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Border violence pushes north

Mexican drug cartels extend their reach into Texas and Arizona. Citizens and immigrants alike are victimized.

August 19, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border, which has long plagued the scrubby, often desolate stretch, is increasingly spilling northward into the cities of the American Southwest.

In Phoenix, deputies are working the unsolved case of 13 border crossers who were kidnapped and executed in the desert. In Dallas, nearly two dozen high school students have died in the last two years from overdoses of a $2-a-hit Mexican fad drug called "cheese heroin."

The crime surge, most acute in Texas and Arizona, is fueled by a gritty drug war in Mexico that includes hostages being held in stash houses, daylight gun battles claiming innocent lives, and teenage hit men for the Mexican cartels. Shipments of narcotics and vans carrying illegal workers on U.S. highways are being hijacked by rival cartels fighting over the lucrative smuggling routes. Fires are being set in national forests to divert police.

In Laredo, Texas, a teenager who had been driving around the United States in a $70,000 luxury sedan confessed to becoming a Mexican cartel hitman when he was just 13. In Nogales, Ariz., an 82-year-old man was caught with 79 kilograms of cocaine in his Chevrolet Impala. The youth was sentenced to 40 years in prison in one slaying case and is awaiting trial in another; the old man received 10 years.

In Southern California, Border Patrol agents routinely encounter smugglers driving immigrant-laden cars who try to escape by driving the wrong way on busy freeways. And stash houses packed with dozens of illegal immigrants have been discovered in Los Angeles.

But a huge U.S. law enforcement buildup along the border that started a decade ago has helped stabilize border-related crime rates on the California side; a recent wave of kidnappings in Tijuana has been largely contained south of the border.

The sprawling border has been crisscrossed for years by the poor seeking work and by drug dealers in the hunt for U.S. dollars. For decades neither the United States nor Mexico has managed to halt the immigrants and narcotics pushing north. But with the Mexican government's newly pledged war on the cartels, and an explosion of violence among rival networks, a new crime dynamic is emerging: The violence that has hit Mexican border towns is spreading deeper into the United States.

U.S. officials are promising more Border Patrol and federal firearms officers, more fences and more surveillance towers along the desert stretches where the two nations meet.

But law enforcement officials are wary of how this new burst in violence will play out, especially because the enemy is better armed and more sophisticated than ever. Among their concerns are budget cutbacks in some agencies -- including a hiring freeze in the Drug Enforcement Administration -- and community opposition to the surveillance towers.

Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said he would need at least 20,000 new Border Patrol agents in El Paso alone to hold back the tide. But that is the total number of agents that Washington hopes to have along the whole border by the end of 2009.

In six years, Sutton's office has tried 33,000 defendants, about 90% of them on drug and immigration violations. "We're body-slamming them the best we can," he said.

In Phoenix, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said there were 10,000 inmates in his jail and overflow tents; 2,000 of them are "criminal aliens" from the border, he said. His deputies are investigating the deaths of 13 people executed in the desert.

Jennifer Allen, director of Border Action Network, a Tucson nonprofit that supports immigrants' rights, said Washington and Mexico City need fresh approaches. "The smugglers are no longer mom-and-pop organizations. Now it's an industry," she said. "So the violence increases. That's incredibly predictable."

Raul Benitez, an international relations professor in Mexico City who also taught at American University in Washington, blames both countries for the crime wave. As long as Americans crave drugs and the cartels want money, Benitez said, "security in both directions is jeopardized."

Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Houston sociologist, said people on both sides of the Rio Grande viewed themselves as one community.

"People say, 'The river doesn't divide us,; it unites us,' " he said. "When you're at ground zero at the border, you see yourselves as one community -- for good or bad."

Rodriguez knows. His first cousin, Juan Garza, born in the United States but trained by criminals in Mexico, ran his own murder-and-drug enterprise out of Brownsville, Texas. He was executed in 2001 by the United States.

"Of course there is a spillover of violence into this country," Rodriguez said.

"It's pouring across our border, and anybody can get caught up in it."

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