Change in tactic by Mexican cartel worries U.S. cops
SELLS, Ariz. -- The reputed head of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel has instructed his associates to use deadly force if necessary -- even against U.S. law enforcement -- to protect their increasingly contested trafficking operations, according to law-enforcement authorities here and in Washington.
The threatened offensive by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most wanted man, was described by U.S. officials as being highly unusual, given that his associates have avoided violent confrontations with American law-enforcement officers and have kept their blood feuds with fellow traffickers mostly south of the border.
Guzman is believed to have delivered the message personally in early March, during a three-day gathering of his associates in Sonoita, a small Mexican town just a few miles south of the Arizona border, according to U.S. intelligence bulletins sent to several state and federal law-enforcement officials, who discussed them on the condition of anonymity because they are confidential.
The Sonoita meeting is one of many indications that Guzman is becoming more brazen even in the face of a Mexican government crackdown on his activities and deadly turf rivalries with other traffickers.
Reports of Guzman's recent activities, gathered through U.S. informants, wiretaps and other means, have prompted a flurry of warnings to local, state and federal authorities in border states. They said they have been instructed to use extreme caution when confronting people suspected of smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants north from Mexico, or ferrying weapons and cash south from the United States, officials familiar with those warnings said.
Some of the U.S. intelligence suggests that Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, is on the defensive because of enforcement efforts in Mexico and the U.S. and no longer can afford to ditch valuable cargoes if rival traffickers or authorities intercept them. U.S. authorities also say Guzman has become more intent on gaining dominance over smuggling routes in Mexico and the United States. To do so, they say, he has escalated his assault on some rival smugglers while forging alliances with others.
Thomas Harrigan, the chief of operations in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said virtually all of the violence remains in Mexico but that U.S. authorities are alarmed that attacks on police, soldiers, government officials, journalists and other potential opponents have intensified near the border.
"Chapo is at the forefront of the efforts to control the routes into the United States," Harrigan said.
Thus far, the contrast has been stark between near-daily violence in Mexican border towns and the relative tranquility surrounding drug trafficking in the southwestern U.S., according to crime data and interviews with law-enforcement officials in the region.
For example, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, had 100 times as many homicides as neighboring El Paso, Texas, which is roughly half its size, in the 14 months ended in February. In 2008, Nogales, in Mexico's Sonora state, had 40 times as many homicides as Nogales, Ariz., which has one-ninth the population.
But along the Mexico-Arizona border, Robert Gilbert, chief patrol agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Tucson sector, said confrontations with suspected traffickers, and between them, have grown more violent. A shootout occurred several weeks ago when one group tried to hijack another's load of drugs on one of the main roads leading north to Phoenix. Two of the suspected traffickers were wounded. "Now, Gilbert said, "They'll fight us."
An internal report from the agency, obtained by Judicial Watch, appears to support Gilbert's assessment. Assaults against border officers involving weapons rose 24 percent last year compared with 2007, and assaults involving vehicles rose 7 percent in the same period.
Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard said there appears to be a shift in the rules of engagement on the part of traffickers affiliated with Sinaloa and other cartels, including ramming their vehicles into squad cars and occasionally firing weapons. "They've got to get the dope through or they won't get paid," he said.
Local police and federal agents in Arizona have received at least two alerts focused on Guzman's reported orders that his smugglers should "use their weapons to defend their loads at all costs," according to several local and federal authorities.
Questions also have arisen about what Mexican authorities knew about the Sonoita meeting.
Many U.S. authorities said they want to know how a large contingent of suspected traffickers, possibly including Guzman himself, could have been able to spend three days in Sonoita without any apparent efforts by Mexican authorities to take them into custody.
"If we knew exactly where Osama bin Laden was for three days and no one did anything to go get him, people would be screaming bloody murder," said the Tohono O'odham police officer.
By Sam Quinones
May 7, 2009