President Donald Trump still promises to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. An executive order he signed on January 25 states the primary purpose of the wall is “border security.” As a result of his hardline stance, Trump continues to catch heat for his position on immigration and border enforcement.
But how bad are things on the Southern border? What kind of criminal influence is flooding over the border into the United States? Do we really need more security?
Independent Journal Review wanted answers to these questions. We spoke with eight federal law enforcement officers about the issue. We also spoke to a U.S. congressman, an Army intelligence analyst, and an individual who worked in hostage rescue and executive protection inside of Mexico.
Some interviewees agreed to be named, while others asked to be cited on a condition of anonymity. What we were told is nothing short of disturbing and, at times, bone-chilling.
Frank Montoya Jr. retired from the FBI in September 2016. Before his retirement, he was the special agent in charge of the field office in Seattle.Image Credit: Frank Montoya Jr.
Montoya spoke of the sickening criminal activity that reaches way beyond the U.S.-Mexico border.
“If money can be made, the cartels are going to be involved. As a result, human trafficking becomes a natural business practice,” he said. “Cartels are bringing in girls to service oil field workers as far as the shale oil fields in the Dakotas. They get girls from the community, which is mostly Hispanic, or they’re runaways.”
He painted a picture of just how brutal the cartels are.
“Washington [state] is a long way from the border, but the cartel still operated there,” Montoya said. “They kept migrants who worked in the fields in a state of fear. We even saw Zetas-styled (a cartel group infamous for its methods of murder) executions in cornfields.”
Montoya explained that legalizing marijuana in Washington hasn’t stopped the cartels, and how seizing a lot of drugs doesn’t do much of anything to stop their operations.
“Marijuana is legal in Washington, but the cartels are still thriving. They use the cover of legal grows and counterfeit documents to avoid suspicion,” he said. “We continue to come down on them, and they continue to adapt.
“When it comes to the issue of drug trafficking, we could seize 50 pounds of meth or 100 kilos of cocaine, and that is barely putting a dent in their operation.”Image Credit: AFP/Stringer/Getty Images
The former FBI agent explained how challenging going after the cartel was at times.
“Even with the whiteboards, photographs and all that, keeping up with the flow turned into such a challenge because we could take down 20 guys, and the next week, 20 more would appear,” Montoya said.
“I’ve sat with Mexican officials to discuss how to address this issue, but many just want our resources; they don’t want our help bringing down the cartels. And the ones that do, the Mexican Navy and Marines, aren’t enough to counter the threat.”
On the Eastern seaboard, the cartels have a massive influence, as well. Jeff Parkes, who served as an ICE special agent, told IJR about their complex human smuggling operations.Image Credit: Jeff Parkes
“We traced back human trafficking and human smuggling networks from cabbage-picking in western New York,” Parkes said. “They were migrant workers who were moved by cartels, that came with the seasons from North Carolina, up to Virginia — then to Maryland. We trailed them down to Lake Okeechobee, Florida. And we found out how they came across this one spot in Texas, and the cartels ran it.
“This isn’t an issue that’s unique to New York; it’s happening everywhere in the United States.”
Parkes shared an example of an experience he had at the border with the National Guard not having the resources it needed to do its job.
“I was out on the border doing an observation tour with some other HSI agents. And we came across a spot where some National Guardsmen were. At the same time, two Border Patrol agents came up who had just been on a hike.
The National Guardsmen had a 50-caliber rifle sitting there. In law enforcement and the military, you find common ground to talk about firearms. So we talked about 50 cals.
The National Guardsmen said to us, ‘We don’t even have ammo for this, man. We are only allowed to call and observe.'”
The cartels are armed as well as some state militaries, and a lot of their weapons come from right inside of the United States of America.
Ruben Chavez served as an ATF special agent and worked for the agency for 28 years. He spoke of the cartel’s ability to transport arms from the U.S. back to Mexico.
“It happens frequently, especially bartering guns for drugs. It’s not hard to smuggle guns into Mexico,” Chavez said. “I conducted operations where I intercepted assault weapons, including 50-caliber weapons, from going into Mexico.”Image Credit: David McNew/Getty Images
The cartels will make money by whatever means necessary. And sometimes, that means committing crimes in the U.S. that have nothing to do with drugs, human smuggling, or murder. A federal law enforcement officer with over 20 years of experience in border security and intelligence told IJR about some of the lesser-known things that happen. He asked to remain anonymous.
“There are vehicles that will follow nicer cars across the border into the United States,” the officer said. “The vehicles will follow them back to their neighborhood, areas where people appear to be affluent or have means.
“After watching a number of people for an undisclosed amount of time, an individual is picked at random to be taken. They are taken back to Mexico and ransomed.”
The officer addressed the cartels’ intelligence and smuggling ability:
“In the past, there have been checkpoints which had to be torn down because the cartel planted listening devices in them. In some cases, they listened for up to years without anyone knowing about it.
There are a lot of tunnels that the cartels have dug. And they aren’t all just some random hole here or there. In California, there have been tunnels found that carry a high level of sophistication. They have rail cars, cinder blocks, fluorescent lighting, the works.”
He talked about cartel ties to radical Islamist groups.
“They have a working relationship with a few militant Islamist groups,” he said. “Those groups help the cartel acquire some weapons they couldn’t otherwise get.”Image Credit: Charles Omanney/Getty Images
And the corruption from the cartel isn’t exclusive to Mexico. It’s spilling into the United States all the time.
“As federal law enforcement working on the border, you didn’t trust anyone really except the guys you are working with closely,” Parkes explained. “I knew of cases that were ongoing about local PD being corrupted or Customs and Border Protection being corrupted.”
A U.S. marshal with experience on the border confirmed Parkes’s assessment.
“There are constantly open FBI investigations into sheriff’s offices that are close to the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Pete Perez, a DEA task force agent with over 20 years of experience, further verified the issue of corruption in the United States.
“There have been cases where TSA workers have been arrested because they were working on behalf of the cartel,” he said.
Perez also addressed how the cartels recruit and the reason they can be so profitable and productive in the United States:
“They recruit mules (poorer Mexicans) to smuggle drugs across the border. Mules come from low-class families. The cartels are ruthless if the mules don’t do what is asked of them. They will kidnap and kill their family. They don’t mess around. The cartels maintain their Sicarios (hitmen) within a jurisdiction. They carry out the dirty work inside of Mexico.
The reason there is such corruption in Mexico is that once you broke the law one time as a law enforcement official in Mexico, you can’t say, ‘I’m done.’ They will kill you. They will kill your family.”
Perez said cartel crime is only on the rise and shared one of the reasons it’s so hard to stop.
“If you compare the seizures, the crime is increasing,” he said. “The cartels are not going to stand back. You indict 20-30 low-ranking cartel members in the U.S., the next day, 20-30 will be born by intimidation or association.
“They will go to a little town where people sleep in shacks,” Perez continued. “They will start drugging these people. They will assign people based on their demeanor and background. You’re educated, you’re going to a laboratory, or we are going to kill your family. Or maybe they want you to be a hitman and kill people, so that’s what you’re going to do.”Image Credit: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images
According to Perez, even some of the best law enforcement in Mexico, the Federales, get corrupted by the cartel.
“When we recruit the Federales, they are allegedly the best, integrity-wise,” he said. “But there have been occasions where they’ve been corrupted. Think about that, the Federales have intimate knowledge of security operations and intelligence, and the cartels have managed to recruit a few.”
There are other problems that U.S. Border Patrol deals with that go unnoticed or underreported, though. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) sits on the Department of Homeland Security Committee and took a tour of the Southern border from March 29 to April 3. Higgins, who served in law enforcement before being elected, shared some of the disturbing things he learned with IJR.Image Credit: Official DHS Photo
“We covered 1,954 miles of the border by airplane, boat, helicopter, four-wheel drive SUV, on horseback, and on foot,” Higgins said. “The cartels are the organized crime today along the lines of the old Mafia. Cartels control 100 percent of the border with Mexico on the Southern side of the border.
“When I say controlled, that doesn’t mean that commerce doesn’t continue or businesses and government aren’t operating. But the very real circumstance is that cartels [run] human and narcotic trafficking in a very organized way. Nothing crosses that border without payment to the cartel first, and then they will arrange transit to make it across.”
Higgins talked about settlements the cartel has established south of the border:
“There are entire settlements that have been established by the cartel south of the border. And they run that entire community, everything that goes on. In one community that I observed there’s a garment manufacturing plant. It was built by the cartel.
The family members are given jobs in the garment factory, and they will also live under a reign of terror. Because when they get there, they can’t leave. But as any parent can imagine, if your daughter is becoming of an age where she could be turned into a prostitute, you’re going to want to get out.
So we have to think about this issue with compassion, too. And what do you do? You try and make it into the United States, you risk your life, and if the cartel finds you, you’re dead.”
We asked the congressman about some of the dangers Border Patrol agents face. His answer was an unsettling one.
“Border Patrol agents face incredible dangers every day,” Higgins said. “Much of it is violent activity from young scouts who are employed by the cartels. They prepare themselves to repel border patrol responses to crossings.Image Credit: John Moore/Getty Images
“They throw large rocks with velocity and sometimes incredible accuracy at Border Patrol agents responding. They approach the areas, and they get bombarded with large stones. And they’re not allowed to respond with lethal force. Serious injuries have come as a result of these stonings.
“Border Patrol has advanced paintball guns that shoot pepper balls. So it’s a non-lethal response to a lethal attack. So as you can see, Border Patrol is incredibly conscientious about not taking a life unnecessarily. I have pictures of the aftermaths of these stonings. It’s terrible.”
The cartels target low-income communities in the U.S., too. Border Patrol’s tactical arm is called BORTAC. We spoke to a former BORTAC agent about the issue.
The officer said:
“In McAllen, Texas, the low-income average is $20,000 per year. There were neighborhoods we would pull up in and everyone on the block would bust out their phone and make a call. Even grandmothers. They were scouts for the cartel.
There were areas in McAllen where we could not use our service radios because it was a corrupted area. The cartels even put people loyal to them into law enforcement. It increased their intelligence capability and influence.”
But some of the operations conducted by the cartels are kept in a much tighter space.
“The cartels have secured property anywhere from three to five miles inside in the U.S. so that they can quickly capture and move people back to their HQ,” an Army intelligence analyst with experience in targeting on the U.S.-Mexico Border revealed. “The U.S. government knows about the frequent crossings of cartel members and their criminal activity back and forth between the U.S.-Mexico border. We pick and choose which vehicles and targets to watch.”
The analyst provided details on the kind of weaponry the cartels have at their disposal:
Image Credit: Julio Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images
“They typically had the basic AK 7.62×39, the AR-10 or 15 with .223, and the HKG36 with 556×45 OTAN ammo. They elevated to the 50 cal and have collected a massive stockpile.
The ability to carry long rifles, including sniper rifles and, have the 50s sitting on the ridge lines overlooking markets, etc., allows them to grow their stockpiles without fear of being raided.
They also had grenades, rockets, and mines, where they’ve always had access, too. The unfortunate part is a good percentage of their stockpile comes from the U.S.”
IJR asked the analyst about cartels and terrorism.
“Hezbollah is the organization with ties to the cartels,” he said. “They began around 2014 and would meet cartel members in shady bars and hotels within Juarez for meetings. Money agreements and exploration methods would be the main topics they discussed.”
And what are the jails like on border towns? According to the U.S. marshal IJR spoke with, “The first time I toured the United States Marshals Cell Block in Del Rio, it was full of about 100 illegals. And that was just a regular day. That’s a lot of inmates for a big city in a Marshals’ block, but it’s not a lot for a border town — it’s typical.”
What’s it like inside of Mexico? How do the cartels handle things? An individual who did hostage rescue, executive protection, and has experience in being around cartels in the country gave IJR a brief glimpse.Image Credit: Source
“Walking the streets in some cities in Mexico, you will see people missing an arm or a leg, maybe in a wheelchair. A lot of these people worked for the cartel or tried to skim more money off the top, or worked as a hitman and were severely injured in the line of duty.
If you go and talk to children in the shantytowns, it’s common to hear them say, ‘I don’t need school,’ and that they want to be a member of the cartel.
I’ve seen bodies cut up in pieces and then burnt and placed on playground toys that children play on. The cartels are vicious and brutal. They will take someone hostage, and not just torture them, but pump full of drugs to keep them alive just so they can survive the torture.”
An FBI agent of 20 years talked about just how committed the cartels are to moving their product and what measures they take to make sure it is moved correctly. The agent asked to remain anonymous.
“They have scientists that they hire that only work on finding out methods to conceal drugs,” the agent said. “They send people to canine schools to figure out how to best avoid detection. They have the technology to intercept communications and pick up frequencies that aren’t encrypted.Image Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)
“Even agents who have seized thousands of pounds of drugs aren’t making a big difference in stopping drug trafficking from the cartels. Their networks are massive. And as long as there remains a significant demand for drugs in the U.S., the cartels will continue to stay in business.
“Keep an eye on fentanyl. It’s much more lethal than heroin and may very well be the next big drug on the street.”
Montoya pointed out how the cartels are killing more people than terrorists through their operations.
“While the cartel may not be killing people in the U.S. the same way ISIS is, they are supplying the heroin on the street that is killing way more people than jihadists do.”
Montoya continued, “More people have died in the drug wars in Mexico than all of our wars in Southwest Asia and Iraq, including many enemy combatants. But if it doesn’t happen in El Paso or San Diego, we don’t pay much attention to it. If it doesn’t happen to an American citizen in Mexico, we don’t talk about it.
Then Montoya, who also served in the Army, suggested a solution on how to defeat the problem.
“If we put the same resources we put into the fight with ISIS into the cartels, it’s a problem that would be solved in two to three years.”
Based on the assessment of the individuals interviewed and their experiences fighting against the cartels, a lot more needs to be done to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and push back against the crime coming into America. As a matter of national security and safety, it’s an issue that we cannot ignore.