March 11, 2006

Laredo Now a Base for Mexico’s Cartels: With U.S. Justice Less Deadly, City Attractive for Planning Crimes

By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News

Mar. 11--LAREDO -- This Texas border city is emerging as a staging ground for operations by the Sinaloa drug cartel, a clear indication that Mexico's drug gangs are gaining a foothold on American soil, some U.S. and Mexican authorities say.

The cartel uses Laredo as a base to gather intelligence and weapons and to launch strikes against rivals, the authorities say. Cartel members also want to take advantage of the protection offered by the "softer justice" available on the U.S. side.

These conclusions are based on recent large seizures of powerful weapons and homemade grenades, police scanners and cash discovered in Laredo safe houses over the last two months, as well as intelligence that U.S. authorities have gleaned from the growing number of Mexican citizens in local jails, law enforcement officials said.

Some of these inmates are members of the Gulf drug cartel or the Sinaloa cartel, which some officials say have operatives in North Texas. Several inmates are being held in connection with cartel activities across the border in Nuevo Laredo, Webb County authorities and defense lawyers said.

"You have to look at it from the eyes of the bad guys," said Fred Burton, a former U.S. State Department agent and current vice president of counterterrorism for Austin-based Stratfor, an information-gathering company that draws on U.S. intelligence for its reports. "Laredo represents a safe haven, a logistical area to hunker down and strategize future hits."

The city has become "a cesspool of cartel activity," noted a U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"This place is becoming a fertile staging ground for them, and it's happening right under our noses," the official said. "We don't have the same murder rate of Nuevo Laredo, but we're increasingly witnessing the same type of violence here."

Another reason for operating on the U.S. side, authorities say, is "softer justice." Cartel operatives in the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo area know that if they are caught north of the Texas-Mexico border, they probably will go to jail and be able to fight extradition through lawyers, authorities said. If they are apprehended south of the border, however, they are more likely to face execution in jail by rivals or corrupt local and state police in Nuevo Laredo, law enforcement experts said.

Laredo officials have played down the occurrence of any spillover violence from Nuevo Laredo. City officials note, for example, that the city has experienced just two murders this year, compared with 46 across the border.

Those two killings, they add, have no connection with events in Nuevo Laredo, where just Tuesday a daytime shootout left two state police officers and two others dead.

Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said this week that drug traffickers appeared to be behind that incident. The shootings apparently stemmed from internal struggles for control of the drug cartels, Mr. Aguilar said. He added that federal prosecutors may take charge of the case.

Laredo defends safety

Laredo officials say that their city has remained relatively free of drug violence. Last year, 20 slayings were recorded in Laredo, and "perhaps one, maybe two of those killings could have been connected to crime in Nuevo Laredo," said Juan Rivera, a spokesman for the Laredo Police Department. "But there really is no proof at this time. It's like the old saying goes: 'Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.' The same can be said for Mexico. What happens in Mexico stays in Mexico."

Some American and Mexican law enforcement officials take a different view. Testifying before Congress last month, Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores said as many as nine of the 20 killings were linked to cartel violence in Nuevo Laredo.

"It's impossible for you to run a criminal organization without having people on the other side," Mr. Flores said in an interview. "We do have people on this side working with the cartels on the other side, and that's definite."

Among the questionable killings is the Dec. 8 death of Moises "El 23" Garcia, 25, of Laredo who was shot as he, his pregnant wife and their toddler were leaving the Torta Mex restaurant in Laredo. Police said the gunman, believed to be working for a Mexican cartel, jumped out of a white SUV and fired at the victim's Lexus, killing him and injuring his wife. Police have made no arrests.

Most recently, moviegoers witnessed a gunfight outside a Laredo movie theater that had "all the signs of violence linked to Nuevo Laredo," a American law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity.

And some U.S. authorities say they suspect that besides attracting Mexican hitmen, Laredo also is drawing high-level cartel members, particularly those in the "white-collar sector" involved in securing weapons and overseeing money laundering.

'Great R&R'

Those operatives find Laredo, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities with a population of more than 200,000 people, a "great R&R place," said Mr. Burton. "You can actually get a good night's sleep in Laredo."

Lt. Jesus R. Torres is a 24-year veteran of the Laredo Police Department and works in the criminal investigation division. He reminisced about the days when crime from Mexico usually meant petty theft in downtown Laredo. These days, he said, "The first thing I ask is, 'What Mexican cartel does the suspect have links to?' It's that widespread."

Mexico's attorney general, Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, said Americans should look beyond stereotypes.

"We're talking about a city divided by a river, or a fence," he said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News. "You can no longer say the good guys are on one side and the bad guys are on the other side. The criminals and their cell groups operate from both sides of the border. That's a fact."

That point was illustrated last year with the arrest of Jorge Gregorio Reyes Herbert, Gabriel Jalomo Rodriguez and four others in Laredo, all suspected of being hitmen for the Sinaloa cartel. The men lived in Laredo, but operated in Nuevo Laredo, according to law enforcement officials.

They now sit in U.S. jails facing murder charges and possible extradition to Mexico, where Mr. Jalomo, 20, faces charges of killing at least six Nuevo Laredo policemen, Mexican authorities say.

The men are believed to be members of an "organized criminal organization utilized to commit murders for drug trafficking organizations," according to an arrest warrant. The killings were ordered by a Mexican drug dealer with ties to the Sinaloa cartel, whose naked body was later found in Nuevo Laredo, authorities said.

The men's lawyer is Andres A. Ramos, a former state prosecutor who works in Laredo and who has more than a half-dozen Mexican clients in jail in Laredo. Mr. Ramos would not discuss his clients' cases specifically, but he did talk about "softer justice" on the U.S. side.

"In the United States you're innocent until proven guilty, and you have the right against self-incrimination, the right to remain silent; and exercising that right cannot be used against you in a court of law," he said. "In the Mexican system it's your burden to prove your innocence. You also do have the right to remain silent, but the interviewing techniques in Mexico, let's just say, are more lax.

"In general, Mexican suspects feel safer within the U.S. legal system ... and if I was in their shoes, I'd rather do 20 years in prison than get whacked."

Angela Kocherga, Border Bureau chief for Belo Television, contributed to this report.

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