It's long been known that "failed states" such as Pakistan and Afghanistan are sources of regional instability and launchpads for terrorist and other criminal activity -- including, by some accounts, this week's bloody rampage in Mumbai, India.
For that reason, it would not be surprising if many of those who live in close proximity to those two hot zones are regularly worried about whether they might one day fall victim to such tragedies themselves.
In contrast, despite whatever fears Americans might have about random violence and and ruthless efforts to disrupt everyday life, they are probably far less concerned that they will be exposed to similar episodes on their home turf.
Among other things, they might feel reassured that the United States is nestled between the so-called "51st state" to the north and the longtime tourist mecca to the south.
Yet they probably should not feel too relaxed. If the following reports are anything to go by, it appears that in one of those two places we are witnessing the creation of a dangerous source of instability -- right in America's backyard.
"Bloodshed On the Border" (Newsweek):
Life in Juárez, where drug violence has created the equivalent of a failed state on our doorstep.
Late one night in January, an ambulance escorted by five unmarked squad cars pulled up to Thomason Hospital in El Paso, Texas. Out leaped more than a dozen armed federal agents to protect the patient—Fernando Lozano Sandoval, a commander with the Chihuahua State Investigations Agency. He'd been pumped full of bullets just across the Mexican border in Ciudad Juárez by gunmen believed to have been hired by a drug cartel. Lozano Sandoval's sole hope of survival was the medical team at Thomason, the only level-one trauma center for nearly 300 miles. U.S. authorities took no chances; in Mexico, assassins regularly raid hospitals to finish off their prey. Throughout Lozano Sandoval's three-week treatment at Thomason (which proved successful), the Americans funneled visitors through metal detectors, posted guards outside the commander's room and deployed SWAT teams armed with assault rifles around the hospital's perimeter. Officers "were ready for war if it should go that route," says El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen.
Lozano Sandoval was the first in a string of victims of Mexico's spiraling violence to show up at Thomason this year. Twice more, authorities beefed up security at the hospital to the strictest level—in June, when a high-risk Mexican national was brought in anonymously, and in July, when two Mexican police officials were airlifted to the border and driven across. Beyond those cases, 43 additional patients wounded in Juárez have been treated at Thomason this year, including a 1-year-old girl who was pinned against a wall by a truck involved in a drug-related shooting. All the patients have been dual citizens of Mexico and the United States or have had the proper documentation to enter the country, says a Thomason spokeswoman. Yet legal issues are beside the point for many El Pasoans. A recent posting in an online forum on border violence summed up the fear of many: "It is only a matter of time before the Mexican drug dealers send assassination squads over to Thomason hospital." The traffickers already occasionally kidnap Mexicans who have fled north to escape threats of violence in Juárez.
The border between El Paso (population: 600,000) and Juárez (population: 1.5 million) is the most menacing spot along America's southern underbelly. On one side is the second-safest city of its size in the United States (after Honolulu), with only 15 murders so far in 2008. On the other is a slaughterhouse ruled by drug lords where the death toll this year is more than 1,300 and counting. "I don't think the average American has any idea of what's going on immediately south of our border," says Kevin Kozak, acting special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office of investigations in El Paso. "It's almost beyond belief." Juárez looks a lot like a failed state, with no government entity capable of imposing order and a profusion of powerful organizations that kill and plunder at will. It's as if the United States faced another lawless Waziristan—except this one happens to be right at the nation's doorstep.
The drug war in Juárez escalated dramatically at the start of the year when the Sinaloa cartel—which originated in the Pacific state of the same name—began trying to muscle in on the Juárez cartel's turf. The focus of the fight, which has also drawn in the formidable Gulf cartel, is the city's prized "plaza," or drug-smuggling corridor. Mexican President Felipe Calderón responded to the turmoil by dispatching 3,000 balaclava-clad soldiers and federal police to the state of Chihuahua, where Juárez is located, earlier this year. Yet the narcotraffickers, with their vast arsenal of high-powered weaponry, haven't shied from taking them on. (Or trying to buy them off: the cartels have infiltrated virtually every law-enforcement institution in the country, from local police departments to the Mexican attorney general's office.) The result has been an orgy of violence, growing more public and more spectacular by the day. Beheadings, burnings, dismemberments and mutilations have become routine.
On a recent weekday night, reports of yet another execution in Juárez crackled over a police scanner. Two brothers had been shot in a squatter neighborhood called Mexico 68. At the crime scene, one of them lay dead on the sidewalk, his red T shirt pulled up to expose a chest riddled with 9mm bullets. The other, who had barely survived, was evacuated by ambulance. A group of teenage girls straining against the yellow police tape recounted what they'd seen. A silver GMC Yukon SUV roared up to the victims' home, one of the rear tinted windows was lowered and a gunman emptied his pistol. "It was the Aztecas," one of the girls whispered, referring to the Barrio Azteca gang, which got its start in El Paso and is reportedly allied with the Juárez cartel. The group "controls and terrifies" the neighborhood in its battle against affiliates of the Sinaloa cartel, the girl said. "Shhh!" one of her friends cautioned. "It's the truth," said the girl, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
The cartels operate largely with impunity. Police who defy them are eliminated, as in the case of Oscar Campoya, a municipal cop who was shot dead by assassins in March as he left a local precinct. Despite the presence of several witnesses, including fellow officers, there have been no arrests (only 2 percent of violent murders in Mexico are solved, according to government figures). Mario Campoya, the victim's brother, says Oscar had been pressured relentlessly by other members of the force to cooperate with the drug gangs, but had refused.
To try to remedy things, Juárez Mayor José Reyes demanded that the city's police department clean house earlier this year. More than 400 cops have been dismissed, and every officer must now undergo drug tests and background checks. "Corruption is so strong within the force, there are so many inside deals, that the criminals hardly worry about getting caught," says Reyes. "I realize that firing cops and turning them out on the street is dangerous, but it's worse to have them within the police force." Next on his agenda: to acquire better equipment for law enforcement and redouble enlistment efforts. Large billboards around the city feature a black-masked, machine-gun-toting officer along with a boldface message: JUÁREZ NEEDS YOU!
YET authorities face a ruthless enemy. Cartel capos have made clear they'll go to whatever length necessary to eliminate opponents. In early November, armed men stormed a Red Cross operating room in Juárez, ordered the doctors and nurses performing surgery on a 25-year-old gunshot victim to leave and then killed him. Oscar Varela, head of the city's Hospital General, says high-risk patients are now treated in a restricted, bulletproof area guarded by cops.
Violence has long plagued Juárez. This, after all, is the city where hundreds of women were mysteriously murdered in the 1990s. But recently the bloodshed has taken on an anarchic quality. The absence of authority has opened the way for hordes of criminal gangs—some of them offshoots of the cartels; others, bands of opportunistic street thugs—to carve out specific rackets, like kidnapping, human trafficking and car theft (more than 1,500 vehicles were reported stolen in October alone). Another burgeoning activity is extortion. Business owners are ordered to pay as much as $2,000 per month in protection money; if they refuse, their establishments are torched with Molotov cocktails. That happens regularly; the city is dotted with shuttered restaurants and clubs still blackened with soot. Juárez "is a lawless territory," says Sergio González, a Mexico City-based expert on the border region. "And I'm afraid it might only get worse."
That prospect stokes alarm among many residents in El Paso because of the city's close bond with Juárez. The two places are deeply interwoven by culture, trade and geography. Stand atop a hill on either side of the border, and the urban tapestry below unfolds like a single metropolis with a barely visible divide at the river. Many area residents hold dual citizenship and have relatives in both countries. Each day, 200,000 people cross the Rio Grande along one of five bridges connecting the two cities. Executives of the Mexican maquiladoras (factories) who live in El Paso head south, while juarenses shopping for sneakers and stereos head north. Mexican nationals spend about $2.2 billion per year in El Paso, and before the bloodbath began, Americans fueled a vibrant tourism economy in Juárez.
Then there are the illicit links. Going back to Prohibition, Juárez has helped sate the ravenous American appetite for contraband. These days, the West Texas corridor is a key shipping and distribution center for drugs destined for various markets across the United States. According to a recent report by the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), 6 cartels, 129 midlevel organizations and 606 local groups engage in drug-trafficking activities in the binational region. As part of an elaborate, highly compartmentalized operation, some outfits specialize in transportation, others in enforcement and still others in retail sales. Guided by spotters on the Mexican side equipped with binoculars and cell phones, many shipments cross the bridges into El Paso alongside legitimate commerce. Once in the city, the goods are deposited in stash houses before being sent elsewhere.
Given the permeability of the border, it's not hard to imagine violence seeping over as well. American officials insist that's highly unlikely. The cartels "cannot operate here with impunity," says ICE's Kozak. "One reason we don't see that type of violence here is that it would never be tolerated." El Paso is crawling with federal law-enforcement agents—including representatives of ICE, the FBI, Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration—and all are monitoring events to the south like hawks. An ICE-led, multiagency Border Enforcement Security Task Force that launched in El Paso in 2006 and specializes in criminal organizations has arrested more than 1,500 individuals and seized six tons of narcotics as well as countless weapons. Tangling with American authorities, says Kozak, "is not good for [the cartels'] business."
True enough, but the United States is less insulated than some might think. According to the NDIC report, the increased bloodshed in Juárez "could spill into the [West Texas] region," since it raises the threat that drug-trafficking organizations will "confront law-enforcement officers in the United States who seek to disrupt these DTOs' smuggling operations." (The report cites several armed encounters that took place on the American side in 2006.) The cartels' tentacles already reach deep into El Paso. Local banks are full of drug money, says Claudio Morales, who heads special operations at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. "We're one of the poorest regions along the border, yet El Paso has some of the largest cash transactions" in the country. Many cartel henchmen are known to have moved their families to the Texas city to insulate them from the carnage back home—though that still leaves the families vulnerable to kidnappers. Kids whose relatives have been killed in the violence are showing up at the Children's Grief Center of El Paso. "We have a lot of kids that are really traumatized," says executive director Laura Olague. "There's a lot of secrecy, or fear, that whoever killed their parents or loved ones would come look for them."
Authorities, too, worry that narco leaders could order hits on city residents. "We've had that type of intel," says Kozak. Among the prime targets could be Mexican cops, who are fleeing the violence in greater numbers and seeking political asylum in the United States (such requests are rarely granted, since the laws are aimed at victims of state-sponsored persecution). For now, drug organizations prefer to abduct their quarry in the United States and spirit them across the border before harming or killing them. Kozak says that in the past year, a half-dozen kidnappings tied to narcotraffickers have taken place in El Paso. One of them involved Miguel Rueda, a convicted smuggler who failed to pay a drug debt. According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. district court, Rueda was told to meet a former accomplice, Ricardo Calleros-Godinez, at a gas station in El Paso in February. After picking up Rueda, Calleros-Godinez allegedly pulled a gun on him, duct-taped his eyes, mouth, hands and legs, and drove him to a house in Juárez. Four or five days later, Rueda reportedly settled the debt through a transfer of family land and was freed. (He's now in Texas state prison serving a sentence on cocaine charges.)
The criminal group that perhaps best illustrates the porousness of the border is the Barrio Azteca gang. Founded in the 1980s in state prison in El Paso, the organization now counts thousands of members in Mexico and the United States and is believed to be affiliated with the Juárez cartel. Authorities say the gang has a penchant for brutality and engages in everything from extortion to trafficking to assassination. The Barrio Aztecas are "the wild card in all this," says Samuel Camargo, a supervisory special agent with the FBI in El Paso. "That probably has the most potential for violence here"—and it's an American creation. In January, the U.S. Attorney's Office brought racketeering charges against more than a dozen of the gang's members, and a trial began in early November.
All the talk of bloodletting has made El Pasoans warier than ever of their southern neighbors. Amity has given way to division. The turn of events anguishes Veronica Escobar, an El Paso County commissioner. Her office window overlooks Juárez, where she used to buy Christmas presents as a child and where, until this year, she used to celebrate her birthday. "I feel so sad that our sister city is struggling through this period in their history that's horrific." Just a few miles across the river in Juárez, a carpenter named Francisco (who wouldn't give his last name) lives on a hill from which he can see the lights of downtown El Paso twinkle at night. He yearns to take his children north one day. "I've had enough of this," he says. "Enough with these gangs and their ruthless rats." Residents on both sides of the border share his disgust—and his dread that the violence will never let up.
Rodriguez says U.S. must work harder to prevent cartels from becoming too powerful
While the United States wrestles with the fallout from anarchic 'failed states' in Africa and Asia. Congressmen Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) is warning that the U.S. is in danger of having a failed state on our southern border, 1200 WOAI news reports.
"We can not afford to allow the cartels to take control in Mexico," Rodriguez said in a chilling warning that Mexico's infamous drug cartels are becoming so wealthy and so powerful that they could overwhelm the Calderon Administration and Mexican democracy.
Rodriguez is one of the leading experts in the Congress on Mexican affairs. He is the only member of Congress who was born in Mexico.
When asked whether the rule of law in Mexico is in serious danger of collapsing under the weight of the cartels, Rodriguez replied, "no doubt, and it is extremely dangerous today. A lot of Mexicans are leaving Mexico today, the ones with any wealth."
Felipe Calderon took office in 2007 on a vow to wipe out the power of the merciless drug cartels such as the Gulf and Sinaloa cartel. But since then violence has spun nearly out of control in northern Mexico, as the cartels grow richer and more powerful, and attack officials and each other almost with impunity.
"It is critical that we establish better relations with Mexico," Rodriguez said. "We just caught another batch of serious arms going into Mexico. I am hoping that we can make some inroads there."
Rodriguez said the U.S. bears much of the responsibility for allowing Mexico to fall into the clutches of the drug gangs. He says U.S. drug customers buy '50 to 80 billion dollars a year' worth of illegal drugs from the cartels and their employees and associates.
"I appeal to all Americans," Rodriguez said. "We've got to do the right thing. It's killing us. We're killing ourselves when we buy those drugs, and it is creating that kind of environment. It's no different than the way we send our dollars abroad to the Middle East. We are sending this money to people who will do damage to us. We have got to get smart about that."
Rodriguez said the growing power of the drug cartels is fueling an 'unraveling' in Mexico, which includes wealthy and even middle class Mexicans fleeing the country, and there is a 'growing disparity down there when it comes to wealth.'
"Right now they are killing each other. Tomorrow, they might not be doing that. If we have one cartel in control of everything, it could be worse. We cannot allow drug cartels to be in control of Mexico."
"Borderless Drug Wars" (Los Angeles Times):
Few regions of the U.S. are immune to drug-trafficking organizations that have left a trail of death, kidnappings and other crimes.
The drug violence that has left nearly 4,000 people dead this year in Mexico is spreading deep into the United States, leaving a trail of slayings, kidnappings and other crimes in at least 195 cities as far afield as Atlanta, Boston, Seattle and Honolulu, according to federal authorities.
The involvement of the top four Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in distribution and money-laundering on U.S. soil has brought a war once dismissed as a foreign affair to the doorstep of local communities.
Residents of the quiet Beaver Hills subdivision in Lilburn, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, awoke to the trans-border crime wave in July, when a brigade of well-armored federal and state police officers surrounded a two-story colonial home at 755 East Fork Shady Drive, ordered neighbors to lock their doors and flushed out three men described as members of a Mexican drug cartel. One was captured after he tried to slip down a storm drain. Another was caught in the ivy in Pete Bogerd’s backyard. He lives two doors up and is president of the neighborhood association.
“It blew us away,” Bogerd said. “I didn’t know we had that many cops.”
A short while later, police hauled out a 31-year-old from the Dominican Republic who for nearly a week had been chained and tortured inside the basement, allegedly for not paying a $300,000 drug debt.
In the months after, several dozen suspects have been charged with moving drugs and money for Mexican traffickers through Atlanta, which has emerged as an important hub for thriving narcotics markets in the eastern United States.
Few regions of the nation have been immune – even Anchorage reported activity by the Tijuana drug cartel led by the Arellano Felix family, according to federal law enforcement agencies.
In suburban San Diego, six men believed to be part of a rogue faction of the Arellano Felix organization have been accused in connection with as many as a dozen murders and 20 kidnappings over a three-year span.
Last month, three armed men disguised as police officers broke into a Las Vegas home, tied up a woman and her boyfriend and abducted the woman’s 6-year-old boy. Authorities said the men were tied to a Mexican drug smuggling operation and were trying to recoup proceeds allegedly stolen by the child’s grandfather. The boy, Cole Puffinburger, was found unharmed three days later. Federal authorities have charged his grandfather, Clemons Fred Tinnemeyer, with racketeering, after he allegedly mailed $60,000, believed to be drug proceeds, from Mississippi to Nevada. Police continue to search for the kidnappers.
In September, authorities announced that 175 alleged members of Mexico’s Gulf cartel had been rounded up across the country and abroad. Of those, 43 had been active in the Atlanta area, they said.
The arrests were part of Project Reckoning, an 18-month investigation that tracked criminal activity in the U.S. by the Mexican cartels. All told, Project Reckoning authorities have arrested 507 people and seized more than $60 million in cash, 16,000 kilograms of cocaine, half a ton of methamphetamine, 19 pounds of heroin and 51 pounds of marijuana.
Last month federal authorities in Atlanta announced indictments against 41 people they said were trafficking drugs and laundering money for Mexican cartels. Among those netted in Operation Pay Cut were a former deputy sheriff from Texas who was stopped on a Georgia highway with nearly $1 million in cash in his pickup.
The footprints of Mexican smuggling operations are on all but two states, Vermont and West Virginia, according to federal reports. Mexican organizations affiliated with the so-called Federation were identified in 82 cities, mostly in the Southwest, according to an April report by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an arm of the Department of Justice.
Elements of the Juarez cartel were identified in at least 44 cities, from West Texas to Minneapolis. Gulf cartel affiliates were operating in at least 43 cities from South Texas to Buffalo, N.Y. And the Tijuana cartel, active in at least 20 U.S. cities, is extending its network from San Diego to Seattle and Anchorage.
Many cities showed evidence of multiple cartels, according to the report, which was based on federal, state and local law enforcement reporting.
The extent and depth of cartel activity was not specified, but the Drug Enforcement Administration told Congress two years ago that it believed Mexican-based trafficking organizations “now have command and control over the drug trade and are starting to show the hallmarks of organized crime, such as organizing into distinct cells with subordinate cells that operate throughout the United States.”
The Congressional Research Service last year reported that in the U.S. the cartels “maintain some level of coordination and cooperation among their various operating areas, moving labor and materials to the various sites, even across the country as needed.”
Chuck Miller, an NDIC spokesman, said it remained difficult to determine why and how the cartels chose specific urban regions.
“It could be one of them may know someone in one part of the country, and have established routes for up there,” Miller said. “It could be geographic locations that are operating in Mexico or adjacent to other areas. Or there could be affiliations with individuals residing in specific locations.”
A rogue operation
In one case in San Diego, a rogue faction of the Arellano Felix operation moved into Southern California in 2002, and began kidnapping and shaking down people believed to be working as smugglers and launderers for Mexican traffickers.
Court documents show it operated for several years without attracting concerted action from law enforcement, amassing a fortune that helped pay for equipment that included fake badges and police lights and uniforms.
Officers familiar with the case believe the group, known as Los Palillos, or the Toothpicks, killed a dozen people, committed as many as 20 kidnappings and trafficked methamphetamine to Kansas City, Mo., to finance its war with the cartel in Tijuana – all from a base in San Diego County.
The group was shut down by authorities last year, when one victim’s family reported the abduction. Two of six alleged members went on trial last month.
They face charges related to the kidnapping of Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, the son of an Ensenada banker. Gonzalez, 32, lived in Chula Vista and fit the profile of the Palillos’ prey: a relatively well-to-do Mexican entrepreneur who had taken refuge over the border.
Gonzalez, a well-known champion Baja California desert off-road racer, testified that he owned a car dealership and a trucking firm in Chula Vista and a seafood restaurant in Tijuana.
Defense attorneys, citing transcripts and FBI interviews, alleged that he had been under federal investigation and that he had smuggled drugs for the cartel, according to court documents. A Times check found no evidence of businesses operating at the addresses listed on licenses.
Gonzalez testified in a San Diego court that he is not associated with the Arellano Felix cartel and had never kidnapped, smuggled drugs or laundered money. He could not be contacted for comment.
Gonzalez testified that over eight days, he was handcuffed, blindfolded and shocked with a Taser stun gun while his kidnappers negotiated for a million-dollar ransom. (Agents confiscated a Taser at the house that matched scars on Gonzalez’s back, according to court records.)
FBI agents planted an electronic beacon in the ransom money, which led them to the Chula Vista cul-de-sac, where they freed Gonzalez.
The spare tire case
In tiny Pearsall, Texas, just outside San Antonio, a tow-truck driver was abducted and taken across the border last year by thugs allegedly connected to Mexican drug traffickers.
The men reportedly were angered at the disappearance of drug profits they had hidden in a spare tire of a car the driver had towed from an accident on Interstate 35, the main thoroughfare from San Antonio to the border city of Laredo. A federal grand jury in San Antonio indicted five men in April in connection with the international kidnapping.
The indictment said the defendants were offered as much as $15,000 to bring the driver to Mexico, court records show. They lured him to Frio County Regional Park in Pearsall by phoning in a fake request for a tow, then bundled him off to Piedras Negras, where he was “tortured and interrogated about the missing spare tire” and held for a week, the indictment alleged.
The assailants phoned his boss and threatened to “cut the head off of the driver” unless the supervisor brought the missing money to Eagle Pass, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras.
U.S. authorities were alerted, and after intense negotiations, the driver was released at the port of entry in Del Rio, Texas, upriver from Eagle Pass. The five men were arrested and are to stand trial in San Antonio on Monday.
A toast to St. Death
Cartel members also have pleaded guilty in federal court this year as part of a murder-for-hire and kidnapping ring that stretched from the Rio Grande to North Texas.
Several men and two teenage boys on this side of the border were killed as part of a war that pitted the Gulf cartel against the Sinaloa cartel over the lucrative drug trafficking to North Texas and beyond. Hit men were paid in drugs and cash to help carry out the slayings, according to court documents.
Police in the U.S. learned about the abductions when the parents of the two boys, the youngest 14 years old, reported them missing. The investigation ended when one of the accused killers, Gabriel Cardona-Ramirez, also known as “Pelon” and “Gaby,” bragged about how the boys were crying when he slashed them to death with a broken bottle, then poured their blood into a cup for a toast.
“Poom! The little cup [drink]! Poom!” Cardona-Ramirez boasted on a federal wiretap planted at a cartel hide-out on Orange Blossom Loop in Laredo. His words were translated into English for U.S. court officials. “I filled it with blood and poom! I dedicated it to La Santisima Muerte” – St. Death.
Here in Georgia, the case of the man held in the basement on East Fork Shady Drive is indicative of how “these traffickers unleash ruthless forms of violence in order to protect and defend their drugs and cash,” said Rodney G. Benson, DEA special agent-in-charge in Atlanta.
Jay S. Mortenson, also a DEA special agent, said officers surrounded the house after the hostage’s wife phoned them from Rhode Island. She said cartel members came up with a ruse to have him bring the title of a newly purchased vehicle to Georgia, and when he arrived in July they abducted him over a $300,000 drug debt.
When officers burst inside they found the husband, Oscar Reynoso, in the basement, chained at his ankles. His mouth was gagged with black tape.
Unbound, Reynoso began talking. Mortenson said he told officers he delivered the title to the cartel members at a Waffle House restaurant in Duluth, Ga., and then was driven to East Fork Shady Drive. Taken into the kitchen, he was surrounded; one of the assailants pointed him out as “the thief who stole the money.”
Three men who tried to flee the house during the raid face criminal charges in connection with the abduction and extortion scheme.
In addition, Reynoso was charged with distributing cocaine, after he admitted he had dealt drugs and owed the money to the cartel, Mortenson said.
The home at 755 East Fork Shady Drive was vacant because the owners had moved and could not find a buyer. Today it stands as a reminder to Beaver Hills residents of how far the drug wars in Mexico have come.
“I hope we don’t have anything more like this,” said Barbara Park, who lives across the street in a cul-de-sac. “It was pretty scary, and we have a nice neighborhood.”
"Houston Is Top Source for Guns Going into Mexico, Officials Say" (Associated Press):
Houston has become the top source for firearms going into Mexico to supply drug cartel gangsters with weapons for their deadly insurgency, according to federal law enforcement officials.
Gangsters spend millions in the city on military-style weapons and ammunition in their ongoing clashes with Mexican society and government. More than 4,000 people have died in Mexico's criminal underworld violence this year.
Mexican officials estimate 90 percent of nearly 27,000 weapons seized from stash houses or recovered from crime scenes in the past two years originated in the United States.
Federal law enforcement officials say gangsters have chosen Houston because of its numerous gun shops, its proximity to the border and its long-established networks for smuggling narcotics into the United States.
Authorities say numerous crimes, including a 2007 Acapulco massacre, illustrate the carnage brought on by Houston-bought guns that have gotten into the hands of ruthless killers.
"Our investigations show Houston is the top source for firearms going into Mexico, top source in the country," said J. Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Houston division, in a story Sunday in the Houston Chronicle.
ATF is targeting at least three Houston cells it contends supply weapons to the Gulf Cartel, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.
Since 2007, when the investigation was launched after an audit of a gun store's sales records, agents working with Mexican counterparts have traced at least 328 Houston-bought firearms to those cells.
The ATF knows when and where some guns were used to kill police, gangsters and others in Mexico, according to the documents.
During a 15-month period in 2006 and 2007, 22 alleged conspirators paid $352,134 in cash for guns. The ATF contends:
–A Bushmaster carbine, a civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle, bought at a sporting goods store was used last year by drug gangsters who disguised themselves as soldiers to massacre four police officers and three secretaries in Acapulco.
–A similar rifle was sold at a gun store in July 2006 and recovered two months later in central Mexico after the murder of a cattle buyer kidnapped at a small-town soccer match. At least 45 assault rifles were sold by the same sporting goods store to three members of the gun-purchasing group, according to court documents.
–Guns traced to Houston were used in a shootout last March that killed 11 gangsters in the Guatemala highlands.
The proprietors are not charged with wrongdoing. They declined to comment and would not say whether changes have been made to derail cartel efforts to buy guns.
Andrew Molchan, director of the Professional Gun Retailers Association, said members are aware fraudulent buyers are out there and are encouraged to ask more questions than the law requires to evaluate customers.
"Regardless of the business – banks, doctors or whatever – if somebody starts to commit fraud it's very difficult for any business or retailer to combat that," he said.
It is up to a gun store owner or sales clerk to decide whether they are being hoodwinked and call authorities.
"For the same person coming in repeatedly and buying these weapons at that amount of money and probably paying cash, somebody has to stand up and be a good American," said Don Clark, a retired FBI agent who headed the Houston office.
U.S. officials have an obligation to do more to keep guns on this side of the border, Mexican authorities said.
"All the weapons the drug syndicates are using in Mexico come across the border from the United States," said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States.
Mexico's weapons laws are stricter than those in the United States, making it difficult for civilians to purchase guns and ammunition. U.S. citizens crossing into Mexico have been sent to prison for having accidentally left guns or ammunition in their vehicles.
Still, with Mexican border inspections often haphazard, and with corruption rampant, thousands of guns are believed to be smuggled across the border monthly.
"Fear Discouraging Arizonans From Visiting Mexico" (Associated Press):
A spate of drug-related killings the past few months in Nogales, Mexico, is keeping some residents in its U.S. sister city from crossing the border as they have long been accustomed to doing.
Even lifelong residents of the area are refusing to cross the line to see relatives or friends. Others are going less frequently or restricting themselves to daytime visits. It's a dramatic change for what have long been close-knit communities.
Shopkeeper Ernesto Chavez said his wife no longer goes bowling or has lunch on Tuesdays with her sisters on the other side, a 40-year tradition.
Chavez, whose office supply store sits a half-block north of the Morley Avenue border crossing, said he told his wife a few months ago, "'I'm not going to tell you not to go, but it's your life, it's your body.' And she decided not to go. As simple as that."
Now, her sisters come north to have lunch with her, Chavez said.
Shootings, grenade attacks and even beheadings have plagued other Mexican border cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez for years but they have only recently arrived full-force in Nogales and the state of Sonora.
Gunmen from drug-trafficking organizations have primarily targeted rival groups, but police and soldiers have suffered casualties in the violent swirl too; the state police director was ambushed at a central Nogales hotel in early November.
What's more, gun battles occurring even in daylight on public streets, near stores and in restaurants within a few miles of the border have paralyzed the Mexican city's tourist-dependent economy.
In mid-October, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert warning Americans to be wary of going to Nogales, Mexico, because of the increasing violence. Area residents say the graphic descriptions of the violence in the Mexican media also have driven the message home vividly.
Maria Armenta, a secretary who works downtown, said she and her family used to visit her grandfather, aunts and uncles across the border three to five times a week but that's changed.
She and her mother haven't seen her grandfather for at least two months. "Right now we're scared that we don't know if we're going to get caught in any of those shootings," she said.
Young adults who typically would frequent night clubs in Mexico, where drinking at age 18 is legal, have also shied away. Alexis Kramer, a Nogales High School senior, said her classmates have been warned off by their parents or realize that the clubs are located in an area where much of the violence has occurred.
"Many of us have friends across the line, or family, and we hear the stories, that after sundown they have to be home," she said.
Even police officers are changing their habits because of the concerns.
Nogales Assistant Police Chief Roy Bermudez said he and his family used to go to dinner in Mexico, or on Sundays take a walk to the curio shops.
"And all that stopped ... . I don't want to subject my family to any undue harm or violence," Bermudez said. "The way it is right now, you're in a restaurant, and you don't even know who's sitting next to you, who these people are, and somebody comes in and just sprays the whole restaurant with bullets."
Many people on both sides of the border are shocked, said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. "It's a sad turn of events for this border community, because this is something we've never experienced before," Estrada said.
"Nogales, Mexico, was like the last safe haven from this type of phenomenon," he said. "And it's changed the panorama forever. Things will never be the same. That doesn't mean things won't get better, but they'll never be the same."
"Mexican President Vows to Clean Up Corruption" (Associated Press):
President Felipe Calderon pledged Sunday to clean up corruption within his administration and vowed his government would never negotiate with drug lords.
Promising to continue the battle against organized crime, no matter how violent it gets, Calderon said he would push President-elect Barack Obama to do his part north of the U.S.-Mexican border. Calderon has long said the U.S. must do more to fight drug use and stop the illegal flow of weapons south from the U.S. Obama has said he will do both.
"Without rule of law, Mexico's security is always in danger," Calderon told a breakfast meeting that marked his first two years in office.
Calderon's sweeping crackdown on powerful drug cartels has in recent weeks been shaken by a nationwide corruption scandal.
The government revealed that top officials within the army, federal Attorney General's office, and federal police had been allegedly bought off by Mexico's most powerful drug gang, the Sinaloa cartel. On Thursday, officials said that almost half of Mexican police officers examined this year had failed background and security checks, a figure that rises to nearly 9 of 10 cops in the violent border state of Baja California, home to Tijuana.
But Calderon insisted he won't back down, promising to weed out corruption within his administration, and said officials are working to create a "new generation of police."
"To get rid of organized crime, we must first clean up our own house," he said.
Since taking office on Dec. 1, 2006, Calderon has sent more than 20,000 soldiers to battle drug trafficking across Mexico, helping to seize of 70 tons of cocaine and 3,708 tons of marijuana, he said.
Cartels have responded with a bloody terror campaign, dumping beheaded bodies on public streets and tossing grenades into a crowd of Independence Day revelers in September. More than 4,000 people have died so far this year in drug-related violence.
Addressing the global financial crisis, Calderon said Mexico would boost spending on infrastructure and tourism programs to battle a slowing economy and encourage investment.
He said the government would also ease access to credit for homeowners, in an effort to encourage the country's housing boom. The sector includes very few subprime mortgages, and hasn't suffered the same scale of defaults or foreclosures seen in the U.S.
Peruvian President Alan Garcia on Thursday blamed his country's recent rash of drug-related violence on powerful Mexican drug cartels that are making inroads and building criminal alliances in Peru.
In the last two months, at least 22 policemen and soldiers have died fighting drug trafficking in Peru -- the world's second-largest producer of cocaine after Colombia.
In the most recent clash, at least four policemen were killed on Wednesday when 40 suspected members of Peru's Shining Path guerrilla group ambushed a government convoy in the jungle, using automatic weapons and hand grenades.
Authorities say the rebels have largely abandoned their Maoist ideology in favor of running drugs, and they accuse them of teaming up with Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.
"Mexican cartels are capturing, or trying to capture, the Peruvian market. This is the problem," Garcia told a group of foreign reporters, explaining the uptick in violence.
"The Mexican cartels are much more aggressive than those from Colombia," he said.
In past decades, Colombian gangs were thought to control many of the lucrative routes for running drugs between Peru and the United States, mainly cocaine, a stimulant made from the leaves of the coca plant, an Andean shrub.
But Mexican gangs, like the powerful Sinaloa cartel, are gaining ground. In September, Peruvian police arrested 20 people suspected of working for Sinaloa and seized some 2.5 tonnes of cocaine valued at $125 million. It was the strongest sign yet of the growing presence of the Mexican group in Peru.
The Shining Path led a deadly insurrection in Peru starting in 1980. It largely collapsed in the early 1990s after its leadership was captured, but a few hundred holdouts remain.
Garcia said Peru is working to forge a cooperation agreement with Mexico to help combat the rise in killings.
Drug violence has claimed more than 4,300 lives in Mexico this year in clashes among rival gangs and the government.
"We must redouble our effort to crush the drug trade, cost what it may," said Garcia.
Also on Thursday, the head of Peru's government anti-drug group DEVIDA said production of opium poppies, the raw material for heroin, is increasing, although he did not give details.
Last year, the amount of land dedicated to growing poppies increased 17 percent worldwide, according to the United Nations, which does not track growth in Peru because it is still considered to be small.