Street Gangs for Hire


Cross-border hit men complicate the battle with Mexico's drug cartels

Antonio Mendoza Ledezma, a hit man for a cross-border street gang called the Aztecas may be one of the most prolific assassins in Mexican history. After he was arrested last month, he told police that he had committed 140 murders and ordered the deaths of another 60 people since 2002.

Mendoza admitted he took his orders from a man known as “El Kiri,” who allegedly runs the Juarez-based Aztecas from Las Vegas, which acts as a brother organization to the El Paso-based prison gang known as the Barrio Azteca.

Mendoza's confessions have raised the curtain on the complex web of gang activity spanning both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, and illustrates in turn the growing threat posed by trans-national drug cartels. The Aztecas on both sides of the border are aligned with the most powerful criminal syndicate in Juarez, the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes' organization (VCF). Under VCF direction, Azteca members target rival street gangs, in particular the Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos, thought to be working steadily with the Sinaloa Federation, which is a VCF rival.

Mendoza's arrest came just under a year since six high-ranking members of the Barrio Azteca gang in El Paso stood trial for racketeering and a conspiracy to traffic drugs and commit murder in November 2008.

By then, testimony at the trial from police, gang members and other witnesses had already confirmed what many analysts had suspected: the Barrio Azteca has worked closely with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization, also known as the Juarez Cartel, to smuggle drugs and eliminate targets inside the United States for over ten years.

The Deadly Costs of Narco Business

Former Barrio Azteca member Josue Aguirre testified that gang members purchased drugs from members of the Juarez Cartel at a discounted rate in Juarez, smuggled the product across the border, and sold it wholesale to dealers in El Paso. These dealers, in turn, paid the Barrio Azteca a “tax” for the right to retail the drugs. Aguirre testified that the Barrio Azteca collected taxes from at least 47 different street-level dealers in El Paso. Failure to pay meant death.

Mid-level members of the Barrio Azteca received a salary from a portion of the tax earnings; other earnings were transferred to bank accounts held by the gang's leaders, and the rest returned to Juarez to purchase more drugs.

The Barrio Azteca also received discounts from the Juarez Cartel in exchange for hiding cartel operatives in El Paso, as well as the occasional hits against cartel enemies. Most of the murders, however, occurred on the Mexican side of the border, as Mendoza's mid-December admission suggests.

The men who run Mexico's top drug trafficking organizations (DTOs in official jargon)—Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, leader of Los Zetas, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez Cartel, and Joaquin Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Federation–know that certain methods for doing business and enforcing turf control in Mexico do not work inside the United States. Rather than risk arrest and imprisonment, these men rely on subcontractors to conduct US-based activity, ranging from murder and surveillance to transport and sales.

Latino street gangs, especially the Barrio Azteca, the Mexican Mafia, the Artistas Asesinos, and the Texas Syndicate, are the contractors for Mexican organized crime, hired for a job that comes with at least one condition: don’t attract attention.

Since the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Federation formally ended their partnership, in 2004, subcontracting work has become significantly more dangerous, especially in 2008 and 2009 as a number of DTOs focused on claiming control of the Juarez-El Paso border crossing. Members of a rival gang, the Artisas Asesinos, who have worked mostly with the Sinaloa Federation, are known to gun down Barrio Azteca members on Juarez streets in broad daylight.

On the west side of Juarez, a neighborhood known as Bella Vista endures extreme rival gang activity. In the last three months of 2009, at least 50 to 60 murders were registered in this neighborhood alone, most of the homicides occurring when one gangster saw and fired upon a rival without hesitation or warning.

No Loyalty

There is clearly no love lost between rival gangs, but little to no loyalty exists between the gangs and Mexico's DTOs. These are business relationships. Mexican DTOs reach out to street gangs because of economic necessity. Family or friendship ties count for little here: these relationships exist because both sides make money. There is no other incentive. As long as there is money to be made by smuggling illegal products into the United States, Mexican DTOs will maintain their relationships with street gangs across the United States.

Barrio Azteca members normally work for Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, but they could just as easily work for the Gulf Cartel, or even the Sinaloa Federation, in Juarez or other border cities inside the United States.

Farther east, in Laredo, investigators have seen a trend toward the use of seasoned criminals in street gangs in the past four years. Laredo investigators have tracked the relationship between Mexican criminals based in Nuevo Laredo, such as Zetas second-in-command Miguel Treviño, and the US-based gangs, particularly the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate.

There was a time when Treviño experimented with non-gang affiliated hit men in Laredo. The case of Rosalio Reta, a teenage hit man who worked for Triveño for five years from 2000 to 2005, revealed that younger recruits will likely talk to police under pressure. Reta told police, for example, that he had been ordered to kill members of both the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate – two gangs that Triveño now uses for his US contract work.

The seasoned criminals who live along the border have at least three advantages that set them apart from any Mexican national that might seek the same job. They know local city streets and neighborhoods, and can find a target with little margin for error. They speak fluent English, and are more likely to pass through the various US Border Patrol checkpoints along the highways snaking north from the border. Finally, these US-based contractors are willing to perform activities that Mexicans shy away from, such as kidnapping, murder, torture, the operation of criminal safe houses, and clandestine arms purchases inside the United States.

A careful balance between bribes and bullets maintains the operational security of most drug trafficking organizations inside Mexico. Once operations cross into the US, professional policing and a higher resilience to bribery significantly reduce operational security. Mexican smugglers are willing to lose a shipment or miss a targeted hit when police arrest one of their gang contractors, but they are not willing to risk arrest themselves.

They know that once arrested inside in the United States, there is no second chance. As long as gang members remain ready and willing to take that risk, they are an investment easily contracted and just as easily discarded.

Samuel Logan, an investigative journalist and author, is the founder of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence, and has reported on organized crime, terrorism and other security issues in Latin America since 1999. He is the author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang, (Hyperion:2009)

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