Thanks in part to lax US gun laws, Drug cartels possess more firepower, technology

Mexican military on patrol in Cd JuarezMexican police fighting the drug cartels face an enemy that is better funded, better equipped and better armed.

The inequality was never more evident than earlier this year, when several unarmed Juárez police officers were fatally shot on their way home from work.

The off-duty officers had no weapons to defend themselves because they had to share handguns with other officers.

Their deaths are among an estimated 400 homicides in Juárez this year as drug-trafficking gangs battle for control of the region’s lucrative smuggling corridor.

Many of the deadly shootings were what some described as “Juárez-style,” in which cars are blocked off by pursuing vehicles and then strafed with gunfire from automatic weapons.

“Right now, the cartels have the money to access the technology and weapons,” said Robert Almonte, retired El Paso police deputy chief who oversaw the department’s narcotics unit and who is now executive director of the Texas Narcotics Officers Association.Bulletproof sport utility vehicles, grenades, caches of AK-47s assault rifles, body armor and high-powered .50-caliber rifles have been seized recently in stash-house raids by the Mexican army.

“The cartels, there is no doubt they have access to more money than Mexican law enforcement, especially the state and local agencies because they (drug traffickers) have more money and they can afford better equipment and better vehicles,” Almonte said.

“That’s what it’s all about, money,” Almonte said. “The Mexican cartels are a billion-dollar industry.”

An estimated $10 billion in drug money and weapons flows into Mexico from the United States each year, providing a treasure-trove for criminal organizations, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico’s deputy federal attorney general for international affairs, said during a border security conference last month in Austin.

The display of wealth by the narcos can be garish. Residents in Villa Ahumada, about 70 miles south of Juárez, talk of the funeral in April of Gerardo Gallegos, who was to be buried with a gold-handled pistol and a cell phone.

Gallegos was a member of the Juárez drug cartel, Mexican military officials said. Paratroopers in helicopters and ground troops raided the funeral and arrested a Villa Ahumada police commander and seven other men as mourners scattered.

A few weeks ago, the Mexican army seized 23 communication antennas illegally installed on a mountain in Culiacan, Sinaloa — equipment suspected of being part of a sophisticated communications system used by drug traffickers and hit men.

For years, there have been whispers that a similar illicit communications system exists in Juárez.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials have said that the drug-trafficking organizations have their weakest points along their systems of communication and shipments of cash profits from the U.S. into Mexico. It is a weakness investigators seek to exploit.

The Internet also plays a role in the current drug war, with the posting of online videos and forums to taunt rivals, the spreading of propaganda and, in some cases, the airing of allegations of corrupt police and government officials.

But the Web’s biggest impact was an anonymous e-mail that spread in the Juárez area warning people to avoid going out in Juárez because the May 24-25 weekend would be the “bloodiest and deadliest” in city history with executions and shootings in the streets.

The violence that weekend claimed 11 lives, including two police officers. It was comparable to other recent weekends, but the e-mail emptied streets of tourists and residents alike.

Juárez authorities are trying to get a grip on crime and return a sense of calm to residents.

More weapons, more vehicles and more police are on the way, Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said Friday as the city continues an aggressive campaign to lure recruits to the municipal police force.

“Juárez te necesita” (Juárez needs you), say recruitment billboards and ads with a close-up face of a police officer in a ski mask and helmet. Recruits must be in shape. No tattoos. No arrests. Must have a vocation to serve.

Juárez has a population approaching 2 million but has a police force of only about 1,600 members.

City officials said about 600 new officers are set to graduate from the next two academy classes. Police will also get 600 more firearms, including rifles, and 300 patrol vehicles.

“The reality is we require 1,500 additional officers than we have received but the preparation of these (new) officers is not instantaneous,” Reyes Ferriz said.