April 1, 2013

Cartels dispatch agents deep inside U.S.

Cartel operatives are suspected of running drug networks in the Midwest, South and Northeast.

By Michael Tarm / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 2)

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This photo dated 2007 from federal court documents shows Jose Gonzales-Zavala with two of his children. Prosecutors say Gonzales-Zavala was a member of the La Familia cartel, based in Mexico, and was dispatched to the Chicago area to oversee one of the cartel’s lucrative trafficking cells. His defense team entered the photograph into evidence in arguing for leniency in his case. In 2011, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a federal judge in Chicago.

The Associated Press

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Bales of marijuana are wheeled out at a news conference in Jonesboro, Ga., in 2010, when 45 people were arrested and cash, guns and more than two tons of drugs were seized as part of an investigation by federal and local law enforcement into the Atlanta-area U.S. distribution hub of Mexico’s La Familia drug cartel.

2010 Associated Press File Photo

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Socorro Hernandez-Rodriguez was convicted in 2011 of heading a massive drug operation in suburban Atlanta's Gwinnett County. The chief prosecutor said he and his associates were high-ranking figures in the La Familia cartel — an allegation defense lawyers denied.

And at the end of February outside Columbus, Ohio, authorities arrested 34-year-old Isaac Eli Perez Neri, who allegedly told investigators he was a debt collector for the Sinaloa cartel.

IS THREAT OVERSTATED?

An Atlanta attorney who has represented reputed cartel members says authorities sometimes overstate the threat such men pose.

"Often, you have a kid whose first time leaving Mexico is sleeping on a mattress at a stash house playing Game Boy, eating Burger King, just checking drugs or money in and out," said Bruce Harvey. "Then he's arrested and gets a gargantuan sentence. It's sad."

Typically, cartel operatives are not U.S. citizens and make no attempt to acquire visas, choosing instead to sneak across the border. They are so accustomed to slipping back and forth between the two countries that they regularly return home for family weddings and holidays, Riley said.

Because cartels accumulate houses full of cash, they run the constant risk associates will skim off the top. That points to the main reason cartels prefer their own people: Trust is hard to come by in their cutthroat world. There's also a fear factor. Cartels can exert more control on their operatives than on middlemen, often by threatening to torture or kill loved ones back home.

Danny Porter, chief prosecutor in Gwinnett County, Ga., said he has tried to entice dozens of suspected cartel members to cooperate with American authorities. Nearly all declined. Some laughed in his face.

"They say, 'We are more scared of them (the cartels) than we are of you. We talk and they'll boil our family in acid,'" Porter said. "Their families are essentially hostages."

Citing the safety of his own family, Gonzalez-Zavala declined to cooperate with authorities in exchange for years being shaved off his 40-year sentence.

CARTEL LEADERS USE OWN FAMILIES

In other cases, cartel brass send their own family members to the U.S.

"They're sometimes married or related to people in the cartels," Porter said. "They don't hire casual labor." So meticulous have cartels become that some even have operatives fill out job applications before being dispatched to the U.S., Riley added.

In Mexico, the cartels are known for a staggering number of killings – more than 50,000, according to one tally. Beheadings are sometimes a signature.

So far, cartels don't appear to be directly responsible for large numbers of slayings in the United States, though the Texas Department of Public Safety reported 22 killings and five kidnappings in Texas at the hands of Mexican cartels from 2010 through mid- 2011.

Still, police worry that increased cartel activity could fuel heightened violence.

In Chicago, the police commander who oversees narcotics investigations, James O'Grady, said street-gang disputes over turf account for most of the city's uptick in murders last year, when slayings topped 500 for the first time since 2008. Although the cartels aren't dictating the territorial wars, they are the source of drugs.

Riley's assessment is stark: He argues that the cartels should be seen as an underlying cause of Chicago's disturbingly high murder rate.

"They are the puppeteers," he said. "Maybe the shooter didn't know and maybe the victim didn't know that. But if you follow it down the line, the cartels are ultimately responsible."

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Additional Photos

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This 2009 photo provided by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department in Lawrenceville, Ga., shows reputed cartel operative Socorro Hernandez-Rodriguez after his arrest in a suburb of Atlanta. Hernandez-Rodriguez was later convicted of sweeping drug trafficking charges. Prosecutors said he was a high-ranking figure in the La Familia cartel, sent to the U.S. to run a drug cell.

AP

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Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago, points out local Mexican drug cartel problem areas on a map in the new interagency Strike Force office in Chicago. Looking on is DEA agent Vince Balbo. The ruthless syndicates have long been the nation's No. 1 supplier of illegal drugs, but in the past, their operatives rarely ventured beyond the border.

AP

 


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