account of the attack in Mexico on ICE Special Agents (SA) Zapata and Avila that was related by “Avila to agents … on scene in San Luis Potosi,” Avila related that “both were on their way back to Mexico City [from Monterey] when they noticed two large [Chevrolet] Suburban type vehicles pull up alongside them as they were on the highway.”
Made available to Homeland Security Today, the account stated Zapata and Avila both “noticed that the occupants had long arms in their possession. The vehicles sped up ahead of the ICE [Official Government Vehicle, OGV] until they were no longer in sight.” But “shortly afterwards they saw both vehicles blocking both south lanes traveling at a speed slower than the normal traffic flow. One vehicle dropped in behind” Zapata and Avila “while the other sped up in front of [them] to block them in.”
“The ICE agents then hit the vehicle that attempted to block them from the front. At that time, the occupants of the vehicle stopped [and] got out [of] the vehicle. There were approximately eight individuals all armed with long guns.”
The account stated “SA Zapata then stopped the OGV [a conspicuously armored blue Chevy Suburban with diplomatic plates] and put it in park, which automatically unlocked the doors.” At that moment, “one of the assailants opened the driver’s side door and attempted to get SA Zapata out of the vehicle. SA Zapata struggled briefly with [the] individual and managed to get the door closed.
“Simultaneously, Avila stated that the passenger side window opened slightly allowing the aggressors to get the muzzle of one long arm and one 9mm pistol into the window space. SAvila advised that the whole time the assailants were screaming for him and SA Zapata to get out of the vehicle. SA Avila advised that [he] was screaming that” they were both ICE Special Agents who “worked for the US Embassy. At this time the individuals began shooting into the OGV from the open window.”
“SA Zapata put the vehicle in drive and sped off,” the account continued. But “shortly afterward SA Zapata slumped over and the vehicle went off the road. At this time the assailants parked in front of the OGV and fired indiscriminately at [it]. The assailants left shortly afterwards.” Zapata and Avila “remained in the vehicle until” Mexican federal police arrived.
"First they were tailed – they didn't notice they were being followed, and the perpetrators ran our agents off the road and blocked them in," former ICE Deputy Director Pena told KSAT in San Antonio a few days after the assault.
"We definitely feel … the incident … is a clear indication that there is a significant problem,” active duty ICE agent Chris Crane, president of American Federation of Government Employees National Council 118-ICE, told National Public Radio at the time.
An attack on a top DEA agent in Mexico? In Arizona?
And the problem did indeed get worse about a week later on Feb. 24 around 11 pm when the Ciudad Juarez DEA Resident Agent in Charge (RAC) may have narrowly averted being gunned down during a nearly identical apparent assault by a group of armed individuals, Homeland Security Today learned.
The agent was traveling alone in the city in his armored OGV bearing diplomatic Mexican registration when he “observed three or four pick-up trucks … traveling in a convoy … The second to last [of the pickups] pulled in front of his vehicle and blocked it to the front,” according to the account of the incident.
“The last vehicle … blocked [the RAC’s] vehicle from the rear” and “the occupants of the front and rear vehicles exited their vehicles carrying short barreled rifles and ordered [the] RAC out of his OGV [and] to the ground,” the report continued. “[The] RAC then made a series of evasive maneuvers in his OGV to include maneuvering to cross into the median area of the roadway in order to elude his attackers.
“During this encounter, [the] RAC observed one of his attackers had some type of badge hanging from around his neck, and they were armed with short barreled rifles of unknown make. He did not recognize the police department or agency the badge resembled.”
Continuing, the “RAC … reported that no shots were fired and that no vehicle damage was incurred to the OGV. [The] RAC believes that he was not being followed, but came up on the convoy and he became a target of opportunity for this group.”
The DEA RAC “reported that after eluding his attackers and ensuring he was not being followed further, [he] stopped four federal police gun trucks and advised them of the incident.”
Disturbingly, Mexican TCOs posing as police or military personnel increasingly have used these so-called “rolling narco-blockades” to attack government authorities and rivals, officials who have investigated these tactics told Homeland Security Today.
On the afternoon of April 8, a special agent of the Arizona Attorney General working undercover for a multi-agency drug task force, became a victim on US soil of one of these “narco-blockades.” He was shot in the shoulder and neck while following two vehicles whose drivers performed maneuvers similar to those routinely performed by cartel ambushes in Mexico.
The vehicles were being followed because authorities suspected they were being used by a Mexican TCO that was a target of the task force, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS).
DPS disclosed that when the suspects realized they were being followed, they began to drive aggressively while the driver of a pickup that also was under surveillance circled back to get behind the undercover agent and began ramming his unmarked car. The second car that the agent had been following kept in front of the agent. The driver of the pickup then sped up to get parallel with the undercover agent's car and opened fire, DPS said. The agent survived probably because other officers were in the area who quickly responded when he was shot.
The MO that was executed in each of these assaults is the same MO that was used by members of one cartel against well-armed members of another on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico on July 16, 2010 in broad daylight – an ambush that erupted into a very bloody, two-hour gunfight. Described as a Hollywood-like shootout, the lead-slinging initially was between the two competing narco-goon groups but quickly involved Mexican law enforcement in order to bring the danger to bystanders to an end.
The surge in use of this method of armed attack in so many cartel assaults was considered so serious by the Texas Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) Border Security Operations Center that it issued a "law enforcement sensitive" report in July 2010 to “inform [DPS] SWAT [and] RRT [Ranger Reconnaissance Teams] on potential cartel tactics and practices.”
The DPS’s “Cartel Tactics Analysis” bulletin warned that “road blocking tactic[s] used … in this and other cartel gun battles [are] utilized … to vector the target(s) in predictable paths and to deter interference from federal elements.” Assailants also try to “ram to disable target vehicles.” The analysis said that “the vehicles … employed by cartel forces historically during assault operations [are] heavy [pickup] trucks and full size SUVs.”
“The cartels have become increasing confrontational using blocking and chase cars, caltrops to disable patrol cars during high speed pursuits and Cartel boat teams that confront US law enforcement on the US side of the Rio Grande River while they retrieve the drugs from vehicles that have been driven into the Rio Grande River to avoid capture,” Texas DPS Director Steven McCraw told Rep. McCaul’s subcommittee in May.
McCraw is a former assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Intelligence and former Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau’s San Antonio Field Division. He also was the first director of the Foreign Terrorism Tracking Task Force that was established by President Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by Homeland Security Presidential Directive-2 on October 29, 2001. It was a premier component of the President's initiative to combat terrorism.
“Drug smugglers are … ramming law enforcement vehicles during pursuits. I recently lost one brand new vehicle when a drug smuggler rammed our vehicle while trying to elude us. As a result of the ramming, the vehicle rolled over and was a total loss. Luckily, the deputy sheriff driving it was not seriously injured,” Sheriff Gonzalez, told. McCaul’s subcommittee last month.
“In one instance,” McCraw told McCaul’s subcommittee, “cartel members threw a Molotov cocktail at Texas Rangers in an attempt to avoid capture and on at least two occasions, Border Patrol Agents were fired upon from Mexico while patrolling the Rio Grande River. The State of Texas established Texas Ranger Recon Teams augmented with DPS SWAT resources, Texas Military Forces personnel, DPS Aviation and Trooper Strike Teams who work closely with local law enforcement and the Border Patrol to confront the Cartels in high threat areas.”
Officials still concerned about attacks north of the border
While senior DHS officials who spoke to Homeland Security Today on background tended to agree with Pena’s assessment, expressing their own evenhanded doubts about whether Mexico’s TCOs have, or will, take off their gloves on this side of the border, Homeland Security Today also heard much different concerns from agents on the ground on the border.
“They no longer fear us,” said a veteran Border Patrol agent working in the Patrol’s hot zone: Arizona’s Tucson Sector. He was echoed by numerous other Border Patrol agents Homeland Security Today interviewed on background because they were not cleared to provide “official” comments during a more than month-long investigation on the border late last summer.
“They’re getting more ruthless, there’s no doubt about that,” said a Nogales, Texas CBP Port of Entry (PoE) special agent, who added: “It’s just a matter of time until they kill someone around here ... There was a time when they didn’t dare assault or try to kill [US federal] officers, but they no longer care – they’re that desperate. We have to be on guard at all times – we just can’t let our guard down for a moment.”
“The cartels are absolutely ruthless - they just no longer care about taking on [US law enforcement],” agreed Mark Johnson, the burly, no-nonsense, straight-shooting director of air operations of CBP’s Tucson Air Branch of the Office of Air and Marine, as we talked in his office.
“And that’s really changed the game,” said a Tucson Sector Border Patrol agent.
More recently, on May 11, Sheriff Gonzalez told the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management “these smugglers will not hesitate to engage law enforcement in the US.”
The immediate past-chairman of the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, and a past chairman of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, Gonzalez added he believes “it is a matter of time before a shootout will occur between law enforcement and armed drug/human smugglers.”
And, Gonzalez emphasized, “in the unfortunate event of a shootout, federal, state and local officers along the southwest border - seeing the weapons used by the cartels - are not adequately armed.”
“I definitely fear that it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Nogales PoE Director, Guadalupe Ramirez, a 25-year career Border Patrol agent who served as the port director for the port of Santa Teresa, New Mexico and as a customs advisor working with the Narcotics Affairs Section of the US Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.
A pragmatic, no-nonsense, but innovative port director concerned about the safety of the CBP agents under his command, Ramirez said traffickers no longer fear taking on law enforcement, and admitted he worries that port agents could be killed, either in retaliation for their busts of drugs and cash or during a violent confrontation at the port as someone brazenly tries to “run the gauntlet” of barriers and CBP officers armed with automatic weapons.
“We’re expecting that there will be more attacks against” all components of the CBP and state and local law enforcement on the border, added a CBP special agent working in Arizona who asked not to be identified. “The cartels are desperate. They’re becoming more and more treacherous … They’re just treacherous. They no longer care about the consequences of killing federal officers, or anyone else.”
The handful of other special agents he works with who I’d been talking to as they huddled around a Humvee full of hay-size bundles of marijuana they’d just seized, all nodded their heads in agreement.
Ramirez’s fears had manifested on the afternoon of Dec. 14, 2009 when a hail of bullets blasted out of the muzzle of an AK-47 toward the Nogales PoE. The hurtling lead slammed into a bus, a car and various PoE facilities, narrowly missing occupants of the vehicles and PoE officers who were sent scrambling for cover.
The fully automatic weapon fire came from somewhere along the ridge of a small hill top just inside Mexico that strategically overlooks this busy and heavily armed port – and came on the heels of port officers and Nogales police having seized nearly $1 million in cash in several cars that were bound for Mexico.
The month before the attack on the Nogales PoE, the Tijuana Cartel is suspected of having been behind the “death threats” traffickers made against Nogales city police after two of its off-duty police officers seized a quarter million dollars worth of pot they’d found while horseback riding just outside the city. The smugglers fled back into Mexico, leaving behind their vehicle with the dope.
Nogales Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham later said confidential police informants had heard from their narco-connections that the cartel had issued orders to its cross-border traffickers to open fire on any off-duty officers who stumble upon future drug shipment operations.
"We were told that these particular officers would be targeted if they were ever out in that area again off duty and came across any more [of the cartel’s] narco-smugglers," Kirkham said, noting that the cartel had made clear that it considers off-duty law enforcement to be fair game.
Just like a growing number of CBP officials, Kirkham fears law enforcement officers out in the field – in uniform or not - could be “targeted by snipers” in the mountains just across the border. “The rules down here have changed – the [cartels] no longer fear us … I believe these threats are going to continue.”
Kirkham agreed with every CBP official who told Homeland Security Today the cartels no longer have any compunction against killing or engaging US law enforcement in gunfire. "We’re going to be targeted … things are going to become more serious down here,” he said.
Two weeks before Kirkham’s off-duty officers stumbled upon the smugglers, two Border Patrol agents were forced to shoot two suspected traffickers about 40 miles west of the Nogales PoE after the agents came under attack.
Today, the region of Nogales - on both sides of the border - has become a hot zone for cartel violence and threats. The State Department’s recently reissued Mexico travel warning specifically cautioned US citizens against traveling in and around the Nogales area.
On the US side of the border, Nogales is where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, a member of an elite Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) team, was gunned down on Dec. 14 while tracking members of a human smuggling operation.
Sniper-like shooting similar to that which targeted the Nogales PoE occurred while this reporter was at the border near El Paso in Oct. 2008.
While I was on patrol with Salvador “Sal” Zamora, who then was Assistant Patrol Agent in Charge of CBP’s El Paso Station, someone fired “something” at fence construction workers. En route to the scene of the shootings, Zamora, a nearly 20-year Border Patrol veteran, said this was the fifth time in two weeks that construction crews were shot at “with something.”
Now the Patrol Agent in Charge of a 325 man station down river from the El Paso Station, Zamora was concerned that “a low-powered rifle” had been used. The day after the assaults, FBI agents arrived to investigate.
Intelligence indicated the attacks were related to similar incidents nearer to El Paso, one of which involved night vision surveillance cameras having recorded a man with a rifle crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico and taking aim at motorists in El Paso before returning back to Mexican territory.
Border Patrol later received additional reports of gunfire that appeared to have been directed into El Paso from Mexico, but no evidence of gunshots was found. In response, Border Patrol began “special enforcement operations … to prevent these incidents from occurring,” Zamora said.
“It’s just a matter of time before someone gets killed from one of these attacks … And there will be more attacks. Just look around; you can see how easy it is to open fire on us,” a CBP special agent said.
Sitting in a conference room near his office, Nogales PoE Director Ramirez said “it’s just a matter of time” before one or more of his officers are shot and killed by one of the cartels. “It’s a growing threat that we are very aware of and …we find ourselves having to increasingly be vigilant” about.
Border Patrol and state and local law enforcement all along the southern border further pointed out that some cartels have established covert hideouts in areas along the border that aren’t easily accessed and thus not as well policed by Border Patrol as are easier to get to locations, and, that “delays and restrictions” on required formal approval from other federal agencies to patrol government owned lands has “affected [the] ability [of Border Patrol] to achieve or maintain operational control” of these areas, according to a recent congressional report that was confirmed by Border Patrol officials.
CBP officials told Homeland Security Today during its investigation on the border that these hidden cartel strongholds are being used by “spotters” to monitor Border Patrol and other law enforcement activity in order to help guide narco-transporters to their destinations.
“I’m scared to death every time the phone rings – I’m afraid it’s a call to tell me one of my choppers has been shot down” in some desolate location near the border, Johnson somberly said. And while “so far, as far as I know, we haven’t had a single aircraft shot at,” he conceded that it’s more likely than not that it’s “just a matter of time before I get that call …”
Johnson said it would be very easy to do, too. Throughout the Tucson Sector the cartels have “lookouts” hidden away in the mountains to alert traffickers to the presence of air and land patrols, and that “these spotters could just as easily switch from using high-powered binoculars to monitor us” to firing powerful sniper rifles, or even surface-to-air missiles that some of the cartels are known to possess.
“In my conversations with officers working along the border, they are seeing surveillance [by the cartels] … which is proof of interest by the cartels and a sign that the officer and his organization is causing them some grief,” said a former CIA and law enforcement officer working counter-cartel issues.
This has “become an officer safety issue, and someone needs to be watching these incidents in the network of fusion centers to detect trends and patterns and threat levels,” said Kerry Patton, who served in both the US Defense and Justice departments and was a contractor for the departments of Homeland Security and State working in South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe focusing on intelligence and security matters, which included personally interviewed current and former terrorists, including members of the Taliban.
Despite what officials say is a lack of hard evidence that the Gulf Cartel - or any of its rival cartels - will begin shooting it out with US police to prevent their contraband shipments from being stopped, the Gulf Cartel in particular is no stranger to ordering “hits” on US soil – at least against its own members.
Last Nov., for instance, two men from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico were charged in connection with two murders that, following a joint investigation led by ICE’s Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST), federal law enforcement officials concluded were hits ordered by the Cartel.
Authorities continue to look for Roberto De Luna Magallon and Gilberto Preciado Franco, both of whom are charged with murdering Oscar Castillo Flores and Jose Guadalupe Perez.
Brownsville, Texas Police Chief Carlos Garcia told reporters the two men are believed to be members of the Cartel and that the murders are related to its activities - Castillo’s family has ties to the Cartel. According to authorities, Castillo is the younger brother of Alberto “Beto Fabe” Castillo Flores, a former Gulf Cartel lieutenant who was killed in Matamoros last summer, and Oscar “El Apache” Castillo Flores, a former Gulf Cartel member who is in federal custody for having illegally re-entered the US.
Authorities said intelligence indicated Oscar Castillo Flores was ordered killed by the Gulf Cartel because he’d joined the Zetas. He’d been nabbed during a multi-agency operation led by ICE that also captured Luis Alberto “El Pelochas” Blanco Flores and Jose Ezequiel “El Niño” Galicia Gonzalez, each of whom are believed to have worked for a cell of the Gulf Cartel called Grupo L prior to joining the Los Zetas, which earlier broke from the Cartel.
Alberto Castillo Flores is said to have been the “plaza” boss for the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros while allowing his brother Oscar to work for both groups in the area. When Alberto was killed by a Gulf Cartel hit, officials said, Oscar and his group began to work with the Zetas, primarily by attacking Gulf Cartel assets.
Border Patrol, law enforcement in the line of fire?
Clearly, Mexican-based TCOs cannot be taken lightly. On the US side of the border, the highly publicized murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry near Nogales, Ariz. “should have been the last straw” to acknowledging the threat “we’re dealing with down here,” said a fellow agent who knew Terry.
“I think it’s very clear that the cartels have begun to wage their war in Mexico on American streets,” said a senior CBP official on background.
While Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement officers have been shot at, and some have been killed [see the June 17, 2010 Kimery Report, “Shooting Highlights Attacks on Border Patrol”], off-duty Border Patrol agents also have begun to be assaulted, in most cases by individuals authorities said were linked to gangs with connections to Mexican cartels.
In June 2009, six Hispanic individuals, two of whom were in the US illegally, were arrested and charged in connection with shooting through the windshield at an off-duty Ariz. Border Patrol agent's car in the parking lot of an IHOP after having followed him in a pickup truck from northern Hidalgo County, Texas to Mission. In the backseat of the agent’s vehicle was his young daughter; they were on their way to visit her grandmother.
According to police, the occupants of a second pickup truck that police stopped had served as lookouts during the shooting.
Police were on the scene quickly because the Border Patrol agent discerned he was being tailed and called 911.
The arrested individuals reportedly were found in a “stash” house used to hide illegals smuggled into the country. Importantly, police found in the house a large statute of Santa Muerte, the “Saint of Death” to whom numerous Mexican narco-cartels pray to for prosperity, protection and revenge, and which are frequently found in homes and other facilities used by narco- and human-trafficking organizations.
Border Patrol agents in their homes and with family members while off-duty also have come under fire – in many cases by individuals investigations later revealed had ties to gangs linked to Mexican TCOs.
In December 2007, the Tucson, Ariz. home of an off-duty Border Patrol agent was assaulted by four armed intruders who’d forced their way into the agent’s residence. One of the Hispanic assailants opened fire on the agent who managed to retreat and retrieve his service weapon, which he used to return fire, forcing the armed men to flee in an SUV. The men were linked to gang activity, according to officials familiar with the incident.
In May, 2010, an off duty Border Patrol agent shot and wounded a Hispanic man who approached him at a convenience store in Alpine, Calif. while he was getting gas after the man refused the agent’s order to stop threatening him, which involved the man issuing an unidentified gang challenge.
The agent showed the man his badge, drew his sidearm and ordered him to back off. But the man continued to approach the agent. When the man refused to stop, the agent fired one round, which struck the man in his chest.
The wounded man ran off but was found nearby by police who arrived minutes later.
In Jan. 2008, another off-duty Border Patrol agent shot two young Latino men following a confrontation after catching them burglarizing his vehicle early on a Saturday morning. According to reports, the men knew the vehicle belonged to a Border Patrol agent.
In Oct. 2008, an off-duty Border Patrol agent in El Paso was attacked at a gas station while fueling his vehicle. The agent said three men who’d been staring at him became confrontational and eventually physically assaulted him.
Border Patrol would not confirm if the agent was in uniform or if a weapon was used. Officials said the men were tied “to a local gang,” which other authorities said is the El Paso-based cross-border Barrio Azteca gang, which has extensive ties to the Juarez Cartel and is believed to be behind literally thousands of contract killings in Mexico – and very likely some in the US – performed for the Cartel, according to both US and Mexican authorities.
Barrio Azteca is believed to be responsible for the March 2010 slayings of three people who were returning from a party at a US Consulate employee's home in Juarez, including a pregnant US government employee and her husband, who was a deputy in the El Paso sheriff’s department. The third US citizen was a detention officer at the county jail.
And just like the MO of the assailants of the DEA and ICE agents in Mexico and the undercover police officer in Arizona – not to mention the shootout between the two rival cartels in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico - the gang’s ambushes involved multiple cars and coordinated blocking maneuvers by well trained and equipped gunmen.
After the brutal slayings, intelligence quickly gathered in Juarez and El Paso implicated Barrio Azteca, but US officials declined to depict the killings as targeting the US government which, incidentally, at the time was pushing Mexican authorities to allow US counter-drug intelligence officials to set up shop in Juarez’s police headquarters.
Following an almost immediate federal/state multiagency “gang sweep” in El Paso for the express purpose of obtaining intelligence from Barrio Azteca members, DHS issued an alert that the gang had “green lighted” retaliatory killings of US law enforcement officers.
Eventually, Ricardo Valles de la Rosa, described as a Barrio Azteca sergeant, was arrested in Juarez based on intelligence collected during the El Paso counter-gang operation. He reportedly told authorities Barrio Azteca leaders ordered a hit on the El Paso sheriff’s deputy because gang members in jail said the deputy mistreated gang members.
Fred Burton, a former State Department special agent, told the Washington Post he is suspicious of attempts to underplay the killings. “These were targeted hits done by sophisticated operators,” he said," adding, "it is not politically expedient for either side to say that criminal organizations were behind this. That is a nightmare scenario for them.”
But as a senior DHS official told Homeland Security Today, “I think that ship has sailed – it’s way too late now for the government to believe they can continue to deny that the cartels are deliberately targeting US officials in Mexico and over here.”
The official forewarned that “we’re going to have a really, really, high-profile killing – a hit, if you want to call it that – of a US law enforcement official, and then shit’s really going to hit the proverbial fan.”
To hammer his point home, the official said he couldn’t imagine what “US streets would look like” if the level of targeted murders of federal, state and local law enforcement officials that’s commonplace “nearly every day” in Mexico were occurring here.
Using what’s been described as unusually blunt language for a top US official, FBI Director Robert Mueller told lawmakers in early April that “I think it's fair to say that [the level of violence in Mexico is] unprecedented,” adding, “the last couple of years, I think, have been particularly bad."
While Mueller said "I would not call it a full-scale war ... I would say there are full-scale warring factions that utilize homicide as a mechanism of retaliation, staking out one's turf, retribution, that have contributed substantially to the number of deaths in Mexico.”
So is there really spill over violence?
Although some senior DHS officials and longtime “boots on the ground” veterans - and even Intelligence Community counter-cartel analysts - contend “there’s no doubt” in their minds that cartel-related violence has spilled over into the US, that is not the official position of the US Government.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other top DHS officials have made a concerted point – especially in recent months - to assure that there’s no spillover violence.
Napolitano also assured lawmakers that in the event that documented spillover violence occurs, DHS “has contingency plans to deal with it.”
“But,” she stressed, “it begins with state and local law enforcement on our side of the border. We support them as the first step in that contingency plan, should we see that kind of major spillover."
Clearly, the loudest and most outspoken border state law enforcement authorities on the ground along the border believe it’s already evident that “there’s spill over [violence] right now,” as one DHS border security agent said, referring to the very incidents described in this report.
"We take the threat of spillover violence very seriously,” and “we're prepared to deal with [it] in the event it occurs. There are contingency plans to respond. But we have not yet seen that violence spill over into the United States,” CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin said, reiterating what Napolitano and other DHS officials have and continue to say.
“Given these trends, violent organized crime groups represent a real and present danger to … the United States,” but “spillover violence, in which Mexican organized crime gangs bring their fight to American soil, is a remote worst-case scenario,” David Shirk, director of the San Diego-based Trans-Border Institute, told the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management hearing on homeland security’s role in the Mexican war against the cartels on March 31.
“You’ve got to be f------ kidding me … right? A remote, worst-case scenario? For the love of God, it’s already happening! Doesn’t anyone get it around here, for Christ’s sake?” roared a senior DHS official in Washington, DC on condition of anonymity because of the politically sensitive nature of the official’s position.
The official was echoed by CBP and Border Patrol agents on the ground Homeland Security Today interviewed.
The “increase in the level of drug trafficking-related violence within and between the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico … has generated concern among US policy makers that the violence in Mexico might spill over into the United States” but, “currently, US federal officials deny that the recent increase in drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico has resulted in a spillover into the United States,” although “they acknowledge that the prospect is a serious concern,” stated the January CRS report, Southwest Border Violence: Issues in Identifying and Measuring Spillover Violence.”
The CRS report concluded that, “currently, no comprehensive, publicly available data exist that can definitively answer the question of whether there has been a significant spillover of drug trafficking-related violence into the United States, although anecdotal reports have been mixed, US government officials maintain that there has not yet been a significant spillover.”
Continuing, the CRS analysts reported that “in an examination of data that could provide insight into whether there has been a significant spillover in drug trafficking-related violence from Mexico into the United States, CRS analyzed violent crime data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report program.”
But, the CRS report pointed out, “the data … do not allow analysts to determine what proportion of the violent crime rate is related to drug trafficking or, even more specifically, what proportion of drug trafficking-related violent crimes can be attributed to spillover violence.”
“It is important to understand that the cartels, whether they engage in drug trafficking, gun trafficking, human trafficking or terrorism, pose a serious threat to the United States” and that it’s “clear … the cartels have and continue to target US agents for who they are what they represent,” declared Jon Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, before a hearing of Rep. McCaul’s subcommittee in March.
Similarly, the National Border Patrol Council, which represents Border Patrol agents, declared in a statement on March 25 that "Mexico is hemorrhaging violence and we are being hit with the splatter. The US-Mexico border is unsafe and to say anything else is not true."
According to the DEA, the interagency community has defined spillover violence in the following manner: “[S]pill over violence entails deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels on US assets, including civilian, military or law enforcement officials, innocent US citizens or physical institutions such as government buildings, consulates or businesses.”
“This definition of spillover provides a relatively narrow scope of what may constitute spillover violence. In particular, it excludes the category of violence - trafficker-on-trafficker violence - in which the vast majority of drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico has occurred,” stated Joseph Arabit, DEA Special Agent in Charge, El Paso Division, during a March 24, 2009 hearing by the House Appropriations Committee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies.
Authorities said the exclusion of trafficker-on-trafficker violence – which inherently carries the potential for serious civilian collateral fatalities and injuries - from the interagency community’s definition of spillover violence makes the likelihood that the United States will experience “official” spillover violence relatively small.
But “to accurately assess the overall criminal impact of an unsecure border on Texas requires the syntheses of several different variables within and outside the border region,” Texas DPS Director McCraw told McCaul’s subcommittee.
“For example,” McCraw said “if we were to use only index crimes as reported through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, it would not include essential variables such as extortions, kidnappings, smuggling incidents, corruption, smuggling-related trespassing and vandalism, arrests of aliens from countries with strong terrorist networks, seizures of cartel drugs, weapons and bulk cash on the ten major smuggling corridors throughout Texas, cartel command and control networks operating in Texas, increases in cartel-related gang activity, death squad members living in Texas, cartel-related killings of US citizens in Mexico, cartel-related violence along the border directed at US law enforcement and the recruitment of Texas children in our border region to support cartel operations on both sides of the border.”
“These indicators reflect what the Texas Department of Public Safety refers to as ‘spill over crime,’” McCraw – a seasoned federal intelligence and law enforcement veteran - stressed.
“Although many persons would disagree with me on the definition of spillover violence, there is a constant threat to counties along the southwest border of our country of spillover violence from Mexico,” Sheriff Gonzalez said. “Some of the threats law enforcement and residents along the border deal with on an almost daily basis” involve “criminal violations [that] are spillover violence as far as I am concerned.”
The authors of the CRS report had concluded that “by generally constraining the definition of spillover violence to those acts that target the government and innocent civilians, the type of violence necessary to constitute spillover (according to the interagency definition) may begin to resemble acts of terrorism.”
And “if so,” they said, “policy makers and experts may be challenged with discriminating between spillover violence and terrorism.”
“When people in the United States fear the cartels in Mexico, even if they are not involved in drug trafficking, but are afraid to be at the wrong place at the wrong time in their own country, this is terrorism, which to me is the fear of spillover violence,” Gonzalez told lawmakers.
Cartels as terrorists, then?
Coinciding with the recent fusion center alerts on the Gulf Cartel’s order to its minions to begin killing US law enforcement who get in their way, Rep. McCaul declared that the Gulf Cartel is engaging in “terrorism” by ordering its rank and file to kill US law enforcement personnel.
“Plotting to kill ICE agents and Texas Rangers … are acts of terrorism as defined by federal law,” he said.
McCaul said the February 16 “shooting of [ICE] Special Agents Zapata and Avila is a game changer which alters the landscape of the United States’ involvement in Mexico’s war against the drug cartels. For the first time in 25 years, the cartels are targeting American law enforcement.”
As far as McCaul is concerned, attacks like this are terrorism by definition. And it’s because of attacks like this that McCaul introduced controversial legislation that would require the Department of State to classify narco-cartels as “foreign terror organizations.”
McCaul isn’t alone in his belief. US intelligence and law enforcement officials told Homeland Security Today “there’s a strong case to be made” to officially declare TCOs as terrorist organizations, as one said on background – especially in light of intelligence [like has been reported by Homeland Security Today] that some of Mexico’s TCOs have established mutually beneficial relationships with Islamist jihadist groups long entrenched in Latin America.
The Oklahoma fusion center bulletin that was issued in response to the Gulf Cartel’s order to kill US police officers implied that the Cartel’s reported threat indeed bordered on terrorism. The alert stated that “should ... information appear to indicate an imminent threat, local law enforcement should be notified, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Force …”
Mexico’s TCOs clearly are engaged in escalating violence south of the border – especially in the northern border states – against Mexican law enforcement and security forces, and, increasingly, against US law enforcement agents and other US officials who are working in the country.
North of the border, while there’s been an explosion in recent years of threats by Mexico’s TCOs against law enforcement in the US, there hasn’t been the level of targeted attacks that is commensurate with the nature and level of these threats. Nevertheless, numerous officials and authorities believe it’s only a matter of time before the cartels make good on their promises, especially as smuggling conduits continue to be plugged.
Meanwhile, though, it’s hard to dismiss the increase in shootings of and against federal and local police throughout the border region states, as well as the growing physical assaults against Border Patrol agents with things like rocks, as anything other than an escalating trend in cross-border trafficking-related violence against US law enforcement personnel.
Officials and authorities tend to be in agreement that should this trend continue, especially as Mexico’s TCOs’ abilities to smuggle drugs and people into the US continue to be cut off, then sheer desperation could indeed begin to cause some to resort to an offensive against border region law enforcement.
Heavily-armed US Customs and Border Protection agent stands guard at the Nogales, Ariz. Port of Entry. The Nogales PoE was shot at from a hilltop in Mexico overlooking the port with an AK-47 in Dec. 2009. The region of Nogales on both sides of the border has become a hot bed of narco-cartel violence.
- Photo by Anthony Kimery
Bullet hole from AK-47 fired from Mexico that struck a Nogales, Ariz. CBP Port of Entry checkpoint building.
- Photo by Anthony Kimery
Border Patrol agent Salvador Zamora (at right), while Assistant Patrol Agent in Charge of CBP’s El Paso Station in Oct. 2008, points to an area on Mexican side of the border where someone shot at fence construction crews.
- Photo by Anthony Kimery
One of numerous Border Patrol agents who has been injured by large rocks thrown by illegals at agents' heads as agents tried to apprehend them, or thrown at agents from across open areas of border.
- Photo courtesy US Border Patrol