Friday, December 18, 2009


December 18, 2009
War Without Borders
Hired by Customs, but Working for Mexican Cartels
SAN DIEGO — At first, Luis F. Alarid seemed well on his way to becoming a customs agency success story. He had risen from a childhood of poverty and foster homes, some of them abusive, earned praise and commendations while serving in the Army and the Marines, including two tours in Iraq, and returned to Southern California to fulfill a goal of serving in law enforcement.

But, early last year, after just a few months as a customs inspector, he was waving in trucks from Mexico carrying loads of marijuana and illegal immigrants. He pocketed some $200,000 in cash that paid for, as far as the government could tell, a $15,000 motorcycle, flat-screen televisions, a laptop computer and more.

Some investigators believe that Mr. Alarid, 32, who was paid off by a Mexican smuggling crew that included several members of his family, intended to work for smugglers all along. At one point, Mr. Alarid, who was sentenced to seven years in federal prison in February, told investigators that he had researched just how much prison time he might get for his crimes and believed, as investigators later reported, that he could do it “standing on his head.”

Mr. Alarid’s case is not the only one that has law enforcement officials worried that Mexican traffickers — facing beefed-up security on the border that now includes miles of new fencing, floodlights, drones, motion sensors and cameras — have stepped up their efforts to corrupt the border police.

They research potential targets, anticorruption investigators said, exploiting the cross-border clans and relationships that define the region, offering money, sex, whatever it takes. But, with the border police in the midst of a hiring boom, law enforcement officers believe that traffickers are pulling out the stops, even soliciting some of their own operatives to apply for jobs.

“In some ways,” said Keith Slotter, the agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s San Diego office, “it’s like the old spy game between the old Soviet Union and the U.S. — trying to compromise each other’s spies.”

James Tomsheck, the assistant commissioner for internal affairs at Customs and Border Protection, and other investigators said they had seen many signs that the drug organizations were making a concerted effort to infiltrate the ranks.

“We are very concerned,” Mr. Tomsheck said. “There have been verifiable instances where people were directed to C.B.P. to apply for positions only for the purpose of enhancing the goals of criminal organizations. They had been selected because they had no criminal record; a background investigation would not develop derogatory information.”

During a federal trial of a recently hired Border Patrol agent this year, one drug trafficker with ties to organized crime in Mexico described how he had enticed the agent, a close friend from high school in Del Rio, Tex., who was entering the training academy, to join his crew smuggling tons of marijuana into Texas.

The agent, Raquel Esquivel, 25, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last week for tipping smugglers on where border guards were and suggesting how they could avoid getting caught.

The smuggler, Diego Esquivel, who is not related to the agent, said he told her that her decision to enter the academy was a good career move and, he said, “I thought it was good for me, too.”

Under the Bush administration, the United States has spent billions of dollars — $11 billion this year alone for Customs and Border Protection — to tighten the border between the United States and Mexico, building up physical barriers and going on a hiring spree to develop the nation’s largest law enforcement agency to patrol the area.

But the battle for survival among cartels in Mexico, in which thousands of people, mostly in the drug trade or fighting it, have been killed, has only led drug traffickers to redouble their efforts to get their drugs to market in the United States.

Along the border, many residents have family members on both sides. Generations of residents have been accustomed to passing back and forth relatively freely, often daily, and exchanging goods, legal or not.

Federal officials believe that drug traffickers are seeking to exploit those ties more than ever, urging family and friends on the American side to take advantage of the hiring rush for customs agents. The majority of agents and officers stay out of crime. But smuggling can be appealing. The average officer makes $70,000 a year, a sum that can be dwarfed by what smugglers pay to get just a few trucks full of drugs into the United States.

Right now, only a fraction — 10 percent or so — of Customs and Border Protection recruits are given a polygraph screening that federal investigators say has proved effective in weeding out people with drug ties and other troublesome backgrounds. Officials say they do not have the money to test more recruits.

In years past, new hires rarely served in the areas where they had grown up, but recently that practice has been relaxed somewhat to attract more recruits, said Thomas Frost, an assistant inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Frost and other internal affairs veterans say that has made it easier for traffickers.

Mr. Tomsheck said that several prospective hires had been turned away after investigators suspected that they had been directed to Customs and Border Enforcement by drug trafficking organizations, and that several recent hires were under investigation as well, though he declined to provide details.

As one exasperated investigator at the border put it, “There is so much hiring; if you have a warm body and pulse, you have a job.”

The F.B.I. is planning to add three multiagency corruption squads to the 10 already on the Southwest border, and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, the department’s primary investigative arm, has also added agents. But such hiring has not kept up with the growth of the agency they are entrusted to keep watch over.

Over all, arrests of Customs and Border Protection agents and officers have increased 40 percent in the last few years, outpacing the 24 percent growth in the agency itself, according to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office. The office has 400 open investigations, each often spanning a few years or more.

Keith A. Byers, who supervises the F.B.I.’s border corruption units, said corruption posed a national security threat because guards seldom verify what is in the vehicles they have agreed to let pass, raising concerns “they could be letting something much more dangerous into the U.S.”

Most corrupt officers gravitate to smuggling illegal immigrants, rationalizing that is less onerous than getting involved with drugs, investigators say.

But Mr. Byers and others point to a string of drug-related cases that make them wonder if the conventional wisdom is holding.

Margarita Crispin, a former customs inspector in El Paso, pleaded guilty in April 2008 and received a 20-year prison sentence in what the F.B.I. considers one of the more egregious corruption cases.

Through a succession of boyfriends and other associates with ties to major drug trafficking organizations in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Ms. Crispin helped smuggle thousands of pounds of marijuana over three years, almost from the time she began working for the agency.

She waved off drug-sniffing dogs in her lane, complaining she was afraid of them, although investigators later learned she had had dogs as pets.

“She is someone who from the beginning said this would be a good job to help the people I am associated with,” Mr. Byers said.

Just last month, Martha Garnica, a 12-year Customs and Border Protection employee near El Paso, was charged with bribery and marijuana smuggling in concert with traffickers in Ciudad Juárez.

Ms. Garnica’s 21-year-old daughter had also sought a job with the Border Patrol, in what investigators deemed a suspicious move given her mother’s alleged involvement in the drug trade. The daughter, testifying in court last week, admitted she had lied on the application both about being a United States citizen and about owning property in Mexico. A spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office in El Paso declined to comment.

Mr. Alarid’s history in the military probably made him seem like a good candidate for the customs job. But he had a tangled family history. According to court papers, both his parents were drug addicts.

Mr. Alarid was born in Tijuana, Mexico, but raised largely in foster homes in Southern California. He emerged from high school a track star and, over the next 10 years, did stints in the Marines and the Army, drawing praise from commanders for his dedication and service.

“I would willingly trust Luis with my life,” Sgt. Maj. Michael W. Abbey of the Army wrote in a letter to the judge before Mr. Alarid was sentenced in February.

Mr. Alarid began working at the border in San Diego in October 2007. In his guilty plea, he admitted that he had started smuggling in February 2008. He was arrested three months later.

Mr. Alarid would wave in vehicles that should have raised suspicion, either because their license plates were partly covered or because the plates did not belong to the vehicle, something he would have seen on the computer screen in his inspection booth.

Before reporting to his lane, he would go out to the employee parking lot to use his cellphone, which federal agents believe was his way of telling the smugglers which lane to approach.

At his sentencing, all involved — the prosecutors, the judge, his lawyer — expressed bewilderment at the turn in Mr. Alarid’s life. But in an interview, a family member who was not part of the case said Mr. Alarid had mounting gambling debts and, despite it all, had always sought a bond with his biological mother.

Still, Judge Janis L. Sammartino accepted the government’s argument that a deterrent message needed to be sent.

“I do think that the public, for a while at least, needs to be assured that who we have at the border are 100 percent individuals of integrity,” she said. “I think you were at one time. I don’t know what went wrong for you, sir, and I hope that you attain that again.”


Drug cartel chief is dead, but now what?
Mexico officials herald the killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva of Sinaloa as a coup. Still, the violence could grow.
By Ken Ellingwood

December 18, 2009

Reporting from Mexico City

He was one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers, embroiled in fights to the death with rival gangsters and the Mexican military. His crude signature -- proclaiming him the "boss of bosses" -- showed up regularly next to the headless bodies of his foes.

So when Arturo Beltran Leyva fell dead Wednesday night during a frenzied gunfight with Mexican naval commandos, authorities declared a major blow struck against one of Mexico's meanest smuggling groups.

"This action represents an important achievement for the people and government of Mexico and a heavy blow against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico," President Felipe Calderon said Thursday from Copenhagen, where he was attending an international climate conference.

"His death has dealt a crippling blow to one of the most violent cartels in the world," said Michele Leonhart, acting director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

But amid the messy landscape of narcotics trafficking in Mexico, it is not clear what effect the kingpin's fall will have on his group or the wider drug underworld. The result could be more killing in Mexico if Beltran Leyva's absence sparks a succession war or inspires rivals to move in forcefully on his group's lucrative turf.

"It's an important step but, at the end of the day, you're not going to reduce the market," said Alberto Islas, a Mexico City-based security analyst. "You take out one guy and somebody else will take his place. But this is violent."

Mexico's attorney general, Arturo Chavez, acknowledged the possibility of more bloodshed, saying Beltran Leyva's killing could prompt his enemies in Sinaloa to act.

"The weakening of any cartel can be seen as an opportunity by another that is fighting for territory," Chavez said. "If they see [their rival] as weak, they will probably try to step up their actions to advance."

Chavez also warned of a possible succession fight inside the Beltran Leyva group.

About 15,000 people have died in Mexico since Calderon launched his crackdown on drug traffickers three years ago. Most of the slayings have resulted from fighting between rival gangs or power struggles within the groups. The Beltran Leyva gang has been a key part of that bloody panorama.

The group has been locked in a ferocious war with rivals led by Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, a former ally, since early last year. Beltran Leyva held Guzman responsible for tipping off authorities who captured his brother Alfredo Beltran Leyva in January 2008.

That feuding, which has left hundreds dead, could intensify if members of Arturo Beltran Leyva's gang suspect Guzman's group of helping authorities track him down. Or the gang could retaliate directly against federal officials.

"I think we're going to see blowback," said Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

The Beltran Leyva gang, which has been allied with another violent group, the Zetas, has battled rivals along the Pacific coast, a key smuggling corridor. Hand-lettered posters signed "the boss of bosses" have increasingly shown up alongside decapitated or dismembered bodies.

"Beltran Leyva was responsible for some of the most heinous acts of violence in Mexico's recent history," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said in a statement. "We congratulate the Calderon administration and the brave members of its military forces on this successful and highly significant operation."

The killing does not yet diminish the formidable financial resources or logistical reach of the Beltran Leyva gang, which U.S. authorities say has smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States from Colombia. But analysts agreed that it could prove a lasting blow.

Beltran Leyva, also known as "The Bearded One," is the first Mexican cartel leader slain by authorities since Tijuana kingpin Ramon Arellano Felix was shot by police in 2002.

That death and the arrest the same year of Arellano Felix's brother Benjamin marked the start of fraying in the Tijuana group, which has been beset by infighting and poaching by rival gangs.

Still, Mexican drug gangs have a long history of weathering the loss of their leaders, and it seemed unlikely that Beltran Leyva's death would disable his far-flung group any time soon. This month, the U.S. Treasury Department froze U.S.-based assets of 22 people and 10 companies with ties to the gang. Possible Beltran Leyva successors include another brother, Hector, who also goes by Mario Alberto and was already playing a leadership role. He was listed with Arturo Beltran Leyva this year among the country's 24 most-wanted drug traffickers.

Analysts said the man allegedly in charge of the gang's gunmen, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, also could vie for leadership.

Beltran Leyva, whose age is reported as 51, had been a main target of Mexican authorities since the arrest of his brother Alfredo last year, but he always managed to get away.

The trail had grown hotter in recent days.

DEA and FBI agents received information about a week ago on Beltran Leyva's whereabouts in the city of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, and shared it with Mexican naval officials, according to a DEA official in Washington.

But Beltran Leyva and his bodyguards escaped a navy raid on the Puebla location, said the DEA official, who was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly.

Early the next morning, Mexican forces raided a Christmas party in the picturesque southern Mexico City suburb of Tepoztlan in search of cartel members. They arrested dozens of attendees and entertainers, including Latin Grammy-winning accordionist and singer Ramon Ayala.

Chavez said residents in nearby Cuernavaca reported the presence of heavily armed men in their neighborhood. The DEA official said U.S. and Mexican agents received information that the Beltran Leyva group had fled to a Cuernavaca high-rise.

Mexican forces moved residents, including teens at a party, to a gym in the complex. Helicopters circled low. Witnesses described a ferocious gun battle lasting an hour or more after troops charged in.

"What an experience," one resident told Mexican television. "Explosions! Grenades! Machine guns! I would never have imagined something like this happening in Mexico City, and much less Cuernavaca."

Six bodyguards and a Mexican marine also died in the shootout. The navy has played a growing role in the government's military-led drug war.

Authorities said one of the gunmen committed suicide to avoid capture. Three people were arrested.

Chavez said investigators identified Beltran Leyva's body based on statements by arrestees and comparisons with photographs. But he said they planned to conduct DNA tests.

ONE MEXICAN DRUG LORD DOWN! Thousands More Move Up In Rank!

Mexican drug lord killed in gunfight with federal forces

By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Friday, December 18, 2009; A12

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the alleged leader of one of this country's top drug cartels, was killed Wednesday night in a two-hour gun and grenade battle with federal forces, ending the reign of a man who liked to describe himself as the "boss of bosses" in Mexico's criminal underworld.

Beltrán Leyva, born and raised in the lawless mountains of Sinaloa, where fields of poppies and marijuana carpet the hidden valleys, is a household name in Mexico and one of the highest-value targets captured or killed in President Felipe Calderón's bloody three-year-old war on the drug cartels.

At the global climate summit in Copenhagen, Calderón called the raid by marines "an important achievement for the government and people of Mexico." Mexico listed Beltrán Leyva as one of its "most wanted" drug barons and offered a $2 million bounty for his capture.

The U.S. government unsealed an indictment against Beltrán Leyva in August, charging that he and his former partners in a cartel known as the Federation were responsible for smuggling at least 200 tons of cocaine into the United States and shipping $6 billion in cash back to Mexico. The indictment detailed their operation in Chicago, which the cartel used as a hub to distribute drugs throughout the Midwest and as far away as Washington. U.S. officials estimate that about 90 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States comes through Mexico.

Four other members of Beltrán Leyva's organization died in the gunfight, at a ritzy apartment enclave in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. One killed himself as he was being arrested.

Mexican authorities had been closing in on Beltrán Leyva in recent months, capturing and killing his junior associates. They raided a lavish party in the colonial town of Tepoztlan, near Cuernavaca, last week and killed three alleged Beltrán Leyva cartel members. Performing at the party was Ramón Ayala, a popular Texas-based singer, whose attorney denied that his client had any ties to organized crime. [On Thursday, a judge ordered Ayala jailed for up to 40 days pending investigation, the Associated Press reported.] In another near-miss, Beltrán Leyva associates were arrested after attending a baptism he hosted in Acapulco.

Beltrán Leyva was alleged to have masterminded a corruption racket involving high-level Mexican officials in the attorney general's office and federal police, including a former chief of the unit targeting organized crime, Noé Ramírez Mandujano. Ramírez is suspected to have taken almost $500,000 in bribes from Beltrán Leyva.

Mexican officials also hold Beltrán Leyva responsible for the assassination of federal police chief Edgar Eusebio Millán Gómez last year.

Mexican and U.S. drug officials had hinted for two months that authorities would soon capture some "big fish" in Mexico. The death of Beltrán Leyva follows a strategy pushed by officials on both sides of the border to go after his cartel's leadership.

"They are the big thinkers. . . . At the minimum, this will cause quite a bit of dislocation in the organization, and it is possible it could cause a power struggle within the cartel," said Tony Payan, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and an authority on drug trafficking.

Beltrán Leyva and his brothers were once partners with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and the most famous drug lord in Mexico. Their bitter feud and split last year sparked a wave of grisly violence, during which foes were routinely kidnapped and tortured to death. Their decapitated bodies were then dumped in public spaces, accompanied by notes taunting officials and their adversaries and signed "the boss of bosses."

"This is a very strong strike against organized crime in Mexico," Attorney General Arturo Chávez said after the killing of Beltrán Leyva.

But, Chávez added, "in this war, nobody really ever wins."