Former Mexican soldiers, police and federal agents, originally trained as an elite force of anti-drug commandos, are working as mercenaries for Mexican narcotics traffickers, bringing a new wave of drug-related killings into the United States, authorities said.
Law-enforcement and intelligence officials said the well-armed gang, known as the "Zetas," is linked to hundreds of killings and dozens of kidnappings on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly over a wide area of southeastern Texas from Laredo to Brownsville and in cities throughout Mexico.
In protecting established drug corridors into the United States, gang leaders have targeted U.S. Border Patrol agents and state and local police, authorities said, along with Mexican military and law-enforcement personnel, even offering bounties of up to $50,000.
U.S. intelligence officials said the Zetas might have obtained Soviet-made SA-7 shoulder-mounted missile launchers off the black market, although information on the purchase is sketchy. The Bush administration has been concerned in recent weeks about the fate of Soviet-provided SA-7s in Nicaragua, about 80 of which have not been accounted for by the government and are thought to have been sold on the black market.
Mexico's top anti-drug prosecutor, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, recently described the Zetas as "extremely violent," adding that its members were "much feared in the region because of the bloodshed they unleash." But the Mexican government has sought to downplay the gang's significance, saying the Zetas had been targeted by Mexican authorities and are on the run -- a position disputed by U.S. officials and others.
A report this month by a U.S. security consulting firm hired by the State and Defense departments to study the presence of weapons in Latin America called the Zetas an expanding gang of mercenaries with intimate knowledge of Mexican drug-trafficking methods and routes.
Strategic Forecasting Inc., also known as Stratfor, said the organization maintained "connections to the Mexican law-enforcement establishment," noting that those connections had given the gang virtually unfettered access through the southern U.S. border.
"Based on the activities of both the drug cartels and their hired guns, sources suggest it is only a matter of time before Mexican drug wars spill over onto U.S. streets," the report said. "There is some evidence, in fact, that a number of unsolved drug-related murders in the Southwest could be linked to the Zetas.
"If true, it suggests the Mexican cartels' paramilitary forces already are operating within the United States," the report said.
At least three drug-related slayings in the Dallas area, two in September and one in December, have been tied to the Zetas. Texas law-enforcement authorities think a squad of Zeta members, as many as 10, might be operating inside that state as assassins for the infamous Gulf drug cartel. They said the cartel is looking to protect nearly $10 million in daily drug transactions in Texas.
Earlier this month, U.S. authorities said snipers working as "lookouts" for drug traffickers were targeting Border Patrol agents from vantage points across the U.S.-Mexico border. Agents assigned to the Douglas station in Arizona's southeastern corner were fired at on at least six occasions. None was injured, but several reported near-misses.
U.S. authorities have documented an increase in violence from the drug cartels and their hired guns along the U.S.-Mexico border, and just last month, the State Department issued a traveler's warning for the northern part of Mexico, citing deteriorating security conditions -- including killings and kidnappings -- on the U.S.-Mexico border.
At least 27 U.S. citizens have been abducted along the border in the past six months, two of whom were killed. The State Department attributed the kidnappings to increased violence among Mexican drug traffickers, describing the rising crime as the "product of a war between criminal organizations struggling for control of the lucrative narcotics trade along the border."
"Criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know there is little chance they will be caught and punished," the department said. "In some cases, assailants have been wearing full or partial police uniforms and have used vehicles that resemble police vehicles, indicating some elements of the police might be involved."
Many of the Zeta leaders have been identified by Mexican officials as former members of an elite paratroop and intelligence battalion known as the Special Air Mobile Force Group, formerly assigned to the state of Tamaulipas, which borders southern Texas, to fight drug traffickers.
Several of them, according to the Mexican government, were trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. The school, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is the U.S. Army's principal Spanish-language training facility for Latin American military personnel.
A core of 31 former battalion members are thought to lead the Zetas, but the gang's total membership is not known. The name Zeta was taken from the Mexican federal police in Tamaulipas, who used it in the late 1980s as radio code to locate high-ranking battalion commanders.
Several members deserted the Special Air Mobile Force Group in 1991, aligning themselves with drug traffickers and establishing their own smuggling routes into the United States.
Fourteen men tied to the Zetas, including reputed gang leader Rogelio Gonzalez Pizana, have been ordered to stand trial in Mexico City on organized-crime, money-laundering and weapons charges. They were arrested after an October shootout in Matamoros as part of an investigation by the Mexico Attorney General's Office known as "Operation Corsorio."
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