The Barrio Azteca Trial and the Prison Gang-Cartel Interface
By Fred Burton and Ben West
On Nov. 3, a U.S. District Court in El Paso, Texas, began hearing a case concerning members of a criminal enterprise that calls itself Barrio Azteca (BA). The group members face charges including drug trafficking and distribution, extortion, money laundering and murder. The six defendants include the organization's three bosses, Benjamin Alvarez, Manuel Cardoza and Carlos Perea; a sergeant in the group, Said Francisco Herrera; a lieutenant, Eugene Mona; and an associate, Arturo Enriquez.
The proceedings represent the first major trial involving BA, which operates in El Paso and West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The testimony is revealing much about how this El Paso-based prison gang operates, and how it interfaces with Mexican drug cartel allies that supply its drugs.
Mexico's cartels are in the business of selling drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin in the United States. Large amounts of narcotics flow north while large amounts of cash and weapons flow south. Managing these transactions requires that the cartels have a physical presence in the United States, something a cartel alliance with a U.S. gang can provide.
Of course, BA is not the only prison gang operating in the United States with ties to Mexico. Prison gangs can also be called street gangs — they recruit both in prisons and on the street. Within the United States, there are at least nine well-established prison gangs with connections to Mexican drug cartels; Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos, the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate are just a few such groups. Prison gangs like BA are very territorial and usually cover only a specific region, so one Mexican cartel might work with three to four prison or street gangs in the United States. Like BA, most of the U.S. gangs allied with Mexican cartels largely are composed of Mexican immigrants or Mexican-Americans. Nevertheless, white supremacist groups, mixed-race motorcycle gangs and African-American street gangs also have formed extensive alliances with Mexican cartels.
Certainly, not all U.S. gangs the Mexican cartels have allied with are the same. But examining how BA operates offers insights into how other gangs — like the Latin Kings, the Texas Syndicate, the Sureños, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and transnational street gangs like MS-13 — operate in alliance with the cartels.
Barrio Azteca Up Close
Spanish for "Aztec Neighborhood," BA originated in a Texas state penitentiary in 1986, when five inmates from El Paso organized the group as a means of protection in the face of the often-brutal ethnic tensions within prisons. By the 1990s, BA had spread to other prisons and had established a strong presence on the streets of El Paso as its founding members served their terms and were released. Reports indicate that in the late 1990s, BA had begun working with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa Federation drug trafficking organization, which at the time controlled drug shipments to Ciudad Juarez, El Paso's sister city across the Rio Grande.
According to testimony from several different witnesses on both sides of the current trial, BA now works only with the Juarez cartel of Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes, which has long controlled much of Mexico's Chihuahua state and Ciudad Juarez, and broke with the Sinaloa Federation earlier in 2008. BA took sides with the Juarez cartel, with which it is jointly running drugs across the border at the Juarez plaza.
BA provides the foot soldiers to carry out hits at the behest of Juarez cartel leaders. On Nov. 3, 10 alleged BA members in Ciudad Juarez were arrested in connection with 12 murders. The suspects were armed with four AK-47s, pistols and radio communication equipment — all hallmarks of a team of hit men ready to carry out a mission.
According to testimony from the ongoing federal case, which is being brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, drugs are taken at discount from the supplier on the Mexico side and then distributed to dealers on the street. These distributors must then pay "taxes" to BA collectors to continue plying their trade. According to testimony from Josue Aguirre, a former BA member turned FBI informant, BA collects taxes from 47 different street-level narcotics operations in El Paso alone. Failure to pay these taxes results in death. One of the murder charges in the current RICO case involves the death of an El Paso dealer who failed to pay up when the collectors arrived to collect on a debt.
Once collected, the money goes in several different directions. First, BA lieutenants and captains, the midlevel members, receive $50 and $200 per month respectively for compensation. The bulk of BA's profit is then transferred using money orders to accounts belonging to the head bosses (like Alvarez, Cardoza and Perea) in prison. Cash is also brought back to Ciudad Juarez to pay the Juarez cartel, which provided the drugs in the first place.
BA receives discounts on drugs from the Juarez cartel by providing tactical help to its associates south of the border. Leaders of Carrillo Fuentes' organization in Juarez can go into hiding in El Paso under BA protection if their lives are in danger in Juarez. They can also order BA to track down cartel enemies hiding in El Paso. Former BA member Gustavo Gallardo testified in 2005 that he was sent to pick up a man in downtown El Paso who had cheated the Juarez cartel of money. Once Gallardo dropped him off at a safe house in El Paso, another team took the man — who was bound with rope and duct tape — to Ciudad Juarez, where Gallardo assumes he was killed.
BA and the World of Prison Gangs
Prison gangs are endemic to prison systems, where safety for inmates comes in numbers. Tensions (usually along racial lines) among dangerous individuals regularly erupt into deadly conflict. Prison gang membership affords a certain amount of protection against rival groups and offers fertile recruiting ground.
Once a prison gang grows its membership (along with its prestige) and establishes a clear hierarchy, its leader can wield an impressive amount of power. Some even wind up taking over prisons, like the antecedents of Russian organized crime did.
It might seem strange that members on the outside send money and answer to bosses in prison, since the bosses are locked up. But these bosses wield a great deal of influence over gang members in and out of prison. Disobedience is punishable by death, and regardless of whether a boss is in prison, he can order a hit on a member who has crossed him. Prison gang members also know that if they end up in prison again — a likely outcome — they will once again be dependent on the help of the boss to stay alive, and can perhaps even earn some money while doing time.
BA's illegal activities mean its members constantly cycle in and out of prison. Many BA members were involved in smaller, local El Paso street gangs before they were imprisoned. Once in prison, they joined BA with the sponsorship of a "godfather" who walks the recruit through the process. BA then performs a kind of background check on new recruits by circulating their name throughout the organization. BA is particularly interested in any evidence that prospective members have cooperated with the police.
Prison authorities are certainly aware of the spread of BA, and they try to keep Mexican nationals separated from known BA members, who are mostly Mexican-American, to prevent the spread of the gang's influence. BA has organizations in virtually every penitentiary in Texas, meaning that no matter where a BA member is imprisoned, he will have a protection network in place. BA members with truly extensive prison records might personally know the leader of every prison chapter, thus increasing the member's prestige. Thus, the constant cycling of members from the outside world into prison does not inhibit BA, but makes its members more cohesive, as it allows the prison system to increase bonds among gang members.
Communication challenges certainly arise, as exchanges between prisoners and those on the outside are closely monitored. But BA seems to have overcome this challenge. Former BA member Edward Ruiz testified during the trial that from 2003 to 2007, he acted as a clearinghouse for jailed members' letters and packages, which he then distributed to members on the outside. This tactic ensured that all prison communications would be traceable to just one address, thus not revealing the location of other members.
BA also allegedly used Sandy Valles New, who worked in the investigations section of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in El Paso from 1996 to 2002, to pass communications between gang members inside and outside prison. She exploited the access to — and the ability to engage in confidential communications with — inmates that attorneys enjoy, transmitting information back and forth between BA members inside and outside prison. Taped conversations reveal New talking to one of the bosses and lead defendants, Carlos Perea, about her fear of losing her job and thus not being able to continue transmitting information in this way. She also talked of crossing over to Ciudad Juarez to communicate with BA members in Mexico.
While BA had inside sources like New assisting it, the FBI was able to infiltrate BA in return. Josue Aguirre and Johnny Michelleti have informed on BA activities to the FBI since 2003 and 2005, respectively. Edward Ruiz, the mailman, also handed over stacks of letters to the FBI.
BA and the Mexican Cartels
As indicated, BA is only one of dozens of prison gangs operating along the U.S.-Mexican border that help Mexican drug trafficking organizations smuggle narcotics across the border and then distribute them for the cartels. Mexican drug trafficking organizations need groups that will do their bidding on the U.S. side of the border, as the border is the tightest choke point in the narcotics supply chain.
Getting large amounts of drugs across the border on a daily basis requires local connections to bribe border guards or border town policemen. Gangs on the U.S. side of the border also have contacts who sell drugs on the retail level, where markups bring in large profits. The current trial has revealed that the partnership goes beyond narcotics to include violence as well. In light of the high levels of violence raging in Mexico related to narcotics trafficking, there is a genuine worry that this violence (and corruption) could spread inside the United States.
One of the roles that BA and other border gangs fill for Mexican drug-trafficking organizations is that of enforcer. Prison gangs wield tight control over illegal activity in a specific territory. They keep tabs on people to make sure they are paying their taxes to the gang and not affiliating with rival gangs. To draw an analogy, they are like the local police who know the situation on the ground and can enforce specific rules handed down by a governmental body — or a Mexican cartel.
Details emerging from the ongoing trial indicate that BA works closely with the Juarez cartel and has contributed to drug-related violence inside the United States. While the killing of a street dealer by a gang for failure to pay up on time is common enough nationwide and hardly unique to Mexican drug traffickers, apprehending offenders in El Paso and driving them to Ciudad Juarez to be held or killed does represent a very clear link between violence in Mexico and the United States.
BA's ability to strike within the United States has been proven. According to a STRATFOR source, BA is connected to Los Zetas — the U.S.-trained Mexican military members who deserted to traffic drugs — through a mutual alliance with the Juarez cartel. The Zetas possess a high level of tactical skill that could be passed along to BA, thus increasing its effectiveness.
The Potential for Cross-Border Violence
The prospect for enhanced cross-border violence is frightening, but the violence itself is not new. So far, Mexican cartels and their U.S. allies have focused on those directly involved in the drug trade. Whether this restraint will continue is unclear. Either way, collateral damage is always a possibility.
Previous incidents, like one that targeted a drug dealer in arrears in Phoenix and others that involved kidnappings and attacks against U.S. Border Patrol agents, indicate that violence has already begun creeping over from Mexico. So far, violence related to drug trafficking has not caused the deaths of U.S. law enforcement officials and/or civilians, though it has come close to doing so.
Another potential incubator of cross-border violence exists in BA's obligation to offer refuge to Juarez cartel members seeking safety in the United States. Such members most likely would have bounties on their heads. The more violent Mexico (and particularly Ciudad Juarez) becomes, the greater the risk Juarez cartel leaders face — and the more pressure they will feel to seek refuge in the United States. As more Juarez cartel leaders cross over and hide with BA help, the cartel's enemies will become increasingly tempted to follow them and kill them in the United States. Other border gangs in California, Arizona and New Mexico probably are following this same trajectory.
Two primary reasons explain why Mexican cartel violence for the most part has stopped short of crossing the U.S. border. First, the prospect of provoking U.S. law enforcement does not appeal to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations operating along the border. They do not want to provoke a coordinated response from a highly capable federal U.S. police force like the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or FBI. By keeping violence at relatively low levels and primarily aimed at other gang members and drug dealers, the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations can lessen their profile in the eyes of these U.S. agencies. Conversely, any increase in violence and/or the killing of U.S. police or civilians would dramatically increase federal scrutiny and retaliation.
The second reason violence has not crossed the border wholesale is that gangs like BA are in place to enforce the drug-trafficking organizations' rules. The need to send cartel members into the United States to kill a disobedient drug dealer is reduced by having a tight alliance with a border gang that keeps drugs and money moving smoothly and carries out the occasional killing to maintain order.
But the continued integrity of BA and its ability to carry out the writ of larger drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico might not be so certain. The Nov. 3 trial will undermine BA activity in the crucial trafficking corridor of El Paso/Ciudad Juarez.
The indictment and possible incarceration of the six alleged BA members would not damage the gang so badly — after all, BA is accustomed to operating out of prison, and there must certainly be members on the outside ready to fill in for their incarcerated comrades. But making BA's activities and modus operandi public should increase scrutiny on the gang and could very well lead to many more arrests.
In light of the presence of at least two FBI informants in the gang, BA leaders have probably moved into damage control mode, isolating members jeopardized by the informants. This will disrupt BA's day-to-day operations, making it at least temporarily less effective. STRATFOR sources say BA members on both sides of the border have been ordered to lie low until the trial is over and the damage can be fully assessed. This is a dangerous period for gangs like BA, as their influence over their territory and ability to operate is being reduced.
Weakening BA by extension weakens the Juarez cartel's hand in El Paso. While BA no doubt will survive the investigations the trial probably will spawn, given the high stakes across the border in Mexico, the Juarez cartel might be forced to reduce its reliance on BA. This could prompt the Juarez cartel to rely on its own members in Ciudad Juarez to carry out hits in the United States and to provide its own security to leaders seeking refuge in the United States. It could also prompt it to turn to a new gang facing less police scrutiny. Under either scenario, BA's territory would be encroached upon. And considering the importance of controlling territory to prison gangs — and the fact that BA probably still will be largely intact — this could lead to increased rivalries and violence.
The Juarez cartel-BA dynamic could well apply to alliances between U.S. gangs and Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, such as Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos in Houston, the Texas Syndicate and Tango Blast operating in the Rio Grande Valley and their allies in the Gulf cartel; the Mexican Mafia in California and Texas and its allies in the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels; and other gangs operating in the United States with ties to Mexican cartels like Mexikanemi, Norteños and the Sureños.
Ultimately, just because BA or any other street gang working with Mexican cartels is weakened does not mean that the need to enforce cartel rules and supply chains disappears. This could put Mexican drug-trafficking organizations on a collision course with U.S. law enforcement if they feel they must step in themselves to take up the slack. As their enforcers stateside face more legal pressure, the cartels' response therefore bears watching.