News Column

Drug Cartels Pose Top Crime Threat in Texas

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A new report released by the Texas Department of Public Safety reveals cartels are operating in Texas and are the No. 1 threat to the Lone Star State.

The Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana and the Beltran Leyva cartels' areas of approximate operations include Cameron and Hidalgo counties, according to the report.

"The threat to Texas is significant due to the prevalence of lucrative trafficking routes and smuggling networks throughout the state, as well as the state's proximity to cities and towns steeped in cartel violence and influence just across the border in Mexico," the report states, adding that Texas faces a full spectrum of "unique challenges to public safety and homeland security."

But cartels are at the top.

The report also notes that the Sinaloa Cartel might operate in Zapata County and, according to some reports, is working with the Gulf Cartel to eliminate the Zetas.

"These powerful and ruthless criminal organizations use military and terrorist tactics to battle each other and the government of Mexico for control over the lucrative U.S. drug and human smuggling markets," the report states. "The violence associated with this conflict has increased significantly since 2006. Some 60,000 lives have been lost, and cartel tactics in Mexico have escalated with the continued use of torture and beheading, improvised explosive devices, military-grade weapons such as grenades, and attacks against U.S. officials and diplomatic facilities."

And with thousands of Texans and Mexicans crossing the border daily to visit family or conduct business, the drug war has hit close to home for many residents on both sides of the Rio Grande.

"I just hope that the legislators know that until things settle down in Mexico we don't know how things are going to go," Brownsville Police Chief Orlando C. Rodriguez said. "We're just going to have to wait and see, but one thing that is important to me is the continued support we have with federal agencies and how we are sharing information."

The reality of cartel violence in Brownsville became publicly apparent as early as September 2010 in what had been dubbed the "FM 511 murders." Two men were found shot to death inside a gray Dodge Ram pickup that was riddled with bullets. The truck was found on FM 511, a few miles away from the Cameron County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Border Patrol Station.

Police linked the killings to Mexican drug cartels. The suspects accused in the murders are still at large.

Rodriguez said it's not new or a surprise that cartels were named the No. 1 threat to Texas.

"This is nothing new, but one question is, 'Who is responsible?'" Rodriguez said. "It used to be one cartel and then the Zetas became involved when Mexico had its war on drugs -- they utilized other sources of income like human trafficking and extortion and what not, and so that's something that we are dealing with."

Rodriguez's statements are in line with the report's findings.

"The threat from Mexican cartels is particularly high due to the wide range of criminal activity in which they are engaged, both in Mexico and in Texas," the report states. "Cartel members and associates are involved in the cross-border trafficking of people, weapons, drugs, and currency. This involvement is either direct through the use of cartel members, or indirect through other affiliated criminal organizations paying fees to transit cartel territory."

Explosives

Mexican cartels' use of explosives "represents a significant and emerging threat to Texas."

According to the DPS report, the agency is concerned that cartels might use the weapons in Texas or that Texas-based gang members could acquire training or explosive materials and weapons from the cartels.

In Brownsville, that fear hit close to home when a family living on Resaca Vista Drive woke up to a normal-looking package on their doorstep. But the family wasn't expecting any packages.

When it was brought inside, the package exploded and severely injured a young girl, her mother and father.

The ongoing investigation is now in the hands of the FBI, but investigators have declined to comment on whether the bombing might be cartel related -- or something else.

"That is something that has us gravely concerned," Rodriguez said. "They are very creative and we've seen the use of explosive devices along the border on the Mexican side -- and possibly here -- but that's not our investigation."

And according to the report, cartel members have a presence in Texas and have "demonstrated ability to carry out attacks and other criminal activity in the state, as well as elsewhere in the United States."

Cartel members and associates have been caught with explosive weapons or components smuggled into Texas from Mexico, according to the report.

"This trend is particularly concerning, due to the potential for these powerful weapons to be used in Texas," the report states.

Aside from cartels' use of explosives emerging as a threat, smugglers are showing increased aggression toward U.S. law enforcement agents.

"Recently, smugglers and others associated with Mexican cartels have shown an increase in aggression toward U.S. law enforcement officers, including shootings, vehicle assaults, and other threats to officer safety," the report states. "Some of this aggression has been targeted toward U.S. officers operating in Mexico, but multiple incidents in Texas have occurred. Since 2009, there have been 76 incidents in which shots were fired at 83 law enforcement officers in Texas."

The report notes two cases in Hidalgo County:

--June 12, 2012: "A group of armed men attempted to raid the home of a former Mexican police officer illegally residing in Mission, Texas. The man fired shots through his front door at the suspects, who returned fire."

--Late October 2011: "A Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office deputy was dispatched to a possible kidnapping near Elsa, Texas. Upon initiation of a stop of a suspected vehicle, several PRM (Partido Revolutionario Mexicano) members, working on behalf of the Gulf Cartel, exited the vehicle and began shooting at the deputy, who was wounded."

Narco-blockades in Texas

On the social media platforms of Twitter and Facebook, Rio Grande Valley residents who follow profiles in Reynosa, Matamoros and Mexico learn that narco-blockades can be a part of life as those users tweet and post to inform each other about the blockades' location.

"One dangerous cartel tactic that has recently emerged in Texas is the narco-blockade, a tactic that had previously only been used in Mexico," the report states.

The blockades are used to prevent access by first responders and isolate areas used during their operations.

"Multiple blockades can be conducted simultaneously, and, in Mexico, the vehicles are typically disabled or ignited, making their removal even more difficult," the report states.

And authorities now say narco-blockades are used in Texas and use the following examples to illustrate that point.

--Early November 2012: "Law enforcement agents from McAllen encountered several vehicles strategically placed in this manner while attempting to apprehend two subjects carrying bundles in the same area. The tactic impeded agents from apprehending the subjects, however one bundle containing 22 lbs. of cocaine was seized. The two subjects, with one bundle, were able to abscond back to Mexico."

--Late November 2012: "Law enforcement agents from McAllen seized a bundle of marijuana weighing 89 lbs. in Hidalgo, Texas. During the smuggling attempt, the seizing agents were assaulted with rocks by subjects in the brush. Responding agents encountered a total of 4 vehicles in the area attempting to block the road leading to the location of the seizure and assault."

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said he remembers the event in early November and wouldn't describe it as an actual blockade.

"That wasn't a blockade. If I remember that deal correctly they had just loaded up and were coming up the trail from the river and they saw Border Patrol and turned their vehicles around and then they swam back across," he said.

But he couldn't recall the event in late November, which to him sounded like a blockade to stop first responders from "getting to our guys."

And according to the DPS report, "the tactic is a serious escalation that highlights the brazen nature of cartels."

"The fact that this tactic has been used on two occasions in the Rio Grande Valley also shows the sophistication, resources, planning, and personnel that are used in trafficking operations," the report states.

While the presence of organized crime has been well known to Mexico and residents of border regions for many years, Trevino said he believes it's getting worse.

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