Home News Stories 2010 August Southwest Border, Part 3

When Violence Hits Close to Home

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Border crossing
The kidnappings, beatings, and murders that mark the drug-related violence of Mexican
border cities like Tijuana and Juarez have increasingly spilled over the border.


On the Southwest Border
When Violence Hits Too Close to Home

08/12/10

Emerging from the port of entry’s administrative offices into a sunny San Diego morning, Special Agent Dean Giboney spoke in fluent Spanish with the man whose temporary U.S. visa he had just helped renew.


Cell

Kidnappings Escalate

Kidnappings by the cartels and the gangs who work for them have become a serious problem in several U.S. cities on the Southwest border. In the past, kidnap victims were usually rivals in the drug trade. Sometimes victims were kidnapped for revenge, sometimes to intimidate. And paying a ransom was no guarantee the victim would be released.

But when the gangs realized how easy—and profitable—kidnapping could be, they started abducting anyone who looked wealthy enough to command a hefty ransom, and that included Americans on either side of the border.

In the Texas border town of McAllen, for example, the rate of kidnapping has nearly quadrupled. Between October 2008 and September 2009, 42 people were kidnapped in the McAllen area, compared with 11 the previous year. And many kidnappings go unreported because the victims may be involved in illegal activity and don’t want to contact authorities

The man was smiling, happy to be out of Mexico, even though he understood that being on U.S. soil was no guarantee of safety from the Tijuana drug cartel that has put a price on his head.

The kidnappings, beatings, and murders that mark the extreme drug-related violence of Mexican border cities such as Tijuana and Juarez have increasingly spilled over the border. Agent Giboney is hoping the man—we’ll call him José —can provide information that will help in the Bureau’s efforts to dismantle the cartels and the criminal enterprises they fuel.

A few years ago, José started working for the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) in Tijuana to earn extra money. But when he saw how routine the act of murder was for the cartel—leaders thought nothing of having even their own people killed for real or perceived insubordination—he started to fear for his life and contacted the FBI to help him flee the country.

Sources like José are just one of many ways the Bureau gathers intelligence to combat border crime. Agent Giboney is particularly interested in gaining information regarding fugitives in the Los Palillos case, one of San Diego’s most notorious examples of so-called “spillover violence.”

Los Palillos—the “Toothpicks”—was a rogue spinoff from the AFO. From 2004 to 2007, the San Diego street gang carried out a brutal crime spree in which 13 people were abducted and nine were killed. Bodies turned up in cars, on jogging paths, and inside houses in quiet, residential neighborhoods.

The group’s leader, Jorge Rojas-Lopez, is serving a life sentence without parole for the crimes, and several of his henchmen are also in prison. But five members of the gang are still at large.

Rojas-Lopez—a former AFO member—was fighting the cartel for a piece of the billion-dollar drug trade, but he was also fighting for revenge, because the AFO had ordered the murder of his brother.


About This Series

FBI.gov recently visited the Southwest border region for a firsthand look at what the Bureau and its law enforcement partners are doing there to combat crime.

Part I: Border Crime | Gallery
Part II: Public Corruption
Part III: Violence Too Close to Home
Part IV: Forging Ties in Tijuana
Part V: A Drug Buy in El Paso
Part VI: The Major Players
Part VII: The Gang Threat
Part VIII: Importance of Intelligence


Graphic: Border By the Numbers

“This level of extreme violence is very typical of the way the cartels operate south of the border,” Giboney said. Unfortunately, Los Palillos is not an isolated case north of the border, either.

What explains this level of brutality? “The cartels and the gang members they employ want to be Al Pacino in the movie Scarface,” Giboney said. During raids on the homes of cartel members, he has seen movie posters of the machine-gun-wielding Pacino, who played a vicious drug kingpin. “They want to live that lifestyle—the nice cars, going out to clubs, throwing money around. But once you’re in that lifestyle,” he explained, “it’s hard to get out, even if you want to.”

José understands how difficult it is to get away from the cartel. The “narcos,” as he calls AFO members, are powerful as well as ruthless, and their influence is felt at every level of Mexican society. “Whatever they want to know about you they can find out,” he said. “They will stop at nothing to protect their interests, even if it means crossing the border.”

Next: A Trip to Tijuana

Kidnappings by the cartels and the gangs who work for them have become a serious problem in several U.S. cities on the Southwest border. In the past, kidnap victims were usually rivals in the drug trade. Sometimes victims were kidnapped for revenge, sometimes to intimidate. And paying a ransom was no guarantee the victim would be released.

But when the gangs realized how easy—and profitable—kidnapping could be, they started abducting anyone who looked wealthy enough to command a hefty ransom, and that included Americans on either side of the border.

In the Texas border town of McAllen, for example, the rate of kidnapping has nearly quadrupled. Between October 2008 and September 2009, 42 people were kidnapped in the McAllen area, compared with 11 the previous year. And many kidnappings go unreported because the victims may be involved in illegal activity and don’t want to contact authorities.