Ildefonso Ortiz | The Monitor
by Ildefonso Ortiz
McALLEN — The ongoing debate regarding immigration reform has once again brought the topic of border security to the forefront.
In South Texas, the area that has seen a sharp increase in drug trafficking runs from treacherous waters of the Rio Grande to the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints in Falfurrias and Sarita, the last law enforcement waypoint along the roads leading from the Texas-Mexico border to inland metropolitan areas.
In those areas, drug smugglers tied to Mexican drug cartels work ingenious ways of moving their drugs to their destinations without detection by law enforcement.
That activity has drawn the attention of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has classified gangs working with Mexican drug cartels as the greatest threat to Texas.
Talks of violent executions and large-scale firefights in Mexico between cartel gunmen are some of the talking points brought up during those discussions. But what rarely gets brought up is the fact that various members of Mexican drug cartels are not Mexican but in fact are U.S.-born Texans.
Mexican drug cartels have been active in the U.S. for decades. As such, they have developed deep roots with many members being second or third generation smugglers, said Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño.
“They have been here for a long time but they try to keep a low profile; what has brought them to the forefront is what’s going on in Mexico,” Treviño said referring to the crackdown on cartels by former presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon.
Keeping a low profile or trying to minimize their role is what some of the drug cartel members who have been caught on U.S soil have done.
When police officers and deputy U.S. Marshals caught Benicio “Comandante Veneno” Lopez this month, he claimed that he didn’t have a leadership figure in the Gulf Cartel, saying he was a mid- or low-level smuggler, said San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez.
“No low-key cartel guy has bodyguards, has four or five stash houses, carries bulk cash and knows about ton quantities of narcotics,” Gonzalez said. “He was trying to downplay his role to try to keep a low profile.”
DIFFERENT ACTIVITIES IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES
The activities of cartel members in the U.S are very different than those in Mexico, however the public and the media quickly associate the word “cartel” with the way they operate in Mexico, Treviño said.
“When people hear the word “cartel” they think of convoys of gunmen, brutal firefights and crude executions,” Treviño said. “That happens in Mexico, not here. If they were to try that here they would be wiped out. The American people would not stand for that. Every law enforcement agency and resource would be used to literally wipe them out.”
Because cartel members seek to keep a low profile and are not tied to many of the crimes in the community, keeping track of them is a job best left for federal agencies, which have the best resources to attack transnational criminals, while the brunt of the Sheriff’s Office’s resources go toward local crime, the sheriff said.
Still, in a border county, cross-border organized crime intersects with local law enforcement.
“Robberies, theft, carjacking, assault and other crimes — that is not something that these individuals are interested in but it affects our communities, “Trevino said. “On the other hand, street gangs are behind the majority of those crimes. They are the ones holding up convenience stores, carrying out drive by shootings, carjackings and the brunt of our violent crime. They are our most significant threat in this county.”
Gonzalez, for his part, paints a different picture from the sheriff. He said cartel members are coming out of the shadows and becoming more active locally.
“I honestly think we can dismantle the Gulf Cartel,” Gonzalez said. “It’s important to accept the fact that they operate here. This drug cartel operates with a lot of money. These guys have 20 to 30 vehicles assigned to operatives. That concerns because they used to hide but now they are brazen and putting are putting stash houses all over the place. It’s important we address them and try to dismantle them.”
U.S.-BORN MEXICAN CARTEL BOSSES
Several key members of the Gulf Cartel and other Mexican drug syndicates have ties to the Rio Grande Valley.
>> Lopez, known as “Comandante Veneno,” is a Houston native who grew up in Roma and also climbed to a leadership role in the Gulf Cartel. Lopez was a close confidant of Samuel “Metro 3” Flores Borrego, whose death led to a split within the cartel. After Flores Borrego’s death, Lopez worked with other commanders to avenge the death of his friend and became the leader of a cartel cell that also worked in the Ribereña area. Lopez had been wanted by San Juan Police in connection with a 2010 failed cartel kidnapping that resulted in the death of Roberto Hinojosa, who tried to fight off the kidnappers as his wife and young son were in the room. Authorities arrested Lopez and his spouse along with two bodyguards on June 13. In addition to the murder charges, the group is also facing state drug charges and could face federal conspiracy charges, officials have said.
>> Juan Garcia Abrego, the legendary leader of a Matamoros based smuggling organization which eventually became known as the Gulf Cartel led his organization with an iron fist from the 1970’s — when he inherited it from his uncle Juan N. Guerra — until his arrest in 1996 and later extradition to the U.S., where he was convicted of numerous drug trafficking counts and is now serving several life sentences. While Garcia Abrego was a kingpin based in Matamoros, he was actually born in La Paloma, a small community just south of San Benito.
>> Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, a Laredo-born drug trafficker who became a leading figure of the Beltran Leyva Cartel and spearheaded control of a splinter faction when an internal struggle for control broke out within the group. Mexican authorities arrested him in 2010 and he continues to fight various drug charges, as well as U.S attempts at extradition. He earned his nickname from boyish face, thus being compared to a Ken or Barbie doll.
>> Mario “Comandante Popo” Peña, a Roma native who grew up to control a Gulf Cartel cell in the Ribereña area, which is across the Rio Grande from Starr County. Peña began his career in local street gangs in Roma and built his way up to the rank of commander within the Gulf Cartel, where he became a folk hero in Miguel Alemán. Peña, whose body was covered in tattoos, was killed in March. His family told The Monitor that Peña died “with honor.” Following his death, his body was brought from Mexico to Roma and buried during a private service.
>> Rosalio “Bart” Reta and Gabriel Cardona, two Laredo teenagers who are serving 70- and 80-year prison sentences for a series of ordered hits for the Zetas. At age 13, the pair began taking on murder-for-hire jobs when Zeta gunmen trained them as hit men. Cardona was arrested in 2006, while Reta turned himself in at around the same time after the Zetas tried to kill him for attempting to carry out unsanctioned hits in Mexico.
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