Monday, December 14, 2009
Mexican Drug Cartel Recruitment of Teenagers in the USA
When Laredo police finally arrested
teenage assassin Rosalio Reta in 2005, he was 17 and had been working as a hit man for Mexican organized crime in Texas since
he was 13, when he killed his first victim.
Reta’s case has been widely
covered by US media outlets, which point to the ongoing threat of a spillover effect of Mexican violence into US cities and
Texas is one of the most vulnerable
states, with border cities such as El Paso and Laredo just across a thin line from some of the historically most violent Mexican
Many in Texas were not surprised
when on 17 November the state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) cited the Rosalio Reta case when warning Texan parents
that Mexican cartels were actively recruiting their teenagers.
According to one DPS spokesperson,
Tela Mange, who spoke with The Monitor daily from McAllen, Texas, Mexican cartels are directly recruiting young people from Texan communities
to act as smugglers, and in some cases, assassins.
Some members of law enforcement,
however, were immediately skeptical. Sheriff Guadalupe Treviņo of Hidalgo County, Texas, remarked that he’d “never heard of this,” adding that he’d “really
like to see anecdotal evidence that supports this allegation.”
Yet while the reality of teen
recruitment across Texas fluctuates according to geography and proximity to the border, there remains a solid record of teen
recruiting in at least two border cities — Laredo and El Paso — where the tendency for teen recruits to handle
smuggling duties remains fairly constant, and the case of one non-gang-affiliated teen acting as a hired assassin for Mexican
patrones appears to be more the exception than a statewide trend.
Rosalio Reta, also known as “Bart,”
worked for Miguel Treviņo, the second in command of Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations. Based in Nuevo Laredo, Treviņo oversaw the movement of drugs through his city into the Texan city
of Laredo and destinations beyond, across the eastern half of the US.
Reta likely never met Treviņo,
but he did spend enough time in the bars of Nuevo Laredo to meet one of Treviņo’s recruiters, someone on the lookout
for young American kids interested in earning a little money on the side. Reta, however, was not hired to work as a mule,
the most common job for new recruits. He was hired to kill; and as court documents revealed, he killed for the first time
when he was 13, in 2000 or 2001.
As he grew into his assassin
role, eliminating targets for Treviņo on both sides of the border, Reta began earning between $5,000 and $50,000 a hit. He
sometimes received a bonus — a kilo or two of pure cocaine — and at the very least received a $500 weekly retainer
fee just so he was available when his Mexican handlers called.
“Back then, in 2003, 2004
and 2005, when we dismantled the Zeta hit man cells here, and also the Sinaloa Cartel cells imbedded in [Laredo], they were
all youngsters. The oldest was 18,” Laredo Police Department Detective Robert Garcia, who was one of the lead detectives
on the Reta case, told ISN Security Watch.
Once the Reta case went public,
however, the use of teens as hired hit men quickly tapered off. “Since then, we’re seeing the Mexican cartels
use seasoned gangsters from prison gangs,” Garcia said.
Reta’s case, while exceptional,
was not an isolated one. Detective Garcia explained that while Mexican cartels now use most teens as mules or ‘halcones,’ the Mexican term used for lookouts, there were other cases of teens recruited to work as hit
men in Nuevo Laredo.
He cited the example of an eight-man
assassin team that was responsible for killing the sheriff of Nuevo Laredo and a number of his police officers in June 2005. The gunmen who killed the Nuevo Laredo sheriff
at the end of his first day on the job were adolescents.
On the US side, however, Garcia
sees more of the heavy work, the killing specifically, contracted out to US-based street and prison gangs. In the Laredo area,
the Texas Syndicate and the Mexican Mafia are the two gangs most likely to receive contract work from Mexican contacts.
“There is no loyalty between
these guys,” Garcia was careful to point out. He commented how Reta was ordered to kill members of both the Texas Syndicate
and the Mexican Mafia. “And now we see the cartels working with these gangs.”
“It’s all about business,
and money talks,” Garcia said.
The same economics motivate teens
to break the law in El Paso, where until around early 2008, scores of adolescents frequented the infamous Avenida Juarez,
a street in Ciudad Juarez lined with bars known to cater to American teens visiting Mexico for a night of revelry and recklessness.
El Paso mules
For well over a decade, teens
from El Paso, both rich and poor, have worked for Mexican cartels as mules.
University of Texas at El Paso
professor and author of "Drug War Zone," Howard Campbell, told ISN Security Watch that he recalled a 1991 Texas Monthly magazine
feature about the children of El Paso’s affluent citizens who would travel into Mexico and return with a load of drugs
to drop off at some point north of the border.
On 14 August 2007, Immigration
and Customs Enforcement special agents arrested an 18-year-old high school student from Horizon City, just outside of El Paso, who over the course of a year had recruited between 15
and 20 of his fellow students to smuggle a total of 30,000 pounds a marijuana from Mexico to locations as far away as Oklahoma
As recently as 18 November this
year, a drug-sniffing dog at the Paso del Norte border crossing in downtown El Paso detected 12 black bundles of heroin underneath
the floorboards of a 1999 Mercury Cougar driven by a teenager. The 30-pound haul, worth some $340,000 in the El Paso area
or up to millions of dollars in cities farther away from the border, seemed to be extremely valuable for something entrusted
to two teenagers.
Such a high value in the hands
of two teens suggested that the two teenage mules had been working as smugglers for a long time. “One could easily come
to that conclusion,” Professor Campbell said.
Campbell commented that Mexican
smugglers have recruited El Paso teens from Avenida Juarez for years, and this activity has slowed down in the past two years
in part due to the increased violence in Juarez, considered Mexico’s most violent city in 2009.
“No one goes there anymore
unless you have to,” Campbell, an El Paso resident since the early 1990s, noted.
The Texas DPS warning comes as
violence in Juarez continues to alarm observers in El Paso where many have lives and loved ones just south of the border.
According to a 3 November Washington Post article, the “exploitation of children is timeless” in Mexico, and nevermore present than in
cities such as Juarez.
The new US ambassador to Mexico,
Carlos Pascual, commented in early November: “What struck me most in the short time that I was in Juarez was not the
threat of violence. It was the threat of what occurs if you lose a whole generation.”
According to a Juarez-based criminologist,
police arrested 204 minors in the first quarter of 2009, and some 80 percent of robbers and assailants in Juarez are between
the ages of 16 and 18. Echoing his findings, a report published by the Ciudad Juarez Youth Assessment Organization in late
2008 suggested that some 40 percent of adolescents in Juarez do not attend school and are unemployed.
Washington Post reporters interviewed one 17-year-old incarcerated outside Juarez for selling weapons, who pointed
out, “young people sell drugs and weapons because they want to make the easy money.” It’s an environment
that’s “almost irresistible” for him and his friends, he said.
In Juarez, many teens have one
of two options, head to the US or become traffickers, but Mexican national teens, while readily available, are not always
what Mexican organized crime needs.
“US teens have local knowledge
of city neighborhoods and streets [in this country],” Detective Garcia pointed out, adding, “they can travel deeper
into the United States, easily passing by US Border Patrol check points north of the border."
This article was originally
published at ISN Security Watch (12/10/09). The International Relations and Security Network
(ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality and comprehensive products and resources to encourage
the exchange of information among international relations and security professionals worldwide. Reprinted with permission from ISN.
Samuel Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized
crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999. He is a senior
writer for ISN Security Watch, and editor of Southern Pulse – Networked Intelligence. He is the author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13,
America's Most Violent Gang, (released by Hyperion in summer 2009). For issues related publications go to http://www.samuellogan.com/publications.html.