Mexican mafia along Gulf Coast

BBC News reported over the weekend that a suspected senior member of one of Mexico’s major drugs cartels, Carlos Beltran Leyva, was arrested in Culiacan, Mexico. Leyva of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel, is the brother of Arturo Beltran Leyva who was killed two weeks ago in a shoot-out with troops. Arturo Beltran Leyva was known as “the boss of bosses” among Mexican drugs cartels. Read more.

The mention of the Mexican drug cartels caught my attention because of the several references to the Mexican mafia and MS-13 in the Billings case. In the BBC News article, there is a map that shows the cartel closest to the Gulf Coast – Los Zetas/Gulf Cartel.

The Gulf Cartel has been one of Mexico’s two dominant cartels in recent years. The cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, was extradited to the U.S. in 2007 and awaits trial in Houston.

According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the Zetas operate as a private army under the orders of Cárdenas’ Gulf Cartel. Most reports indicate that the Zetas were created by a group of 31 officers who deserted from the Mexican military’s Special Air Mobile Force Group. They raised the level of violence in Mexican organized crime by carrying out more complex operations with more sophisticated weaponry. The Zetas were instrumental in the Gulf cartel’s domination of the drug trade in Nuevo Laredo, and have fought to maintain the cartel’s influence in that city following the arrest of Cárdenas.

I found a 2007 news article that that described the original deserters as a group of rogue Mexican military commandos trained in the U.S. at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia and sent to “wipe out” the Gulf Cartel. Instead they became the muscle for the very cartel they were supposed to destroy.

CNN reported in August 2009: “The U.S. government says Los Zetas is ‘the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.’” Read more.

In the condominium where Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed reportedly documents were found that link Leyva’s organization with the Zetas.

Samuel Logan, an investigative journalist and author of “This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang”, writes the Gulf Cartel “maintains a robust intelligence network across Mexico and deep into the US, especially in Houston and Dallas, and in cities located across the southeast and well into the mid-Atlantic and northeast.”

Logan reports on homicides in Georgia and Alabama that have been linked to the Zetas: “Police in Birmingham, Alabama, who responded to a multiple homicide in a suburban apartment complex in August 2008, suspected Zeta involvement in the death of a number of Mexican men, found with their throats cut. Money and drugs in the apartment were not disturbed. Police in Georgia suspected Zeta involvement when they discovered that a man had been bound and tortured in the basement of a house near Atlanta.”

The CRS report points out that there is evidence that Mexican cartels are also increasing their relationships with street gangs in the United States in order to facilitate drug trafficking within the United States as well as wholesale and retail distribution of the drugs. The National Drug Intelligence Center reported that gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) buy methamphetamine from Mexican drug cartels for distribution.

And what really got my attention in the CRS report was that the Mexican cartels have been tied to both human and arms trafficking and auto theft. Mexican drug traffickers increasingly smuggle money back into Mexico in cars and trucks, “likely due to the effectiveness of U.S. efforts at monitoring electronic money transfers.”

I also found an article by Hal Brand for World Politics Review (Los Zetas and Mexico’s Transnational Drug War). Brand writes the Zetas recruit new members on the U.S. side of the border, and Zeta affiliates have been implicated in murders across the southern United States. In 2008, Zetas posing as a Phoenix SWAT team murdered a rival trafficker and exchanged fire with real police arriving on the scene.

Brand writes the Zetas have a military-grade arsenal. Some of these weapons are stolen from the Mexican military or purchased on the black market. Most are bought legally in the United States and smuggled across the border. Hugh Wiggins is quoted by Lonnie Smith, a friend of Patrick Gonzalez, as having said that he can get any weapon needed. He smuggled many of the weapons used in the Billings home invasion to a friend in Mississippi, Eddie Denson.

It may seem like a stretch to connect gun running in Pensacola, Mobile or South Mississippi to Los Zetas. However, in August 2009, federal investigators in Mobile broke up a plot by a Texas man to smuggle guns and grenades to the Zetas in Mexico.

According to the affidavit filed in the case, Arick Andre Dube, 28, was fooled by an undercover agent in Mobile who Dube believed could provide military-grade weapons, which he planned to sell to buyers “deep down” in Mexico. The agent and Dube had, through a series of phone conversations, settled on a $77,600 order that included pistols, military-style rifles and grenades.

As per the affidavit, Dube had also inquired about the availability of such weapons as bazookas, shoulder-fired devices and so-called “cop killers,” which are semiautomatic pistols with bullets capable of piercing body armor.

Dube was arrested when he paid an undercover investigator $60,000 for the cache of fragmentation grenades, automatic rifles, and shoulder-fired grenade launchers:

  • 13 – MK2 or “pineapple” grenades — a fragmentation explosive used primarily by U.S. soldiers during World War II and the Vietnam War;
  • 45 – 5.56 caliber rifles – the Army’s primary infantry automatic rifle; and
  • 5  – M203 grenade launchers – currently used to attach to other automatic weapons.

A second man, Juan Lopez-Hernandez, a 41-year-old Mexican national identified as the buyer, was also arrested. Lopez later told agents he intended to deliver the cache to a man he knew only as “Lalo.”

According to the indictment and other court papers, Dube was a middleman who tried to secure the weapons for Los Zetas.

On Dec. 14, 2009, Dube pleaded guilty to exporting munitions from the United States. U.S. District Judge William Steele set a March 17 sentencing date; Dube faces up to 10 years in prison.