US Awakes to Drug Violence Spilling North From Mexico

Last October, seven men later described by witnesses as "unfamiliar Mexicans" walked into the Bronco Bar in Phoenix, pulled out guns, and opened fire. When the bullets stopped flying, two Mexican patrons were dead and several other customers were wounded.

Since then, eight more Mexicans have been murdered in Phoenix. Though details are sketchy in several cases, police say most of them point to a settling of accounts among Mexican drug dealers as the motive.

"The Bronco was known for drug activity, and after the murders, information started rolling in that these guys [the killers] were up from Mexico because somebody had stiffed them and taken off with their [drug] money," says Mike McCullough, a detective and spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department. "It's almost always related to drug activity, and a lot of the leads point back to Mexico."

All along the US-Mexico border, officials from all levels of government are taking increased notice of what is being called "spillover violence" from Mexico's drug trade. Like cities across the country, many US border cities are seeing their crime rates fall. A notable exception: crimes by Mexican nationals, usually against other Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, are on the rise.

In February, a congressional committee heard testimony about the growing threat of violence originating in Mexico. "Unfortunately, the violence that is attendant to the drug trade in Mexico is spilling over the border into American towns," Drug Enforcement Administration chief Thomas Constantine declared in Washington.

More drugs, more violence

Law-enforcement officials say the violence is a direct result of the rise of Mexico's drug organizations. Mexican drug lords have wrested control of transportation and delivery of their products from Colombia's cartels and taken over more US drug markets once controlled by other groups.

"The Mexican cartels are trying to monopolize the heroin and methamphetamine trade," says Mr. McCullough. The "meth" trade was traditionally run by US biker clubs, he says. "It's what [the Mexican drug organizations] are trying to accomplish from down there that is spilling over the border and into our laps."

The spillover phenomenon is felt in San Diego, where waves from a particularly merciless turf war among Tijuana drug gangs are washing over formerly quiet neighborhoods. San Diego has experienced only a small fraction of the several hundred drug-related killings carried out in Tijuana over the past year. But one San Diego murder was singled out by DEA chief Constantine to make his point before Congress.

Last December, Fernando Jess Gutirrez, owner of a San Diego trucking company, was driving his Mercedes through the upscale Coronado beach community when he was shot and killed. Gutirrez's murder, Constantine testified, was the work of Tijuana's Arellano Flix brothers, who both US and Mexican officials allege run one of the border's most powerful and violent drug organizations.

The new violence is also being felt in Los Angeles. And officials in cities as far away as New York are concerned. In New York, narcotics officials say they are seeing initial signs of Mexican drug organizations moving into territory traditionally held by Colombians.

Such concerns have led the DEA to create new posts in three Mexican border cities: Tijuana, Ciudad Jurez (adjacent to El Paso, Texas), and Matamoros (adjacent to Brownsville, Texas).

In Phoenix, the eight Mexicans murdered this year make up about 10 percent of the year-to-date homicides. Nine of the Mexicans killed since October's Bronco shootings are from one rural Mexican state - Sinaloa - as are many of the suspects.

The relatively large number of killings in one US city has caused heated reaction in Sinaloa, a small state along Mexico's Pacific coast. The state's governor, Renato Vega Alvarado, said in April that the murders indicate how "Mexico is threatened by an aggressive and unjustified attitude of a new American imperialism." And the president of the state's bar association said the killings reflect a "racist campaign" against Mexicans in the US.

US officials scoff at such charges, since they say most, if not all, of the killings have been carried out by other Mexicans - in the case of Phoenix, by other Sinaloans. "You have people from a particular kind of Mexican rural society coming up here, they encounter a free access to guns, and it explodes," says Paul Ferrero, a sergeant with the Phoenix police street-gang investigations unit. "They shoot it out up here, then go south to hide out."

The crimes by Mexicans are particularly difficult to investigate, police say. "There are people we know have information, but they're scared they're going to be deported," says McCullough. "They come right out and tell us that if they get deported and it's known back home that they gave information, their life isn't worth a darn."

Phoenix's interest in the role of Sinaloans in rising violence dates back to July 1994, when the California Department of Justice's intelligence program warned of the spread of a violent criminal organization it called the "Sinaloan Cowboys." The typical member, said a bulletin, wears expensive cowboy boots and lots of gold jewelry, "likes fancy pistols," and displays a small lasso over his rear-view mirror.

Mr. Ferrero says his own extensive investigation showed the "Sinaloan Cowboys" to be a law-enforcement creation. "There are a lot of small, mostly family-based groups, and many of them happen to be from Sinaloa and they may even wear something like a big belt buckle with 'Sinaloa' on it, but we found no big crime organization," he says. "That only leads to a stereotyping that can lead to discrimination or throw us on the wrong track."

Wetback Power gang

What does worry Phoenix officials is the growth of street gangs either largely made up of illegal immigrants or controlled by them. The largest is called Wetback Power. "We now count more than a dozen different factions of Wetback Power," says Ferrero, "and some of them are the most violent Hispanic gangs we have."

The growth of gangs is the chief preoccupation of Sofia Lpez, a Phoenix mother who started Mothers Against Gangs (MAG) after her son was killed in 1992. Her involvement has allowed her to see the growing threat of cross-border violence.

"Traditionally, the Wetback Power gangs have preferred to create their own identity by staying separate, but more and more they're involving kids from the States," says Ms. Lpez. The Mexican gangs are involved in car theft and illegal-immigrant smuggling, besides the drug activity, she says. And, she says, retaliation against the families of rival gang members is on the rise.

Lpez points to one recent case that highlights the new violence: a missing woman whose uncle was teaching her how to "cut," or dilute, the drugs she was dealing to boost her profits. "Supposedly her suppliers found out and didn't like it," she says. "The rumor is that they dumped her body somewhere near Mexico, and that it was the Sinaloans."

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