Spillover crime from Tijuana's gang wars is relatively small, given the scale and brutality of the violence there. Nevertheless, the gang's migration to the San Diego area reinforces concern that border vigilance is no match for Mexican organized crime.
After Arellano-Felix cartel members in 2002 killed Lopez's brother in a gangland dispute, he moved his cell across the border to stage retaliatory attacks against anyone suspected of cartel links, according to authorities.
Police started getting chilling reports of criminals using tactics typically seen only on the streets of Tijuana: Men dressed in police uniforms and bullet-proof vests snatching victims in daylight and throwing them into cars before speeding off into traffic. Bodies bearing signs of torture were dumped.
The crimes haunted residents in such suburbs as Chula Vista and Bonita, where many prominent Tijuana families had moved to escape violence only to find that criminals had followed and blended into the cookie-cutter anonymity of American suburbia.
The veteran gang prosecutor leading the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Amador, said the gang was the most vicious he's ever prosecuted. "I've never seen a more ruthless, cold-blooded, sociopathic group," he said.
These Mexican gang members sought sanctuary in the U.S. due to the pressure they were under in Mexico. As competition from other cartels and pressure from the Mexican army increases, it is natural that cartel members will seek refuge inside the U.S. Once in the U.S., they will need to generate funding to maintain their organizations and pay their expenses. That means cartel-style criminal commerce with cartel-style violence.
According to George Grayson, a professor at William and Mary, an associate scholar at FPRI, and an expert on Mexico's cartels, the Arellano-Felix cartel is a small player compared to the presence other Mexican cartels have already established in the U.S. Or what is yet to come.
Grayson's latest essay at FPRI concerns La Familia, the exceptionally violent organization that rules Michoacán state, west of Mexico City (you can find Grayson's body of work on Mexico at FPRI at this link). On July 13th, La Familia made headlines across the world when it captured and executed 12 Mexican federal police officers. Shocking as that act was, it gives little indication of the scale of La Familia's organization, which specializes in the production and distribution of methamphetamines. According to Grayson, La Familia is now the parallel government in Michoacán, using money, a religious message, camaraderie, and a social services network to recruit and maintain a base of support from Michoacán's economically desperate population. Needless to say, La Familia is also suspected of owning most of Michoacán's mayors and other top public officials.
What does this mean for the U.S.? According to Grayson:
While it used to be satisfied with doing business in Mexico, La Familia is moving aggressively into the U.S. market. Reportedly, it has struck deals to pass through the Northwestern region dominated by "El Chapo's" Sinaloa Cartel and the divided, much weaker Arellano Felix Organization. Their trailers, replete with hidden compartments tucked under fruits and vegetables, enter the U.S. through Mexicali, Tijuana, or Tamaulipas and head for Atlanta, Dallas, or Los Angeles. The presence of 3.5 million Michoacán natives north of the Rio Grande enhances the traffickers' ability to sell their product in these cities, as well as use these metropolitan areas as hubs from which to supply smaller communities. DEA officials indicate they are beginning to receive inquiries from law-enforcement agencies on both coasts about "La Familia," a cartel with which the local police have little or no experience.
Mexico's drug war is another example of an irregular war showing no regard for a formal nation-state boundary. At first, the U.S.-Mexican border suited the purposes of several interests. It sheltered much of the U.S. population from Mexico's problems. And some of Mexico's cartel members used U.S. territory for a sanctuary.
But such protection could not last long. Where cartel members move, criminal commerce and violent competition have followed. And that has brought Mexico's drug wars into America's suburbs. The good news is that San Diego's prosecutors seem to have won a round. But it is only the beginning of a very long bout.