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Special 121409 Logan

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mexican Drug Cartel Recruitment of Teenagers in the USA

By Samuel Logan

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 states.

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 cities.

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.

Teenage assassin

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 City.

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.

Generation lost

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.

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