New adversary in U.S. drug war: Contract killers for Mexican cartels

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 4, 2010

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- A cross-border drug gang born in the prison cells of Texas has evolved into a sophisticated paramilitary killing machine that U.S. and Mexican officials suspect is responsible for thousands of assassinations here, including the recent ambush and slaying of three people linked to the U.S. consulate.

The heavily tattooed Barrio Azteca gang members have long operated across the border in El Paso, dealing drugs and stealing cars. But in Ciudad Juarez, the organization now specializes in contract killing for the Juarez drug cartel. According to U.S. law enforcement officers, it may have been involved in as many as half of the 2,660 killings in the city in the past year.

Officials on both sides of the border have watched as the Aztecas honed their ability to locate targets, stalk them and finally strike in brazen ambushes involving multiple chase cars, coded radio communications, coordinated blocking maneuvers and disciplined firepower by masked gunmen in body armor. Afterward, the assassins vanish, back to safe houses in the Juarez barrios or across the bridge to El Paso.

"Within their business of killing, they have surveillance people, intel people and shooters. They have a degree of specialization," said David Cuthbertson, special agent in charge of the FBI's El Paso division. "They work day in and day out, with a list of people to kill, and they get proficient at it."

The special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in El Paso, Joseph Arabit, said, "Our intelligence indicates that they kill frequently for a hundred dollars."

The mayor of Juarez, José Reyes Ferriz, said that the city is honeycombed with safe houses, armories and garages with stolen cars for the assassins' use. The mayor received a death threat recently in a note left beside a pig's head in the city.

Arabit said investigators have no evidence to suggest the Barrio Azteca gang includes former military personnel or police. It is, however, working for the Juarez cartel, which includes La Linea, an enforcement element composed in part of former Juarez police officers, according to Mexican officials.

"There has to be some form of training going on," said an anti-gang detective with the El Paso sheriff's department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work. "I don't know who, and I don't know where. But how else would you explain how they operate?"

On March 13, Lesley Enriquez Redelfs, 35, who worked for the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, 34, a deputy in the El Paso sheriff's department and a detention officer at the county jail, were returning home to El Paso from a children's party sponsored by the U.S. consul in Juarez. As their white sport-utility vehicle neared the international bridge that sunny Saturday afternoon, they were attacked by gunmen in at least two chase cars. When police arrived, they found the couple dead in their vehicle and their infant daughter wailing in her car seat. The intersection was littered with casings from AK-47 assault rifles and 9mm guns.

Ten minutes before the Redelfs were killed, Jorge Alberto Ceniceros Salcido, 37, a supervisor at a Juarez assembly plant whose wife, Hilda Antillon Jimenez, also works for the U.S. Consulate, was attacked and slain in similar style. He had just left the same party and was also driving a white SUV, with his children in the car.

According to intelligence gathered in Juarez and El Paso, U.S. investigators were quick to suspect the Barrio Azteca gang in connection with what President Obama has called the "brutal murders." What was unclear, they said, was the motive. U.S. diplomats and agents have declined to describe the killings as a targeted confrontation with the U.S. government, which had been pushing to place U.S. drug intelligence officers in a Juarez police headquarters to more quickly pass along leads.

Five days after the consulate killings, the DEA unleashed in El Paso a multiagency "gang sweep" called Operation Knockdown to gather intelligence from Barrio Azteca members. Over four days, officers questioned 363 people, including about 200 gang members or their associates, and made 26 felony arrests.

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