REPORT A DRUG DEALER
US-Trained Assassin Teams Now Deployed in Drug War
- August 28, 2011 at 6:21 pm
Former CIA Asset Who Revealed Presence of US Special Forces in Mexico Says Hit Squads Targeting Narco Splinter Groups
A small but growing proxy war is underway in Mexico pitting US-assisted assassin teams composed of elite Mexican special operations soldiers against the leadership of an emerging cadre of independent drug organizations that are far more ruthless than the old-guard Mexican “cartels” that gave birth to them.These Mexican assassin teams now in the field for at least half a year, sources tell Narco News, are supported by a sophisticated US intelligence network composed of CIA and civilian US military operatives as well as covert special-forces soldiers under Pentagon command — which are helping to identify targets for the Mexican hit teams.
Evidence of this intelligence support network has surfaced recently even in mainstream media reports, in outlets such as the New York Times and the Mexican publication El Universal — the former reporting that "CIA operatives and American civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base," and the latter reporting that elite US and Mexican troops engaged in joint training exercises in Colorado earlier this year.
But Narco News as far back as June of 2010 reported that a special forces US task force had “boots on the ground” in Mexico assisting the Mexican military in tracking down the top capos of Mexico’s major drug “cartels” – such as the Juarez, Beltran Leyva, Zetas and La Familia organizations. (The Sinaloa organization’s top leadership, however, has been left largely untouched, and by design if you believe the recent US court pleadings of Vicente Zambada Niebla, a Sinaloa leader now imprisoned in Chicago who claims a quid pro quo deal has been struck between the Sinaloa drug syndicate and the US government.)
Narco News also reported in April of this year that a unit of a major US defense contractor was advertising in the mercenary community for “site leads” who can help oversee the company’s personnel in Mexico and also coordinate “with Mexican Army officials” at a dozen training sites, called “VMTCs [Virtual Military Training Centers],” located in Mexico.
The information in the job posting described the US military contractor’s training network in Mexico as being part of an effort called “Project Sparta,” which is designed “to train Mexican Army soldiers in basic and advanced urban warfare operations” with the ultimate goal of creating an “Urban Warfare Elite Force.”
The “new specialized reaction force” will support “federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the war against organized crime and the drug cartels,” the help-wanted ad stated.
Now, an official with the company posting the want ad, L-3 MPRI, claimed that “we don’t have a contract [in Mexico] to do that kind of work.” The ad was subsequently removed from the company’s Web site.
Regardless, the fact that the ad was posted at all on the L-3 MPRI Web site seems to indicate that someone in Mexico was seeking the “urban warfare” training services, even if L-3 MPRI did not get the contract.
One law enforcement source familiar with the situation in Mexico says training in urban warfare would be critical to any unit set up to wage an assault campaign on narco splinter groups.
What is key to all of these glimpses into US operations in Mexico is that they all seem to be focused on military strategies, not law enforcement. And the goal of the military, unlike law enforcement, is to neutralize the enemy on the battlefield — not bring that enemy to justice through the court system.
So it should be no surprise that information is now surfacing from reliable sources indicating that the US government is once again employing a long-running counter-insurgency strategy that has been pulled off the shelf and deployed in conflicts dating back to Vietnam in the 1960s, in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, and beyond, and in more recent conflicts, such as in Iraq.
From a 2005 report in the Sunday Times in the United Kingdom that reveals details about US plans to employ death squads in Iraq:
And the recognition by the Mexican and US governments, even though not admitted publicly, that the narco-trafficking business is “getting the better of them” is likely once again prompting the introduction of the death-squad strategy in Mexico, though adjusted for the unique conditions existing in that nation at this time, according to sources who spoke with Narco News.
Covert Military "Justice"
The US and Mexican government’s strategy of attacking the so-called "kingpins" of the narco-trafficking industry has failed to stem the tide of drugs flowing into the US nor has it reduced the number of players in the narco-trafficking business.
Instead, it has given rise to a slate of splinter narco-trafficking groups that have stepped into the power vacuums created when US or Mexican law enforcers and military have an occasional success and take out a top narco leader. Examples of those successes in recent years include the killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva of the Beltran Leyva organization, the capture of Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas of La Familia, and more recently of Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez of La Linea [The Line] -- the enforcement arm of the Juarez drug-trafficking organization.
Among the so-called splinter groups that have come onto the scene, many within the past year, include organizations whose names are not yet in the bright lights of the mainstream media: Mano con ojos, or Hands with Eyes; Mata Zetas, or Zeta Killers; Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar; Cartel de Pacifico Sur, or the South Pacific Cartel; Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion; and Cartel del Centro, to name but a few.
These so-called splinter groups tend to be extremely violent in their approach since they are competing more intensely against more organizations for a slice of turf in the drug-trafficking, arms-smuggling, contract-murder, kidnapping and extortion business, acting as criminal organizations in their own right. This “Hydra effect,” (whereby the elimination of one “narco-kingpin” gives rise to three or four more aspiring splinter-group kingpins) has become a big problem for both the US and Mexican governments and the veracity of their PR campaign in the drug war, which insists that the narco-traffickers are now on the run and the emergence of these splinter groups is an unimportant side note to be downplayed publicly.
The increasing violence sparked by these splinter groups, however, has translated into an overall escalating homicide rate in Mexico, where since late 2006 nearly 50,000 people, many innocent civilians and even children, have been cut down by the savagery and indiscriminate bloodshed of this drug war. Close to half of those murders have taken place in the last 18 months alone, marking the rise of the Hydra splinter groups — which are often enforcement cells, sometimes street gangs, that previously did contract work for captured or killed “narco-kingpins.”
The violent acts unleashed by these legion splinter groups, which are only now coming to light in the mainstream media (stories of victims tortured horrifically and hung from bridges alive before being shot to death, or of a face cut off and stitched to a soccer ball) have been noted behind the scenes for some time in the police reports and intelligence briefings of the law enforcers and military personnel now engaged in the drug war, sources tell Narco News.
And the response of the existing political and monied interests of the state to this threat, according to one of those sources, former CIA asset Tosh Plumlee, has been to take a page out of the “El Salvador solution," modify it for the current era, and go at these splinter groups directly but covertly — utilizing highly trained assassination units whose mission is to “neutralize” the leaders of the splinter groups before they can consolidate power.
Plumlee’s track record in getting it right on drug-war black ops has been established and is even now being recognized by mainstream media outlets like the UPI news service and Washington Times, both of which have quoted him recently as a source in relation to the drug war.
Narco News reported in June 2010 that a special-forces task force under Pentagon command was operating in Mexico. That report was based on information provided by Plumlee, who worked in the past as a CIA contract pilot in Latin America and still has deep connections in the intelligence world.
From the June 2010 Narco News story:
That report was later supported by both a leaked Pentagon document that verified US special operations troops were active in Mexico as well as a State Department cable released by the whistleblower organization WikiLeaks.
The cable released by WikiLeaks also verified that the Mexican Navy unit that conducted the operation against narco-capo Arturo Beltran Leyva (resulting in his death) “received extensive U.S. training” — which serves as further evidence supporting Narco News’ original reporting on the involvement of U.S. special forces in that operation.
The same cable also predicted that the killing of Beltran Leyva will, in the short-term (a period not defined precisely) result in a “spike” in narco-related violence “as inter- and intra-cartel battles [by splinter groups] are intensified by the sudden leadership gap in one of the country’s most powerful cartels.”
According to Plumlee, members of the same US special-forces task force that assisted in the takedown of Beltran Leyva are now providing intelligence support and ongoing training to the Mexican assassin teams set up to target the leaders of the proliferating narco splinter groups.
The mission of these specialized Mexican attack units, Plumlee contends, is to “neutralize” (kill) the targets. This is a new focus, since before the Mexican military was targeting the leadership of the major drug organizations for capture, if possible. But in this case, capture is not the goal, and the targets are the leaders of these hyper-violent, independent splinter groups that have sprung up in the wake of the shakeup, via capture or killing, in the leadership of the major cartels — with the Sinaloa organization, it seems, being protected from a fatal attack on its leadership.
Plumlee contends that the old-guard “cartels” also see these splinter groups as their enemies, given they are rivals threatening the stability of the existing business model, so in essence the Mexican assassin teams are also serving the interests of the dominate narco groups the drug war is suppose to be combating.
“Some of the intelligence on the splinter groups is actually being provided by members of the Zetas,” Plumlee claims.
There are supposedly at least three such Mexican hit teams operating now in Mexico (in the north, central and southern regions of the country).
These Mexican military death squads were supposedly trained by the US, though Plumlee does not know where. Also, Plumlee says the US task force personnel now working inside Mexico, as part of their intelligence support mission for the Mexican hit teams, are helping to identify and verify targets.
Truth Before the Narrative
Believe what you will, kind readers, but remember Plumlee has been proven right in the past on these matters, even though his assertions were ignored by the mainstream media and denied by US and Mexican bureaucrats. And now the reporting finally showing up in the “official” media, thanks to the perseverance of some remaining honest reporters, seems to demonstrate that the US intelligence community and military’s role in Mexico’s drug war is overshadowing any pretense of a purely criminal-justice approach to the continued enforcement of prohibition.
And there will be a price to pay should this shortsighted covert counter-insurgency strategy — one that employs among the oldest schemes in the US military playbook, death squads — continue to play out absent public scrutiny and accountability.
Former CIA case manager Leutrell Osbourne warned of that steep price in an interview he did with Narco News in 2009.
Osborne, who oversaw spies and assets for the CIA in more than 30 countries on three continents during his 27 years with the agency, says if he if he could tell President Barack Obama anything, it would be to focus the CIA and other U.S. intel agencies on counterintelligence and to do away completely with covert action, which is defined as anything involving dirty tricks — assassinations, state-sponsored terrorism, drug running, weapons trafficking, coups, psy-ops propaganda, etc.
“I’d like to get to Obama and help him, to let him know what he needs to cut out,” Osborne said.
The reason covert operational tactics need to be eliminated, Osborne explains, is because they are not effective and have been the source of most of the CIA’s problems over the years. He says the blowback against the United States from those covert operations is always more damaging than any benefit attained.
And for Mexico, that blowback can come, as it did in Central America, and Colombia, decades earlier, in the form of an institutionalizing of these death squads and a broadening of their targets to appease the paranoia and power aspirations of corrupt leadership and economic interests. The very soul of Mexico is at stake.
The Falcon Lake Murder and Mexico's Drug Wars
STRATFOR published an analysis last Wednesday noting that a reliable source in Mexico informed us that the Sept. 30 shooting death of U.S. citizen David Hartley on Falcon Lake — which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border — was a mistake committed by a low-level member of the Los Zetas drug trafficking organization. The source also informed us that those responsible for Hartley’s death are believed to have disposed of his body and that the Zeta hierarchy was conducting a damage-control operation to punish those responsible for the death and to distance the cartel from the murder. The source further reported that the murder of the lead Tamaulipas state investigator on the case, Rolando Armando Flores Villegas — whose head was delivered in a suitcase to the Mexican military’s Eight Zone headquarters in Reynosa on Oct. 12 — was a specific message from Los Zetas to Mexican authorities to back off from the investigation.
Since publishing the report, we have been deluged by interview requests regarding the case. Numerous media outlets have interviewed Fred Burton and myself regarding the Falcon Lake case. During the course of talking with reporters and customers, it became obvious to us that a solid understanding of the context within which Hartley’s killing occurred was lacking in media discussions of the case. Viewing the murder as part of the bigger picture of what is occurring in Mexico makes it far easier to understand not only why David Hartley was killed, but why his body will likely never be found — and why his killers probably will not be held accountable for their actions, at least in the context of the judicial system.
The Changing Mexican Cartel Landscape
In STRATFOR’s annual Mexican cartel report published in December 2009, we noted the growing fracture between the Gulf cartel and its former enforcement arm, Los Zetas, which had become an independent drug trafficking organization. We noted that Los Zetas were becoming increasingly aggressive and that the Gulf cartel was struggling to fend off these advances. In fact, it looked as if Los Zetas were about to swallow up the Gulf cartel.
What had been a tense standoff between the two cartels erupted into open warfare in January when Zeta leader Sergio “El Concord 3” Mendoza Pena died in an altercation between Mendoza and a group of men reporting to Gulf cartel No. 2 leader Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez. After learning of Mendoza’s death, Los Zetas No. 2 Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales gave Costilla an ultimatum to hand over those responsible for Mendoza’s death by Jan. 25. When the deadline passed without his demand being met, Trevino ordered the kidnapping of 16 known Gulf cartel members in the Ciudad Miguel Aleman area as retaliation. The war was on.
Fearing the might of Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel reached out to their longtime enemies, the Sinaloa federation, and asked for their assistance in dealing with Los Zetas. The leader of the Sinaloa federation, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, has no love for Los Zetas, who as the former military arm of the Gulf cartel engaged in many brutal battles with Guzman’s forces. Together with another enemy of Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana (LFM), Guzman joined forces with the Gulf cartel to form an organization known as the New Federation. The stated goals of the New Federation were to destroy Los Zetas, along with the remnants of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) organization, aka the Juarez cartel. A move by the New Federation to destroy the remnants of the Arellano Felix Organization (aka the Tijuana cartel), now very weak, would allow the organization to dominate Mexican drug smuggling routes into the United States. If this New Federation consolidation were to occur (it has not happened yet), it would also likely result in a dramatic decrease in violence in the long term. But the VCF and Los Zetas have not yet been vanquished. This means that while the New Federation clearly has been able to gain the upper hand over the past several months, both Los Zetas and the VCF continue a desperate fight for survival and turf that in the short term means the level of violence will remain high.
The emergence of the New Federation was accompanied by the collapse of the Beltran Leyva Organization, a group formerly allied with the Sinaloa federation that broke away from Sinaloa and allied with Los Zetas and the VCF to fight against El Chapo and his allies. As these two developments played out over the first quarter of 2010, we found them to be so significant that we felt compelled to publish an update to STRATFOR’s annual cartel report in May to document the changes.
Los Zetas: Wounded, but Still Dangerous
|CARETELS HEADING NORTH|
ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico - It was a brazen assault, not just because it targeted the city's police station, but for the choice of weapon: grenades.
The Feb. 21 attack on police headquarters in coastal Zihuatanejo, which injured four people, fit a disturbing trend in Mexico's drug war. Traffickers have escalated their arms race, acquiring military-grade weapons, including hand grenades, grenade launchers, armor-piercing munitions and antitank rockets.
Most of these weapons are being smuggled through Central American countries or by sea, eluding U.S. and Mexican monitors focused on the smuggling of semiautomatic and conventional weapons purchased from dealers in the U.S. border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
The proliferation of heavier armaments points to a menacing new stage in the Mexican government's war against drug organizations.
These groups appear to be taking advantage of a robust global black market and porous borders, especially between Mexico and Guatemala. Some of the weapons are left over from wars the United States helped fight in Central America, U.S. officials said.
"There is an arms race between the cartels," said Alberto Islas, a security consultant who advises the Mexican government.
"One group gets rocket-propelled grenades, the other has to have them."
Authorities reported the theft of hundreds of pounds of blasting material from industrial-explosives plants in Durango last month. The Mexican army recovered most of the material, but authorities warned that it might have been destined for car bombs or remotely detonated roadside devices.
Grenades or military-grade weapons have been reported in at least 10 Mexican states during the past six months, used against police headquarters, city halls, a U.S. consulate, TV stations and senior Mexican officials. In a three-week period ended March 6, five grenade attacks were launched on police patrols and stations and the home of a commander in the south-central state of Michoacan. Other such attacks occurred in five other states during the same period.
At least one grenade attack north of the border, at a Texas nightclub frequented by U.S. police officers, has been tied to Mexican traffickers.
How many weapons have been smuggled into Mexico from Central America is not known, and the military-grade munitions are still a small fraction of the larger arsenal in the hands of narcotics traffickers.
There is no comprehensive data on how many people have been killed by heavier weapons.
But four days after the assault on the Zihuatanejo police station, four of the city's officers were slain in a highway ambush six miles from town on the road to Acapulco. In addition to the standard AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles, the attackers fired at least six .50-caliber shells into the officers' pickup. The vehicle blew up when hit by what experts believe was a grenade or explosive projectile. The officers' bodies were charred.
"These are really weapons of war," said Alberto Fernandez, spokesman for the Zihuatanejo city government. "We only know these devices from war movies."
U.S. law-enforcement officials said they detected the smuggling of grenades and other military-grade equipment into Mexico about a year and a half ago and observed a sharp uptick in use of the weapons about six months ago.
The Mexican government said it had seized 2,239 grenades in the last two years, in contrast to 59 seized over the previous two years.
The enhanced weaponry represents a wide sampling from the international arms bazaar, with grenades and launchers produced by U.S., South Korean, Israeli, Spanish and former Soviet bloc manufacturers. Many were sold legally to governments, including Mexico's, but then diverted to the black market. Some might have been sold to traffickers directly by corrupt elements of national armies, authorities and experts said.
The single deadliest attack on civilians by drug traffickers in Mexico took place Sept. 15 at an Independence Day celebration in the central plaza of Morelia, hometown of President Felipe Calderon and capital of Michoacan. Attackers hurled fragmentation grenades at the celebrating crowd, killing eight people and wounding dozens more.
Amid the recent spate of attacks in Michoacan, federal police on Feb. 20 announced the discovery of 66 fragmentation grenades concealed in a truck intercepted in southern Mexico, just over the border from Guatemala. The two men arrested with the cargo told police they were transporting the grenades to Morelia.
Grenades used in three attacks in Monterrey and Texas were linked to a single Monterrey warehouse, packed with explosives and high-caliber guns, reportedly belonging to the Gulf cartel. Mexican authorities raided the warehouse in October and seized the cache, which contained South Korean-manufactured grenades similar to the American M67 fragmentation grenade.
Grenades from the same lot were used in a Jan. 6 attack on the Televisa television station in Monterrey, which caused damage but no injuries, and during an Oct. 12 attack against the U.S. consulate in Monterrey. The device at the consulate did not detonate.
Late on the night of Jan. 31, a Saturday, a man tossed a grenade into the El Booty Lounge in Pharr, Texas. Three off-duty Texas police officers were there, but authorities would not say whether they were the target. The explosive, which did not detonate, was traced to the Monterrey warehouse.
Traffickers using M203 40-millimeter grenade launchers last year attacked and killed eight Mexican federal police officers in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. In the northern border city of Nogales, the Sonora state police commander was killed Nov. 2 in an ambush by purported traffickers firing AK-47s and lobbing grenades. He had been returning from a meeting with U.S. authorities in Arizona regarding gun smuggling.
In the western state of Durango, three people, including a 3-year-old child, were killed in a grenade attack in January.
The firepower has gone beyond grenades. Armed with light antitank weapons, would-be assassins went after the nation's top counternarcotics prosecutor in December 2007. The assailants were intercepted before they reached Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who was not hurt. The weapons seized were linked to the notorious Sinaloa cartel.
"They were betting on being able to escalate with a spectacular strike precisely to terrify society," Santiago Vasconcelos said at the time. (He was killed in November in a plane crash.)
Drug gangs for several years have demonstrated the ability to form squads and employ military tactics, including the use of assault rifles, hand grenades, grenade launchers and fully automatic weapons to pin down army forces. This has enabled them to attack army patrols frontally, as they did with lethal results Feb. 7 in the central state of Zacatecas, killing one sergeant and critically wounding a colonel.
"At this stage, the drug cartels are using basic infantry weaponry to counter government forces," a U.S. government official in Mexico said. "Encountering criminals with this kind of weaponry is a horse of a different color," the official said.
"It's not your typical patrol stop, where someone pulls a gun. This has all the makings of an infantry squad, or guerrilla fighting."
The fear of guerrilla warfare was compounded in February when 270 pounds of dynamite and several hundred electric detonators were stolen from a U.S. firm in the state of Durango. On Valentine's Day, about 20 masked gunmen, led by a heavyset man wearing gold rings and chains, stormed the warehouse of a subsidiary of Austin Powder Co., an industrial-explosives manufacturer, according to official accounts. The gunmen overpowered guards and emptied the warehouse. Two similar thefts were reported within four days in the same area.
Although the Mexican army recovered most of the dynamite, the incident augurs a bloodier trend, officials said.
"There is only one reason to have bulk explosives," said Thomas G. Mangan, spokesman in Phoenix for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "An improvised explosive device. A car bomb."
High-powered guns such as the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle also have become a weapon of choice in narcotics traffickers' arsenals. Unlike grenades and antitank weapons, the .50-caliber guns can be obtained by ordinary citizens in the United States and smuggled into Mexico.
Mexican law enforcement is grossly outgunned. Officers have protested, seeking better protective gear, weaponry and pay.
Shortly after the Zihuatanejo attacks, police officers staged a brief work stoppage outside their headquarters, where scars from the grenade attack were still visible.
Police have piled sandbags around the compound, and security is tight. Commanders have bought 10 bulletproof vests, but they say they need at least 280 to equip the city's 343 officers.
The police commander, Pablo Rodriguez, said his officers, armed with semiautomatic .223-caliber rifles, were terrified. Their rifles, with folding stocks, are snazzy, but they are no match for the weapons being stockpiled by the drug cartels.
"They are good weapons, but to counteract the types of weapons they're using against us, they're not equal," Rodriguez said.
His officers know they don't stand a chance. Not five days after the highway attack that blew up the police truck, Rodriguez had jobs to fill. Twenty-two of his cops had abruptly quit.