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Mexican Cartels and the Fallout From Phoenix

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Late on the night of June 22, a residence in Phoenix was approached by a heavily armed tactical team preparing to serve a warrant. The members of the team were wearing the typical gear for members of their profession: black boots, black BDU pants, Kevlar helmets and Phoenix Police Department (PPD) raid shirts pulled over their body armor. The team members carried AR-15 rifles equipped with Aimpoint sights to help them during the low-light operation and, like most cops on a tactical team, in addition to their long guns, the members of this team carried secondary weapons — pistols strapped to their thighs.

But the raid took a strange turn when one element of the team began directing suppressive fire on the residence windows while the second element entered — a tactic not normally employed by the PPD. This breach of departmental protocol did not stem from a mistake on the part of the team’s commander. It occurred because the eight men on the assault team were not from the PPD at all. These men were not cops serving a legal search or arrest warrant signed by a judge; they were cartel hit men serving a death warrant signed by a Mexican drug lord.

The tactical team struck hard and fast. They quickly killed a man in the house and then fled the scene in two vehicles, a red Chevy Tahoe and a gray Honda sedan. Their aggressive tactics did have consequences, however. The fury the attackers unleashed on the home — firing over 100 rounds during the operation — drew the attention of a nearby Special Assignments Unit (SAU) team, the PPD’s real tactical team, which responded to the scene with other officers. An SAU officer noticed the Tahoe fleeing the scene and followed it until it entered an alley. Sensing a potential ambush, the SAU officer chose to establish a perimeter and wait for reinforcements rather than charge down the alley after the suspects. This was fortunate, because after three of the suspects from the Tahoe were arrested, they confessed that they had indeed planned to ambush the police officers chasing them.

The assailants who fled in the Honda have not yet been found, but police did recover the vehicle in a church parking lot. They reportedly found four sets of body armor in the vehicle and also recovered an assault rifle abandoned in a field adjacent to the church.

This Phoenix home invasion and murder is a vivid reminder of the threat to U.S. law enforcement officers that stems from the cartel wars in Mexico.

Violence Crosses the Border

The fact that the Mexican men involved in the Phoenix case were heavily armed and dressed as police comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed security events in Mexico. Teams of cartel enforcers frequently impersonate police or military personnel, often wearing matching tactical gear and carrying standardized weapons. In fact, it is rare to see a shootout or cartel-related arms seizure in Mexico where tactical gear and clothing bearing police or military insignia is not found.

One reason for the prevalent use of this type of equipment is that many cartel enforcers come from military or police backgrounds. By training and habit, they prefer to operate as a team composed of members equipped with standardized gear so that items such as ammunition and magazines can be interchanged during a firefight. This also gives a team member the ability to pick up the familiar weapon of a fallen comrade and immediately bring it into action. This is of course the same reason military units and police forces use standardized equipment in most places.

Police clothing, such as hats, patches and raid jackets, is surprisingly easy to come by. Authentic articles can be stolen or purchased through uniform vendors or cop shops. Knockoff uniform items can easily be manufactured in silk screen or embroidery shops by duplicating authentic designs. Even badges are easy to obtain if one knows where to look.

While it now appears that the three men arrested in Phoenix were not former or active members of the Mexican military or police, it is not surprising that they employed military- and police-style tactics. Enforcers of various cartel groups such as Los Zetas, La Gente Nueva or the Kaibiles who have received advanced tactical training often pass on that training to younger enforcers (many of whom are former street thugs) at makeshift training camps located on ranches in northern Mexico. There are also reports of Israeli mercenaries visiting these camps to provide tactical training. In this way, the cartel enforcers are transforming ordinary street thugs into highly-trained cartel tactical teams.

Though cartel enforcers have almost always had ready access to guns, including military weapons such as assault rifles and grenade launchers, groups such as Los Zetas, the Kaibiles and their young disciples bring an added level of threat to the equation. They are highly trained men with soldiers' mindsets who operate as a unit capable of using their weapons with deadly effectiveness. Assault rifles in the hands of untrained thugs are dangerous, but when those same weapons are placed in the hands of men who can shoot accurately and operate tactically as a fire team, they can be overwhelmingly powerful — not only when used against enemies and other intended targets, but also when used against law enforcement officers who attempt to interfere with the team's operations.

Targets

Although the victim in the Phoenix killing, Andrew Williams, was reportedly a Jamaican drug dealer who crossed a Mexican cartel, there are many other targets in the United States that the cartels would like to eliminate. These targets include Mexican cartel members who have fled to the United States due to several different factors. The first factor is the violent cartel war that has raged in Mexico for the past few years over control of important smuggling routes and strategic locations along those routes. The second factor is the Calderon administration’s crackdown, first on the Gulf cartel and now on the Sinaloa cartel. Pressure from rival cartels and the government has forced many cartel leaders into hiding, and some of them have left Mexico for Central America or the United States.

Traditionally, when violence has spiked in Mexico, cartel figures have used U.S. cities such as Laredo, El Paso and San Diego as rest and recreation spots, reasoning that the general umbrella of safety provided by U.S. law enforcement to those residing in the United States would protect them from assassination by their enemies. As bolder Mexican cartel hit men have begun to carry out assassinations on the U.S. side of the border in places such as Laredo, Rio Bravo, and even Dallas, the cartel figures have begun to seek sanctuary deeper in the United States, thereby bringing the threat with them.

While many cartel leaders are wanted in the United States, many have family members not being sought by U.S. law enforcement. (Many of them even have relatives who are U.S. citizens.) Some family members have also settled comfortably inside the United States, using the country as a haven from violence in Mexico. These families might become targets, however, as the cartels look for creative ways to hurt their rivals.

Other cartel targets in the United States include Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement officers responsible for operations against the cartels, and informants who have cooperated with U.S. or Mexican authorities and been relocated stateside for safety. There are also many police officers who have quit their jobs in Mexico and fled to the United States to escape threats from the cartels, as well as Mexican businessmen who are targeted by cartels and have moved to the United States for safety.

To date, the cartels for the most part have refrained from targeting innocent civilians. In the type of environment they operate under inside Mexico, cartels cannot afford to have the local population, a group they use as camouflage, turn against them. It is not uncommon for cartel leaders to undertake public relations events (they have even held carnivals for children) in order to build goodwill with the general population. As seen with al Qaeda in Iraq, losing the support of the local population is deadly for a militant group attempting to hide within that population.

Cartels have also attempted to minimize civilian casualties in their operations inside the United States, though for a different operational consideration. The cartels believe that if a U.S. drug dealer or a member of a rival Mexican cartel is killed in a place like Dallas or Phoenix, nobody really cares. Many people see such a killing as a public service, and there will not be much public outcry about it, nor much real effort on the part of law enforcement agencies to identify and catch the killers. The death of a civilian, on the other hand, brings far more public condemnation and law enforcement attention.

However, the aggressiveness of cartel enforcers and their brutal lack of regard for human life means that while they do not intentionally target civilians, they are bound to create collateral casualties along the way. This is especially true as they continue to conduct operations like the Phoenix killing, where they fired over 100 rounds of 5.56 mm ball ammunition at a home in a residential neighborhood.

Tactical Implications

Judging from the operations of the cartel enforcers in Mexico, they have absolutely no hesitation about firing at police officers who interfere with their operations or who dare to chase them. Indeed, the Phoenix case nearly ended in an ambush of the police. It must be noted, however, that this ambush was not really intentional, but rather the natural reaction of these Mexican cartel enforcers to police pursuit. They were accustomed to shooting at police and military south of the border and have very little regard for them. In many instances, this aggression convinces the poorly armed and trained police to leave the cartel gunmen alone.

The problem such teams pose for the average U.S. cop on patrol is that the average cop is neither trained nor armed to confront a heavily armed fire team. In fact, a PPD source advised STRATFOR that, had the SAU officer not been the first to arrive on the scene, it could have been a disaster for the department. This is not a criticism of the Phoenix cops. The vast majority of police officers and federal agents in the United States simply are not prepared or equipped to deal with a highly trained fire team using insurgent tactics. That is a task suited more for the U.S. military forces currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These cartel gunmen also have the advantage of being camouflaged as cops. This might not only cause considerable confusion during a firefight (who do backup officers shoot at if both parties in the fight are dressed like cops?) but also means that responding officers might hesitate to fire on the criminals dressed as cops. Such hesitation could provide the criminals with an important tactical advantage — an advantage that could prove fatal for the officers.

Mexican cartel enforcers have also demonstrated a history of using sophisticated scanners to listen to police radio traffic, and in some cases they have even employed police radios to confuse and misdirect the police responding to an armed confrontation with cartel enforcers.

We anticipate that as the Mexican cartels begin to go after more targets inside the United States, the spread of cartel violence and these dangerous tactics beyond the border region will catch some law enforcement officers by surprise. A patrol officer conducting a traffic stop on a group of cartel members who are preparing to conduct an assassination in, say, Los Angeles, Chicago or northern Virginia could quickly find himself heavily outgunned and under fire. With that said, cops in the United States are far more capable than their Mexican counterparts of dealing with this threat.

In addition to being far better trained, U.S. law enforcement officers also have access to far better command, control and communication networks than their Mexican counterparts. Like we saw in the Phoenix example, this communication network provides cops with the ability to quickly summon reinforcements, air support and tactical teams to deal with heavily armed criminals — but this communication system only helps if it can be used. That means cops need to recognize the danger before they are attacked and prevented from calling for help. As with many other threats, the key to protecting oneself against this threat is situational awareness, and cops far from the border need to become aware of this trend.

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