Juarez murders shine light on an emerging 'Military Cartel'

America’s drug war has made murder a growth industry in Juarez, a sprawling Mexican border town of some 1.2 million people located a stone’s throw from the Texas city of El Paso.

The growth of this industry is measured in corpses and coffins. Some say the number of murders in Juarez so far this yea r exceeds 1,400, but no one really knows for sure, because not all the corpses have been found, so they can’t all be counted.

In recent weeks, the U.S. media has added a new subplot to its time-tested narrative explaining the bloodshed sparked by the narco-trafficking business — an enterprise valued at as much $500 billion globally, according to the United Nations, with up to a quarter of that business flowing through Mexico to feed the U.S. drug habit.

Again, no one really knows the true size of this enterprise, because it is hidden in the shadows, but few could argue against the reality that the flow of money from illegal drug sales is helping to prop up the economy of Mexico — and the bank accounts of both legitimate and illegitimate businesses on both sides of the border, since that money spends like all other money.

The baseline of the media narrative explaining the carnage in Juarez goes something like this: The death count in Juarez is the result of a bloody turf war being waged to control the critical narco-exporting port of Juarez. This street battle has sparked a shootout between rival drug “cartels” — headed by quasi-mythical figures like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes — who are now in retreat due to the Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s decision to use the military to defeat them and return law and order to Juarez and Mexico in general.

This narrative is so convincing that the United States is prepared to commit some $1.5 billion over the next few years, under its Merida Initiative (also dubbed Plan Mexico), to provide training and equipment (including sophisticated surveillance technology and aircraft) to Mexico’s law enforcers and its military to assist Calderon in his battle against these criminal cartels.

The latest twist in this plot reveals that these ruthless drug cartels are now ratcheting up the violence due to the flow across the border of thousands of weapons — high-powered rifles, machine guns, cop-killer ammo, even grenades — from the U.S., all enabled by lax U.S. gun laws and enterprising criminals on both sides of the border.

But is it really that simple? Well, the devil is always in the details, it seems.

Narco News recently obtained a thorough accounting (really a police blotter) detailing all of the murders in Juarez between Jan. 1 and July 10 of this year — information compiled by U.S. federal law enforcers and leaked to Narco News by a source who prefers to remain anonymous. In addition, Narco News also was leaked a law-enforcement-sensitive PowerPoint presentation prepared by the DEA, which outlines the agency’s assessment of the escalating drug-war violence along the border.

An analysis of this “police blotter” by Narco News, coupled with data from the PowerPoint, turned up some interesting patterns that don’t fit neatly into the existing media narrative about the drug violence in Juarez. But you, kind reader, will have to be the ultimate judge of what these numbers mean.

I hope, at this point, I still have your attention.


Celerino “Cele” Castillo III is a former DEA agent who played a key role in exposing the U.S. government’s role in narco-trafficking as part of the Iran/Contra scandal.

Castillo subsequently, after a 12-year career, retired from the DEA, but to this day he has remained an outspoken critic of the hypocrisy of the war on drugs, penning a book about his experiences in DEA, called Powderburns, and appearing on numerous radio and TV shows.

Recently Castillo, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has no prior criminal record, was convicted of dealing firearms without the proper license and sentenced to 37 months in a federal pen. (See prior Narco News story on Castillo’s case here.)

Several law enforcement agents who spoke with Narco News are convinced Castillo was targeted, even framed, by elements of the U.S. government — specifically, corrupt agents — because he was digging into matters that ruffled the wrong feathers.

One of Castillo’s discoveries, in particular, likely incurred the wrath of a particular federal agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (ATF), Castillo claims. As part of his part-time work as a consultant on criminal cases, Castillo contends that he uncovered evidence that two ATF agents “were on the payroll of a Mexican cartel.” That “cartel,” Castillo asserts, is a paramilitary offshoot of the Mexican military that is being supplied with U.S. weapons, some only available through the U.S. military, by operatives on the U.S. side of the border. (The use of weapons smuggled in from the U.S., as opposed to employing Mexican-issued firearms, provides for a convenient arms-length excuse should they be recovered by the wrong parties in the course of operations.)

Castillo also points out that ATF was the agency responsible for building the gun case against him and that one of the alleged corrupt ATF agents involved with this Mexican paramilitary unit assisted with the case against him. Now that he has been convicted of a crime — Castillo’s case is on appeal — he can be discounted and his allegations discredited, or so the theory goes in such matters.

But Castillo’s allegations, if investigated and verified, could prove to be extremely explosive and even threaten the underpinnings of U.S./Mexican relations and the very premise of the drug war.

Here’s what Castillo told Narco News:

During the presidential elections, El Chapo [Joaquin Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization, or DTO] supported [Mexican President] Calderon. Calderon then rented the military to El Chapo to take out Osiel [Cardenas Guillen, leader of the Gulf DTO, which controlled the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo]. Keep in the back of your mind, why has Chapo not been arrested?

Calderon took back the military and is now working hand in hand with El Chapo. … [U.S.] Iraq [War] veterans were acting as mercs for the Mexican military. Right now, as we speak, there are U.S. Iraq veterans work ing for this organization. They are doing the enforcement work on this side [of the U.S. border] for the Mexican military. They are collecting the … profits of drug sales in the U.S.  They [targets who owe money to the drug organization] are grabbed and given 24 hours to wire some of the money into Mexico bank accounts.  If not, they are executed. ...

The old M-79 grenade launcher uses the 40 mm round. The ones that were laying on the table in the picture [see photo below of weapons confiscated by Mexican authories] of today’s paper. What the story is not telling is these 40mm [rounds] are U.S. military issued. How about them apples?

Castillo adds that he recently was provided information that indicates another group made quite famous by the media, the Zetas (a U.S.-trained Mexican special operations group that defected from the Mexican military) is now assisting the Mexican military in its narco-trafficking operations along the border.

If you follow the mainstream media narrative to date involving Calderon’s drug war initiative, the Zetas have cropped up being aligned initially with the Gulf DTO (drug trafficking organization), when Calderon sent troops into Nuevo Laredo in 2007 to restore law and order. That same year, media and DEA reports indicated the Zetas were in Tijuana, another critical border port of entry, working in the interest of the local DTO in that city. More recently, reports indicate the Zetas have popped up in Juarez, aligned with that city’s local DTO and a break-away faction of the Sinaloa DTO.

If you have a hard time keeping it all straight, don’t fret too much; it’s supposed to be confusing.

The media narrative across all three major Mexican border cities — Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana and Juarez — where thousands of Mexican soldiers have been dispatched by Calderon last year and this year to fight the “cartels” seems to have one consistent pattern, though, almost as though it is designed to aid the propaganda of his drug-war assault.

The elusive Chapo Guzman pops up challenging the local DTO in the border city. Then the Zetas pop up, aligned with the local DTO, which employs corrupt elements of the city and state police forces as enforcers. Violence begins to escalate as Guzman’s forces attempt to battle the local DTO, cops and Zetas for turf.

Calderon then sends in thousands of Mexican troops, disarms or otherwise wrests power from the local cops (who also, in all three cities, are subsequently the targets of assassinations as this all plays out) and the violence in the cities actually escalates even further — until, as in Nuevo Laredo, there are simply fewer people in the local business left to kill.

However, it’s never really made clear where Guzman is getting his manpower from to fight this war across the 2,000-mile-plus stretch of the U.S./Mexican border, but it’s just assumed that he uses his money to buy a mercenary force. Have the Zetas really worked for Guzman all along, or factions of them; or are they only now realizing Guzman is winning the war, and are switching sides; or are they simply die-hard mercenaries who will play for the highest bidder?

No one can really say for sure unless they are involved, but they do not seem to be a particularly loyal sort, except to their own interests. That might explain why last year Calderon set up his own private military unit, which reports directly to him, numbers at least 3,500 and was culled from the same Mexican special ops units that gave birth to the Zetas.

Now, whether we believe Castillo’s take on all of this, which he says is based on intelligence he has gathered, an expertise honed by his years as a law enforcer in conflict zones in Latin America, is really a matter of individual choice. But several other federal law enforcers who spoke with Narco News, on the condition their names not be used, don’t find his analysis to be far-fetched.

“The Mexican military and government are corrupt,” one law enforcer says. “The Military escorts smugglers to the border. It’s a daily occurrence. The video cameras at the El Paso Intelligence Center have it all on video, filed away. If we report the suspicious activity to our superiors, nothing ever happens. It’s just covered up.

“The Mexican military cartel has taken over Juarez. Our government knows it; they’re not stupid, but they’ve made some backroom deal with the Mexican government.”

Another federal law enforcer who spent years in Latin America puts it this way:

Ever since I can remember, every government in Mexico has been dirty. Usually, a new president comes in and makes noise about cleaning things up, and before his term is up, he’s making money off the corruption.

Recent Mexican media reports have revealed that the federal law enforcement ranks in Mexico are replete with narco-corruption. In fact, one of Calderon’s cabinet members, Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna, is described in a recent story in the Mexican news magazine Proceso [translated here by Narco News’ Kristin Bricker] as a “spoiled official,” untouchable, despite numerous allegations that he and officials under him have links to the Sinaloa DTO.

From Bricker’s translation of the Proceso story:

With his powerful tentacles and his ability to corrupt police and infiltrate the institutions responsible for combating drug trafficking -- including the National Defense Department [emphasis added] -- Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia [of the Sinaloa DTO] has extensive control within the Public Security Ministry (SSP in its Spanish initials), which is led by Genaro Garcia Luna, whose main collaborators -- some of them currently held under administrative detention -- are accused of being at the service of the man who today is considered to be the top boss of the Sinaloa cartel.

The informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, a former high-ranking member of a Juarez DTO cell who was at the center of the infamous House of Death case — which involved the torture and murders of a dozen people in Juarez with the assistance of the informant under the watch of U.S. federal agents — describes the Juarez DTO’s relationship with Mexican law enforcement and the military, as it existed in the early 2000s, as follows (in testimony he gave in immigration court in the U.S.):

Yeah, the police, the cartel, the government, it’s all the same people. … Well, the cartel [the Juarez DTO] had arrangements with people that were close to President Fox [of Mexico]. He [Ramriez’ boss, Juarez DTO cell leader Heriberto Santillan Tabares] explained to me that President Fox took, took the position to arrange, consult with the cartel from Juarez to — which it, which it means that he was going to attack the, the enemy cartels being from Tijuana and from the Gulf, and then the cartel from Juarez would be operating with this court, you know, without the government being — on top of them.

... Also, when I did go to Colombia to make arrangement with the Colombians, the plans was to come by sea, and the Mexico's navy, the ships, they're the ones that would get the drugs in the, in the sea - marina - ocean borders, you know, of the national territories. … and the PGR [the Mexican Attorney General’s Office, which oversees AFI, Mexico’s federal police now under the effective control of Garcia Luna, Calderon’s Public Security Minister] then would fly this drugs to the - to Juarez, the city of Juarez.

So, if we are to at least consider any of the above evidence, it seems the existing media narrative about the drug war, and the violence in Juarez, is lacking, since it assumes the Mexican government, and Calderon, are playing by the rule of law. And at least when it comes to the Mexican military, it’s clear DEA does not buy that assumption. The DEA PowerPoint leaked to Narco News includes the following information to demonstrate that reality:

Between Jan 2000-Dec 2006: More than 163,000 military members were criminally processed during former president Vicente Fox’s 6 years term of office. The majority of the crimes were: [the list includes abuse of power, homicide, embezzlement, kidnapping, bank robbery, illegal possession of firearms and health crimes [essentially organized crime].

Another slide in the PowerPoint provides this analysis:

• DTOs will further reach out to the Mexican military and foreign paramilitary and possible insurgent organizations in order to acquire much needed human and material support to fend off advances by competing Cartels.

• The result will be the emergence of a new type of drug trafficking organization in Mexico and the US precipitating a general militarization of the DTOs.

Now, ask yourself, how is it possible that Calderon has sent some 40,000 Mexican troops into the field to combat narco-trafficking, 2,500 or more dispersed to Juarez alone, yet the violence continues to escalate under the watch of this massive military force, DTO leaders like Guzman still roam free, and the flow of drugs into the U.S. (a multi-billion dollar business where apprehending a couple hundred million dollars worth of narcotics a year represents little more than a tolerable tariff) remains largely unchecked.

Common sense seems to dictate that something is awry with Calderon’s game plan (and the U.S. plan to send his government some $1.5 billion worth of special training and equipment via Plan Mexico) — leaving aside the question of whether Calderon is simply a fool who doesn’t have control of his own military or is actually complicit in the corruption.

Iraq Comes Home

Castillo’s charge that “Iraq veterans” are on the payroll of the DTOs, acting as enforcers and helping to fuel the violence in Juarez by moving weapons — including U.S.-issued munitions — from the U.S. into Mexico (which has very restrictive gun laws) might seem over the top at first glance.

But as Narco News checked into the allegation, federal agents directed us to another law-enforcement-sensitive report that apparently was not well received by the U.S. Department of Defense. The law enforcers indicate that the report sheds some light on Castillo’s allegations concerning the Mexican DTOs’ reach into the U.S. military itself.

The report [link here] was issued last year by the National Gang Intelligence Center, which serves as an intelligence bank for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

Following are some highlights from the report:

• Members of nearly every major street gang, including the Bloods, Crips, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Hells Angels, Latin Kings, The 18th Street Gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Mexican Mafia, Nortenos, Surenos, Vice Lords, and various white supremacist groups, have been documented on military installations both domestically and internationally.

Gang members may enlist in the military to escape their current environment or gang lifestyle. Some gang members may also enlist to receive weapons, combat, and convoy support training; to obtain access to weapons and explosives; or as an alternative to incarceration. Upon discharge, they may employ their military training against law enforcement officials and rival gang members. Such military training could ultimately result in more organized, sophisticated, and deadly gangs, as well as an increase in deadly assaults on law enforcement officers.

• Gang members in the military are commonly assigned to military support units where they have access to weapons and explosives. Military personnel may steal items by improperly documenting supply orders or by falsifying paperwork. Law enforcement officials throughout the United States have recovered military-issued weapons and explosives — such as machine guns and grenades — from criminals and gang members while conducting search warrants and routine traffic stops

• According to open source reporting and multiple law enforcement reporting, soldiers — including gang members — are currently being taught urban warfare for combat in Iraq, including how to encounter hostile gunfire.

Some case examples from the report:

• In June 2006 an incarcerated US Army soldier and active gang member identified 60 to 70 gang-affiliated military personnel in his unit allegedly involved in the theft and sale of military equipment and weapons. The solider reported that many of the military personnel in charge of ammunition and grenade distribution are sergeants who are active gang members. The soldier also reported that military commanders were aware of the actions of these gang-affiliated personnel

• In August 2005 a US soldier in San Antonio was suspected of supplying arms — including hand grenades and bullet-proof vests—to the Texas Mexican Mafia (Mexikanemi), according to uncorroborated but reliable FBI source information

• Since 2004, the FBI and El Paso Police Department have identified over 40 military-affiliated Folk Nation gang members stationed at the Fort Bliss Army Installation in Texas who have been involved in drug distribution, robberies, assaults, weapons offenses, and a homicide, both on and off the installation.

So, it seems there is a pool of labor available, in addition to U.S. black-ops private contractors, to put in place a U.S. network of military trained enforcers and weapons smugglers, as Castillo alleges already exists and is currently assisting the “military cartel” in Mexico.

The Police Blotter

And what do the murder stats in Juarez show?

After all, if the Mexican military is now the major force behind the narco-trafficking business along the border, then we should see some signs of its operations in those statistics, right?

Narco News ran the numbers from the U.S. law-enforcement accounting leaked to it by a source who cannot be named. You can do your own analysis of the data, which is available at this link.

The data included names, dates and narratives about each incident and victim; however, in some cases, due to insufficient information about some incidents, the identity of the victim or the precise nature of the crime cannot be determined.

Following is what our analysis found.

Between Jan. 1 and July 10, the period covered by the data, there was a total of 473 victims in Juarez, of which 412 were murdered, 50 survived (though some may be dead by now), and 11 individuals were identified as kidnap victims. Those victims show up in a total of 352 separate crime incidents over the period covered (which means some incidents involved more than one victim).

Based on the cases where the identity of the murder targets could be determined, the average age of the victims was 31.7, though they ranged in age from 1 to 68, with 163 being age 30 or younger; 257 were age 39 or younger.

A total of 9 murder victims were identified as women, about 2 percent of all murders. Another 4 women survived murder attempts.

A total of 40 Mexican law enforcers were targets over the five-month period — of which 29 were killed, 7 survived and 4 are missing. Three ex-cops also were murdered; one Mexican Customs agent; three attorneys; one journalist; and, most interesting, only one soldier, a military officer. It would seem if the military was truly battling the “cartels” in Juarez, the casualties on that front should be much higher, no?

Since Calderon sent the military into Juarez in late March 2008, the murder toll in the city has jumped dramatically. The data obtained by Narco News shows the death toll on a steady climb from 18 in January — and after a slight lull in April — to 119 in June (see chart). The murder figure for November, according to Mexican news reports, hit 192.

Some additional data worth mentioning:

• About a dozen incidents involved victims whose vehicles had U.S. plates.

• More than 20 incidents, where witnesses were willing to talk, involved multiple vehicles coordinating in an assault on a victim or victims; armed commandos, masked men or men in black, or a group of armed men.

• About five of the murder victims were identified as Aztecas [a gang with El Paso roots that is allegedly aligned with the Juarez DTO), including one described as a “captain.”

• At least 14 incidents involved a note left on the body, most signed by “La Linea” and referencing Chapo Guzman, or words to the effect that the person killed was a snitch: ie. “X dedo and banado” [finger washed/snitch killed] or “Este Mensaje es para los siguen creyendo y para los que no la creen, sigan hacienda caso al Chapo Guzman que solo les garantiza la muerte, bola de pendejos.  La Linea” [THIS MESSAGE IS FOR THOSE THAT KEEP BELIEVEING AND FOR THOSE WHO DON’T BELIEVE. LISTENING TO CHAPO GUZMAN WILL ONLY GUARANTEE YOUR DEATH, YOU BUNCH OF IDIOTS. LA LINEA]

Interestingly, not a single body note surfaces referencing the Zetas, nor anything in the any of the crime incident narratives refers to the group; also, there are no notes found on bodies from Guzman/Sinaloa DTO-affiliated groups working against La Linea.

La Linea is the "Juarez Cartel," specifically the local cops who work as enforcers, and they are now allegedly, according to the media script, working with the Zetas against Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, with the Mexican military playing the good-guy role of Über policeman.

The media has advance a similar script for the narco-violence in Nuevo Laredo [there involving the Zetas/Gulf cartel vs. Guzman’s Sinaloa organization] and in Tijuana — there involving a cluster-gang war between the Tijuana DTO led by the Arrelano Felix family, the Zetas and Guzman’s Sinaloa organization. Calderon’s Mexican troops were brought into the mix in both border cities as of early 2007.

From the DEA PowerPoint leaked to Narco News:

• June 2007. DEA Intelligence reported ZETA representatives in Tijuana and will commence kidnapping/killing of ... Police Officers aligned to Sinaloa Cartel.

• Under guise of assisting NWDTO [the Arellano Felix organization], once in place they will ignore the NWDTO, take over the territory, and continue their battle against the Sinaloa Cartel.

Again, in this script, we are asked to ignore the fact that these internecine battles between rival cartels are playing out under the watch of thousands of Mexican troops in each of these border cities, with the drug trade continuing largely unabated as the murder count rises and the “cartel” leadership remains — other than the occasional sacrificial lamb to appease the U.S. — still in place operating the business.

More Data

Narco News was able to analyze a total of 256 incidents from the Juarez murder data leaked by the source. The narratives accompanying those incident reports (from which we excluded the Mexican police assaults) provide enough information to determine the circumstances of the murders or murder attempts. (See chart.)

That incident analysis was broken down into six major categories, as follows:

Vehicle: Murder attempts involving victims in or near vehicles, most while driving in Juarez and attacked by gunmen in vehicles.

Sample narrative from murder report:


The victims were driving a green convertible Cutlass when they were being followed by two vehicles with a group of armed men. The vehicle wrecked at Municipio Libre and 5 de Febrero against another vehicle.  The front passenger exited at which time the armed men shot him. The driver then exited and he also was shot dead.  An innocent woman looked out her house and was shot in the abdomen.

Street: Shot or found dead on the streets of Juarez.

Sample narrative:

The three victims were found shot dead at 4063 Bahia and Montevideo in the Colonia Industrial.  Witnesses said that the victims were shot by eight masked armed men that were driving a white station wagon.

Tortured/bodies found various places: Bodies were discovered showing signs of torture. This is typically a sign of DTO enforcement activity — informants or others killed for violating the rules of the DTO or in some other way crossing them. If victims fell into this category, they were not counted in other categories, regardless of where their bodies were found.

Sample narrative:

Two decapitated victims were found at Lazaro Cardenas and Hermengildo Luna in the pueblo of El Sauzal Nuevo. The bodies were found wrapped in blankets and the heads in black plastic bags. One of the heads was found three blocks away apparently taken by a stray dog.

Business: Shot at a place of business, primarily bars and restaurants, often involving a group of armed/masked men.

Sample narrative:

The victims were shot while inside the Club 16 located at 16 de Septiembre and Constitucion. The victims were gunned down with an AK47 and .308 rifles. The witnesses said that the two armed men were dressed in black and had their face covered.

House: Victims were attacked in or near a residence.

Sample narrative:

The victim was gunned down at his house by an armed commando who threw grenades and gas grenades into his house. The victim lived at 2312 Bosque de Granados. Forty two casings of 90 calibers, .308 calibers, and .223 calibers were found at the scene.

Parking/vacant lot: Victims were attacked or their bodies were found in an open lot.

Sample narrative:

The body of a male victim was found in an empty lot located at Manuel Talamas Camandari.  The victim was shot. Several 9mm casings were found at the scene.

The one clear pattern that emerges from the data is that the murders in Juarez are, in almost all cases, not the result of random violence or shootouts between rival drug gangs. In most cases, they are cold-blooded assassinations, often involving coordinated teams of armed, sometimes masked, men who are making use of intelligence, surveillance and paramilitary-like tactics to take out their victims.

And those doing the dying don’t appear to be the military or the leadership of the DTOs, but rather DTO foot soldiers, snitches and occasionally innocent victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that kind of environment, political targets (those who happen to be burrs in the saddle of government officials) also could easily be in the mix.

One federal agent who reviewed the data for Narco News had this to say about his take on the Juarez bloodshed:

They’re anything but random acts. Some of these murders are likely the result of cartel turf battles, but the numbers seem too high for the cartels alone. I don’t think they would be killing each other at that rate.

So if this is not as the media script depicts it, a turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa “cartels’ alone, then who is responsible for all the killing? Could Castillo be right? Is Juarez a city in the grips of a death-squad campaign being carried out by paramilitary operatives of a corrupt Mexican military seeking to corner the narco-trafficking business, with the acquiescence, maybe even complicity, of the Mexican government — and with our own government now set to support this bloodshed through its funding of Plan Mexico?

That is for you to decide. Castillo, for his part, has already made up his mind, it seems:

These people are part of President Calderon's people who control the drug trade into the U.S.

Castillo may soon be forced to survive with that truth in prison, where his government now wants to send him, where it sends both victims and predators in the drug war to assure the continuation of its script.

Stay tuned….




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