Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mexico’s Drug War is Impacting Communities Well Beyond the Border

It was a pretty typical morning for six year-old Cole Puffinburger. It was 7:15 AM in Las Vegas, and he was having breakfast and getting ready for school while his mom and her fiancé were preparing for their day. Then there comes an unexpected knock at the door and a loud voice yelling, “police!” Within moments, three Hispanic men with guns burst into the house and started demanding money.

When Cole’s mother told the men they didn’t have any, the men gagged the adults and zip-tied their hands and feet. Then they grabbed little Cole, dragged him into their car, and drove away. After a four-day search, police finally found him after a bus driver reported finding him wandering on the street.

Fortunately for Cole and his family, they all survived that encounter in October 2008 relatively unharmed. However, the ordeal could have been avoided had Cole’s grandfather, Clemens Tinnemeyer, not owed Mexican drug traffickers more than $1 million.

Many Americans believe criminal incidents related to Mexico’s narco-wars are generally limited to Mexico itself, or at least only to border cities and towns in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. But because Mexico-based transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are operating in more than 270 US cities from coast to coast, that isn’t the case.

Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry was stunned when he came upon a gruesome and disturbing crime scene near Birmingham, Alabama in August 2008. Five Hispanic men had been electrocuted, stabbed, suffocated and beaten before their throats were slit in a murder-for-hire operation.

The perpetrators? Members of a Mexican TCO who were exacting revenge against the men for embezzling money from their employers. This was in a county that perhaps sees five murders in an entire year.

Then there are the criminal activities related to the drug war that are happening thousands of miles from the border. In June 2009, authorities arrested 36 gang members in Omaha, Nebraska who were acting as gun buyers for Mexican TCOs. The 69 weapons that were seized in the bust included 14 assault rifles and a .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle. All of the firearms were sold by the gang to a government informant, who’d told the gang that he planned to ship the weapons to Mexico where they would be used by TCOs.

In October 2009, authorities in the middle-class suburban Georgia neighborhood of Lawrenceville raided an unassuming-looking split-level house within walking distance of an elementary school. Why? It housed one of the largest methamphetamine labs US federal agents had ever seen. And it was run by the Mexican TCO, La Familia Michoacana.

US homeland security officials focus a lot of their efforts and resources on the southwest border in an attempt to mitigate the effects of TCOs on the United States. Because of the publicity surrounding these efforts and media attention paid to the debate over the security of the southwest border, TCO activities in the US interior often go unnoticed.

But interior cities like Denver, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago and Atlanta serve as major hubs for Mexican TCO drug distribution networks. They take advantage of our extensive - and convenient - highway system to move drugs to other urban areas, as well as to smaller, more out-of-the way communities where drug demand is substantial.

In most places, the TCOs subcontract out the street-level distribution operations to African-American and Hispanic gangs. In other areas, the TCOs have more operational control, and thus a more direct presence. When hired hands fail to do their jobs or get too greedy, though - like Clemens Tinnemeyer and the five men in Alabama - the TCO enforcers are never too far away to rectify any trespasses.

And this is the main challenge that US homeland security and law enforcement officials confront - the highly under-the-radar nature of TCO operations across the United States. Not only is it often difficult to identify trafficking operations; because violent activity involving the TCOs is almost always criminal-on-criminal, much of it is never detected. Criminals who have become victims themselves usually won’t report anything to the police.

Another group of people who rarely report crimes committed against them to the police is illegal immigrants from Mexico. Increasingly, they are being preyed upon by Mexican TCOs who attempt to squeeze as many ransom dollars as they can out of kidnapping victims’ family members in the United States.

Most of these kidnappings-for-ransom occur in Mexico, but some victims are nabbed on US soil, then taken south across the border into Mexico for holding. Some of them never occur at all. But when the victim’s family members - who could live in Chicago, Miami, Fresno or Boston - get that dreaded phone call from the kidnappers asking for money, they have no idea if their family member in Mexico is really in danger. The family members who are living in the United States illegally rarely report these kidnappings to US authorities because they don’t want to get deported.

All this puts US authorities in a position of not always knowing the extent of TCO infiltration into our communities. A consequence of that is an inability to form effective strategies to root out, identify and displace those TCO members.

Ultimately, it’s up to local law enforcement agencies to determine what TCO is running the show in their town. The Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI both have offices in most cities across America, and several programs are in place to work with local authorities regarding the drug trade and gang activity, but finding a way for any of them to get good information from willing informants - who are inherently under threat of serious harm or death for talking - is a huge challenge.

Unfortunately, this may be the only way US homeland security and law enforcement officials will ever begin to grasp just how far, and deep, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have moved into our back yards.

A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009 she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her first book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," is scheduled to be published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)

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