Some of those gangs are also increasingly sought after by major criminal organizations to distribute drugs north of the border or act as their enforcers in Mexico, law enforcement officials say.
The job of finding out who’s doing what on this side and passing that information on to the pertinent law-enforcement agency falls on the shoulders of people like El Paso County Sheriff’s Detective Jeff Gibson. A member of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), Gibson was recognized by his peers last week for developing a shareable electronic database of the players and their activities.
The information sharing is continuous and effective, he said. Just last week, for instance, sheriff’s investigators arrested three El Paso men for delivery of 2 pounds of crystal meth just north of a U.S. port of entry.
“Every time you hear about a large-scale sweep or a large-scale investigation of gang members, HIDTA had its fingers on it at some point or another,” Gibson said.
Gibson received the Innovation Award from HIDTA National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., last week. His boss, Sheriff Richard Wiles, said Gibson was already a recognized gang intelligence investigator. “His expertise has led him to provide training, intelligence, and investigative support for investigations throughout the Southwest region,” the sheriff said in a news release.
Congress set up the HIDTA program in 1988 to channel extra money and resources to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in areas of heavy drug trafficking.
Nowadays, the entire U.S.-Mexico border has been designated a HIDTA area.
“The (U.S.-based) gangs have partnered with local drug trafficking organizations to a far greater degree. There has been a great deal of increased criminal sophistication among certain gangs,” Gibson said. The 28-year veteran lawman said some border gangs were “in the right place, at the right time” for the convenience of major drug trafficking organizations.
Guided by those larger organizations, American gangs “are working to bring in a great deal of narcotics and, recently, quite a few human trafficking (cases) have been attributable to the gang situation here,” he added.
When foreign-born members of the U.S. prison-based gang Barrio Azteca were stripped of their green cards and deported to Mexico, they established a stronghold in Juarez, Gibson said. As the Mexican drug cartels changed tactics in the past decade, they began subcontracting work to smaller groups, and the Aztecas were quickly picked up.
“What we ended up having is a group of men who were used to being violent being … utilized by one of these drug trafficking organizations as a security force,” Gibson said. “The rival (traffickers) saw how successful this arragement was and they started doing the same thing. […] It adds this violent group into the mix taht has been causing a great deal of difficulties across the border.”
Now, not only the Aztecas, but other American gangs like Mexicles and Surenos work for the Mexican drug cartels or larger U.S. gangs like the California-based Mexican Mafia.
Tracking gang activity also means being ready to stem violence from spilling over into the United States — something that for the most part hasn’t happened because of the criminals’ fear of the U.S. justice system.
“They don’t operate with the same amount of violence on this side because they don’t need more attention,” Gibson said. He concurred with the assertions of outside analysts that the biggest fear of criminals south of the border is — other than being killed by rivals — getting caught in the United States.
“They know we will catch them eventually and they will go away” to prison for a long time, he said.