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What we know:

Del Rio, TX Population: approx. 36,000

Ciudad Acuna, CA Population: approx. 182,000

This sector is responsible for 210 miles of the Rio Grande, including Lake Amistad. There are many points were migrants on foot can ford the river. The land on both sides of the river consists mostly of rough, rolling terrain. Heavy foliage makes ideal concealment for scouts and small groups. Paved routes make egress back to Mexico or deeper into the US easy and fast.

For Fiscal Year 2015, the Del Rio Border Patrol Sector seized more than $11 million worth of narcotics. The Del Rio Border Patrol Sector is part of the Joint Task Force-West South Texas Corridor, which leverages federal, state and local resources to combat transnational criminal organizations. Mexican cartels recruit Texas youth to traffic drugs across the border. The Texas border region represents 9.7% of the state’s population, yet since 2009 this region has accounted for 19.9% of the state’s juvenile felony drug referrals and 18.5% of the state’s juvenile felony gang referrals. Mexican cartels are adept at corrupting law enforcement officers and public officials in Mexico and the United States. Since 2009, there have been 101 cartel-related splashdowns, where drug smugglers drive their vehicle into the river in order to evade law enforcement officers, while boat retrieval teams enter the river from Mexico to recover the drug loads. In addition to the actual splashdown itself, criminals that engage in splashdowns commit multiple offenses, such as drug trafficking, vehicle flight, and reckless driving. Some of these criminals also use dangerous weapons as they flee from law enforcement and attempt to destroy evidence.

The Zetas and Gulf Cartels are the predominant Mexican cartels operating in the Del Rio sector, with a recent increase of MS-13, Central American gang activity. Cities in northeastern Mexico such as Ciudad Acuna (located directly across the river from Del Rio) have become hotspots for cartel violence. The Zetas use street-corner spies armed with walkie-talkies to mount surveillance. Responsible for the largest illicit radio network in Mexico, the Zetas commonly kidnap engineers to maintain their communications infrastructure. Originally enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas are ex-military Commando forces who broke away from the Gulf Cartel in pursuit of their own economic opportunities.

Historically, the Gulf Cartel has the longest area presence in Del Rio. The godfather of the Gulf Cartel was not a drug kingpin but a smuggler named Juan Guerra who began with sneaking bootleg whiskey into Texas during Prohibition. In the decades that followed, Guerra expanded into prostitution and gambling along the Rio Grande, building out a small but profitable criminal enterprise. The business eventually passed to Guerra’s nephew, Juan Garcia Abrego, who in the mid-1980s identified an opportunity. Several years before, American drug agents had started to crack down on cocaine-supply lines from Colombia into Florida.

Garcia Abrego approached the besieged Colombians with an offer: Instead of taking a transporter’s customary small cash percentage, he would guarantee cocaine deliveries through Mexico into the U.S. in exchange for 50 percent of each load. It was a riskier but immensely more profitable arrangement, and it eventually birthed one of Mexico’s first major narcotics organizations, the Gulf Cartel. In 1995, the FBI placed Garcia Abrego on its Ten Most Wanted list, the first drug trafficker to earn the distinction. The cartel had even formed its own paramilitary unit, a band of former Mexican police and special-forces soldiers called the Zetas, to seize territory and dispatch rivals. The notorious syndicate became known as La Compañia, or The Company.

The Zetas set up secret camera networks to spy on Mexican officials and surveil drug stash houses and built an elaborate, covert communications network that covered much of the country. The Zetas can communicate over large distances and were able to become very powerful, very fast, with the ability to track everything related to its narcotics distribution: drug loads as well as Mexican police, military, even U.S. border-patrol agents. The Zetas became opportunists, not just traditional smugglers or hitmen. kidnapping, human smuggling, pirating DVDs, and even selling black-market oil. Several Zeta leaders lived openly in Texas as resident aliens with a green cards, often running front companies from both sides of the border.

In Coahuila state, Mexican soldiers raided a Zetas-occupied home that contained networked laptops, 63 digital walkie-talkies, a central processing unit to remotely control repeaters, and a digital radio that communicated with airplanes. During one operation in 2011, Mexican marines discovered several 18-wheelers housing mobile communications. Another operation spanned four states and resulted in an astonishing haul: 167 antennas, 155 repeaters, 71 computers, 166 solar panels and batteries, and nearly 3,000 radios and Nextel push-to-talk phones. Later, marines discovered a 300-foot-tall antenna tower by a major highway.

The Zetas are able to maintain a network of Stasi-like army of spies, integrate technology and social media into their operations and are able to monitor a high level of situational awareness that allows them to adapt quickly to complicated situations.  The result, according to a report from the Mexican attorney general, is an intelligence network “without equal in the Americas.” The Zetas monitor Twitter feeds, blogs, and Facebook accounts. They reportedly employ a team of computer hackers to track authorities with mapping software, and, according to one paper, 20 communications specialists to intercept phone calls.

On the street, the cartel’s informants include taxi drivers, taco vendors, shoe shiners—and often the police. Several police commanders and even entire departments have been relieved since 2010. Using youth as early warning scouts and sometimes children as hawks or “halcones” the Zetas maintain hundreds of vigilant sentinels deployed across Ciudad Acuna and along the Rio Grande bank of Del Rio.  “They are usually hired for 10,000 pesos [about $750] and provided two cellphones and a radio,” an informant testified. “They check who is walking down the street, and with whom. Usually it’s the police, the military, and other gang members. You can see them sometimes at each corner (of the main plaza), depending on the zone, even in the outskirts near the highways. It extends all over the city.” The Zetas have so deeply infiltrated the city police force that they were able to use the department’s C4 office—Mexico’s version of 911—to control its information network.

Technological advancements allow the Zetas to continue to have success. The cartel has been developing small aircraft (ultralights), aerial drones and sophisticated data-mining software that tracks law-enforcement patterns and predicts ideal smuggling schedules and routes. The Zetas hide radio antennas and signal relay stations deep inside remote and hard-to-reach terrain, connect them to solar panels, and then link the facilities to radio-receiving cellphones and Nextel devices. . The building of a network like this needs extensive use of remote transmitters, and the terrain in Mexico favors that. Most Mexican terrain—particularly in Veracruz and other places like that—has a lot of distinctive geography that allows you to point antennas and repeaters on high pieces of land. The equipment can be bought on the open market, and the Zetas have the engineering expertise to do it by kidnapping engineers, make them work for them, then dispose of them. While the kingpins stay off the network — they use the internet to send messages — the radio network acts as a shadow communication system for the cartels’ lower-level players and lookouts, and a tool to hijack military radios. It is their ultimate situational awareness mechanism.

 

Mexican Cartel TTPs IVO Del Rio

Hawks(halcones)- Equipped with short-range walkie talkies programmed to specific frequencies cartel informants called Hawks report the movements of Mexican police, soldiers and rival cartels from positions along streets and near border crossings

Antennas– a string of antennas concealed on rooftops, towers and in trees, hijacked from legitimate businesses, tx and rx traffic from Zeta operatives/personnel

Repeaters– receive traffic from low power hand helds then amplifies the signal to travel over greater distances or terrain features allowing cartel members to commnicate over long distances. By separating incoming and outgoing signals, a duplex repeater lets different units, hawks, drug runners, gun men, talk over a single channel.

Regional Communications centers– semiautonomous regional communications centers, some in suburban homes, are equipped with networked laptops, central processors, and digital receivers to help coordinate the Zetas local communications traffic

Command and Control– at the communications headquarters, cartel members use commercial radio communications software to manage thousands of walkie talkies connected to the network: diabling hansets as Zetas are killed or captured, connecting users in different cities, relaying messages between cells, and adding new handsets as the network expands. Digital inversion software helpd prevent Mexican law enforcement from listening in

Gunmen– tipped off about a rival cartel moving through its territory, Zeta foot soldiers armed with assault rifles, rpgs, and hand held radios use the network to to orchestrate attacks involving several tactical units and multiple street blockcades. The gunmen also likely use the system to coordinate prison breaks and assaults on government forces.

Bosses– communications to top leaders are communicated over a command and control frequency, separate from those for daily operations

Smugglers– Cartel bosses trag drug laden semi trucks transiting Mexico from Guatemala then monitor their passage across border crossings into the US. In remote border areas, Zeta spotters use walie talkies to observe the movement of US border patrol agents then direct smugglers into the US Cartel drug loads are then often transported to urban stash houses, repackaged for street sale and then sold to a network of distibuters across the country

 

What we think:

Del Rio is outwardly a quiet town within the national average of crime statistics. But because of their unique location along the Rio Grande and as a result of the paved roads leading to and from it, Del Rio is a major gateway into the US for transnational criminal syndicates. Alarming trends lately indicate Venezuelan military intelligence training of cartel members, former Guatemalan and Mexican special forces soldiers, Iranian and Cuban technical assistance and the likely collusion of disparate nefarious groups. These organizations are more than just drug smugglers, they are actually military terrorist groups. Internationally, they deal in kidnapping, murder, extortion—all the crime you can do with a well-organized and ruthless group. They have no social value, they have no social feeling, they follow no rules and their foot soldiers are young men who have basically decided they are not going to survive in the world. They have no morals and no scruples

Recently, the Gulf cartel and the Zetas cartel have had their leadership decimated by assassinations and arrests. This has resulted in a younger breed of leaders engaged in nearly incessant infighting. These younger leaders, unlike their counterparts in the more professional Sinaloa Federation, are less concerned with long-term profits. They want money today, as evidenced by the recent unaccompanied minor crisis. In this matter, the Gulf cartel and the Zetas cartel chose the short-term profits from smuggling throngs of Central Americans into the U.S.

They chose today’s money over their long-term ability to continue making narco-profits. So short-sighted were groups within the Gulf cartel that they have resorted to common crimes to meet payroll after their human smuggling resulted in a decreased ability to get their narcotics loads into Texas.

This is significant in relation to international terrorism, including the group known as ISIS. While the Sinaloa Federation has not exhibited that they would accept a large profit for today while damaging their future profits, the Gulf cartel and the Zetas cartel have done so. An individual terrorist or a small group of terrorists providing a large sum of money for help entering the U.S. would not be appealing to the Sinaloa Federation, the group who controls the U.S.-Mexico border from west of the El Paso, Texas area all the way to the Mexican city of Tijuana.  They do not accept money and large profits for today if they know their ability to continue making long-term profits will be damaged. Thus, ISIS or other terrorists would likely be forced to work through the open Texas border between the Gulf of Mexico to somewhere before El Paso, Texas. The most promising area for them would be the Laredo or Del Rio Sectors. Paved routes that speed ingress/egress, low law enforcement presence and a large city close to the border that isn’t considered to be in the border region: San Antonio, Texas. Crossing in the Rio Grande Valley Sector still leaves a gauntlet of federal and state agencies to get past before Houston or San Antonio. A Laredo crossing leaves less space to travel before making a large city outside of the border region and Texas leaders have not overwhelmed the area with State Troopers, as they have in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. A Del Rio crossing leaves several “outs” to splashdown or blend in with local traffic patterns.

Transnational criminal organizations in Mexico and their smugglers already know and exploit these vulnerabilities. This fact, coupled with the short-sighted and desperate money-making attempts of two cartels controlling a large portion of the Texas border with Mexico. Near Quemado, Texas just between Normandy, Texas and within the Del Rio Sector is an area patrolled by limited officers. Outnumbered law enforcement agents patrol a populated, busy corridor with limited resources. It is a significant challenge. These vulnerable points are the ones most likely to be exploited by the cartels. Radio communications easily identify windows of opportunity for patient opportunists. The area between Eagle Pass, Texas and Laredo, Texas is an area of extreme concern to local federal agents. A rough road, often requiring a four-wheel drive vehicle, extends over 80 miles between the two cities. The two sectors meet in this area. Part of this area is in the Del Rio Sector and part is in the Laredo Sector.

Border Patrol agents from both the Del Rio and the Laredo sectors seem under resourced to secure the area. Only large groups or blatant criminal activity is followed and tracked. Many times, feints may be employed to distract and slow down agents. The agents see “sign,” footprints or other indications that an illegal crossing has occurred, and unless the sign indicates a large group, the agents often do not have the ability to track and apprehend the smugglers or illegal aliens. This area is another region where an ISIS member or small group could pay a substantial sum to Zetas smugglers to secretly enter the U.S. without ever being known to authorities. The Zetas cartel would send one smuggler with a large group of illegal aliens in one direction, and then another smuggler with one or two ISIS members in another direction. The Border Patrol would pursue the larger group and be forced to ignore the two sets of footprints created by the ISIS group. It is important to note that the State of Texas has done little to increase State Trooper or National Guard presence in this area. That state effort largely focused on the Rio Grande Valley Sector and is only now beginning to be seen in the southeastern side of the Laredo Sector.

Working with National Guard assets and combining law enforcements efforts in the area will likely increase the patrolling presence in the area and discourage illegal activity in the region. Since resources are low, force multiplication methods such as early warning and imminent threat systems should be used along with other technological advancements must be employed to counter the cartel advancements from the south. Education and training iterations will enable law enforcement officers to leverage local, federal and state assets to achieve a combined arms effect and defeat the well-armed and aggressive border incursions.

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