U.S. Gangs As Foot Soldiers For Drug Traffickers
May 25, 2011

The Drug War At Home

This is one installment in a 13-part series of multimedia stories by Fronteras: The Changing America Desk that investigates our role in the illegal narcotics trade.

To transport their drugs inside the United States, Mexican drug cartels want a distributor who operates within the black market and is familiar with life on America’s streets. That’s where American gangs step in. The two make a convenient alliance.

In exchange for drug money, the gangs do the cartels’ dirty work. They intimidate, kidnap, steal and murder. The cartel pockets the bulk of the profit from the drug trade, while gang members take most of the heat from law enforcement.

One of the more notorious gangs with ties to Mexican cartels is the “Barrio Azteca”. The group operates mainly in the U.S.-Mexico border region between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. It was founded in 1986 inside a Texas prison. One of the gang’s principal recruiting grounds is jails and prisons in the state of Texas.

A calling card of the Barrio Azteca is their artwork, inspired by the Aztec Indians from which they take their name.

Inside the El Paso County Detention Facility, deputies post examples of the gang’s artwork on their office walls. The works are black and white pencil drawings of busty women in indigenous headdresses that look a lot like the tattoos etched on the inmates’ bodies.

Sgt. Albert Telles is a jail supervisor at the El Paso detention center. He’s worked in the jail system for 21 years and throughout that time has had his share of encounters with the notorious gang.

“The first encounter I had with the Barrio Aztecas (was when I was feeding) my trustees at the downtown jail,” he said. “One of the trustees said something to the inmate and the inmate punched him right through the bars.”

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe.
Drawings by Barrio Azteca gang members hang in the office of Officer Raul Reyes at the El Paso County Detention Facility.

Gang members are known for their violent nature. In the latest indictment against the group, the FBI accused the gang of carrying out the murder of two U.S. citizens last March. One worked for the U.S. consulate, the other was a sheriff’s deputy. They were ambushed in their car after leaving a birthday party in Ciudad Juarez. Mexican police found the couple’s infant daughter screaming in the backseat. This was a high profile killing where the motive has not been disclosed. It may come out at the upcoming trial.

Drug-related attacks in Mexico happen every day. Telles said sometimes the orders for those hits go through top-level gang members inside U.S. prisons.

“They’ll send a letter to prison, a coded letter. It will probably go to one of the lieutenants,” he said. “He’ll forward it to one of the captains. The captain will review it. He’ll give the say so, yes or no.”

Coded letters and phone calls are the main method of communication between gang members in prison and out in the streets. Hits in Mexico are typically ordered by the cartel first and then carried out by the gang. This is possible because it is a transnational gang – they operate on both sides of the border.

Photo courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office.
A close-up of a gang drawing hanging on a wall in an office at the El Paso County Detention Facility.

In a recent roundup of gang members, Reyes said he was surprised at some of the locations where they were arrested. One was caught in a single family home.

“It was actually a nice neighborhood,” he said. “You would have never expected that you had one of the top Barrio Aztecas living next door to you.”

He said some members held day jobs they used to help cover up their criminal activities. One was an attorney’s assistant, another managed a local bar and one worked at a health clinic.

Nowadays, gangs prefer to stay under the radar. Like most drug trafficking operations inside the United States, they don’t want the public to know their activities. It can be bad for business.

ecent roundup of gang members, Reyes said he was surprised at some of the locations where they were arrested. One was caught in a single family home.

“It was actually a nice neighborhood,” he said. “You would have never expected that you had one of the top Barrio Aztecas living next door to you.”

He said some members held day jobs they used to help cover up their criminal activities. One was an attorney’s assistant, another managed a local bar and one worked at a health clinic.

Nowadays, gangs prefer to stay under the radar. Like most drug trafficking operations inside the United States, they don’t want the public to know their activities. It can be bad for business.

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