ZAPATA, TEX. - The driver was wearing a deputy's uniform and swore he was a real law officer. But to the Border Patrol agents manning a checkpoint here, something just looked funny about the pickup truck with Webb County sheriff decals.
So the border agents called the dispatcher and found that all the sheriff's vehicles were accounted for. When they pulled the driver over, they discovered he was an impostor - with a thousand pounds of marijuana in the cab.
With growing boldness, drug gangs and smuggling organizations on both sides of the border are disguising their couriers and assassins in phony uniforms and vehicles, passing them off as mail handlers and oil field workers, or even Mexican soldiers and Texas sheriffs.
The traffickers have been caught hauling marijuana along the Texas border in fake versions of a Wal-Mart truck or FedEx van. They've employed sham school buses, dummy dump trucks and bogus ambulances.
Law enforcement officials call them "cloners," and they are increasingly the vehicles of choice in conflict zones where the lines between the bad guys and the law are blurred by corruption.
"Trust me, whatever you can think of, the smugglers have already thought of, and with the Internet and a decent body shop, it's not too hard to make a clone," said Jose E. Gonzalez, assistant patrol agent in charge of the Zapata sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.
In Mexico, cartel commandos wearing black masks zoom through checkpoints in pickup trucks boldly marked with forged POLICIA FEDERAL insignia. Gunmen for the paramilitary Zetas set up fake military checkpoints and carry out hits in carbon copies of army trucks.
In one of the boldest incidents, gangsters in a convoy of seven phony police vehicles kidnapped a mayor from his home near Monterrey in northern Mexico this month. The mayor's body, blindfolded and hands bound, was found two days later, on a rural road. The alleged assassins were municipal police wearing federal police uniforms.
'Hiding in plain sight'
"Impersonating a law enforcement asset is ingenious and disturbing. It's the tactic of hiding in plain sight. Cops don't want to stop other cops," said Fred Burton, vice president at the security consultancy Stratfor and a counterterrorism adviser for the Texas Public Safety Department.
Burton, a former diplomatic security special agent in the State Department, said the traffickers were taking a tool out of the spy's kit. "What is going to raise more red flags on the border? A delivery van? Or a shiny SUV with smoked windows and a new set of rims?"
At the isolated ranch in northern Mexico, where the bound and gagged bodies of 72 illegal migrants were found last week, soldiers discovered the killers had a cloned pickup, painted olive green, with markings and plates of the Mexican army.
In Mississippi, police seized nearly 800 pounds of cocaine in 2006 from a van covered with Comcast, Dish and other cable company decals. The smugglers even plastered a toll-free number with a "How's My Driving?" sticker on the van's rear door - the number actually belonged to an adult chat line.
U.S. authorities say they believe that retired service vehicles sold at government auctions and other similar events are also increasingly coveted by drug traffickers.
"We started paying attention to everything we see on the road," said Capt. Aaron Sanchez of the Zapata County Sheriff's Office as he drove through the county impound lot and pointed to an ambulance sitting in the weeds. "We found 800 pounds of marijuana in that one," he said. "The company said the ambulance had been stolen, but we're still sorting it out."
Sanchez said smugglers have cloned Border Patrol vehicles and have used old school buses as drug-trafficking tankers.
"When I see a school bus filled with drugs, what I imagine is a school bus filled with ammonium nitrate," an explosive, said John Harris, supervisor at the Highway Information Sharing and Analysis Center. This "first observer" program, sponsored by the U.S. government, teaches truckers, bus drivers and parking lot attendants how to spot suspicious vehicles and call them in to law enforcement officials.
"If these guys are cloning law enforcement vehicles or emergency vehicles, it's a security risk," said Christopher Morrow, a highway safety analyst for the Homeland Security Department.
In Mexico, the powerful drug mafias pay about $1.2 billion in bribes to municipal police each year, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. They are so corrupt and poorly trained that President Felipe Calderon wants to disband the city police departments and replace them with state forces.
Accustomed to shakedowns and other petty abuses by bribe-hungry officers, Mexicans know that just because people are in uniform doesn't mean they can be trusted. Many of the country's kidnapping crews have been operated by police.
The situation is further muddled because Mexican authorities conceal their identities in public, covering their faces for fear they could be targeted by drug cartels. With their ubiquitous black face masks, the police patrolling Mexican cities look like bank robbers, and such disguises make it even easier for criminals to impersonate them.
In the border state of Tamaulipas, where two fake army pickups were recovered last month, drug gangs have used fake vehicles to carry out kidnappings and killings in daylight on highways. In June, cartel hit men dressed as marines assassinated the leading candidate for governor.
The candidate, Rodolfo Torre Cantu, was traveling in a motorcade when it was stopped by a convoy of vehicles with military insignias. Fooled by their appearance, Torre's bodyguards got out of their vehicles to speak to the uniformed men, who then opened fire, spraying them with up to 120 rounds. Torre and four bodyguards were killed.
The threat of more clone attacks has grown so serious that the Mexican military has changed the design of its uniforms, trading camouflage for more counterfeit-proof patterns, according to Enrique Torres, a spokesman for military and police operations in the northern state of Chihuahua.
Torres said officers and soldiers are under instructions to look for fake uniforms and vehicles and never assure that someone is on their side based on appearance.
"It makes our job even harder when there are criminals out there pretending to be authorities," he said. "It discredits anything good that we do."
By William Booth and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 30, 2010