June 03, 2013
The US-Mexico border zone is a complex region. Commerce, culture, and crime are linked in a series of complex transactions and connections. Some analysts call it the hyperborder due to its dense human, cultural, and economic interconnectedness.[i] Along this border, 14 sets of twin cities (28 total) link the United States and Mexico. Each of these bi-national urban settings essentially forms a bifurcated metropolitan area. People, commerce, and crime on each side of the border are deeply connected. Familiarity and connections provide opportunity for cross-border drug trafficking and crime. The El Paso-Ciudad Juárez twin cities are home to the transnational Azteca gang network. The gang is known as Barrio Azteca in El Paso and Los Aztecas in Ciudad Juárez.
Origins of Barrio Azteca/Los Aztecas
Barrio Azteca (BA) was founded in 1986 as a prison gang. Several El Paso gang members—Benito “Benny” Acosta, Alberto “Indio” Estrada, Benjamín “T-Top” Olivarez, Manuel “Tolon” Cardoza, Manuel “El Grande” Fernandez, Raúl “Rabillo” Fierro, and José “Gitano” Ledesma—banded together in the Coffield Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (Corrections) to protect themselves from other prison gangs such as Mexikanemi and the Texas Syndicate, which were at war at the time. They became a powerful prison gang in their own right.[ii] Under the leadership of Eduardo Ravelo, known as “Tablas,”[iii] the gang morphed into a comprehensive criminal enterprise operating on both sides of the border. The gang became a hybrid transnational street and prison gang.[iv]
The El Paso Police Department—which has a gang injunction against the BA—observes that “Most of the original members were from the Second Ward (Segundo Barrio) area of El Paso, which is located in the south central region of the city. As the Aztecas grew in numbers, they became involved in the now standard activities of prison gangs: narcotics, extortion, assaults, murders, theft, and intimidation. The Aztecas recruit directly from the pool of street gang members who have been arrested or imprisoned; however, [they] also form alliances and intimidate various street-level gangs who have not progressed to the prison system.”[v]
The FBI reports: “According to court documents and information presented in court, the Barrio Azteca is a violent street and prison gang that began in the late 1980s and expanded into a transnational criminal organization. In the 2000s, the BA formed an alliance in Mexico with ‘La Linea,’ which is part of the Juarez Drug Cartel (also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Drug Cartel or VCF). The purpose of the BA-La Linea alliance was to battle the Chapo Guzman Cartel and its allies for control of the drug trafficking routes.”[vi]
Los Aztecas Structure
The BA is configured as a paramilitary hierarchy with a defined internal rank structure. The structure includes capos mayor (president/vice president), capos (captains), lieutenants, sergeants, and soldados/carnal (soldiers). In addition prospectos (prospective members) and esquinas (associates) contribute to gang activities. The gang’s hierarchy is designed to seek profit and territorial control. While the gang operates both on the street and in prison, the prison is its central authority. Street taxes or “quota” extracted from drug dealers are funneled into prison commissary accounts for BA leaders to dispense favor within the prison system. Coded letters and contraband cell phones are used for communication with the street and the issuance of the green light (or luz verde) targeting for murder, or enforcement action, persons not in good standing with the gang.
The gang taxes street-level drug sales in El Paso, West Texas, and southeast New Mexico. Its members have been found in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Mexico (Ciudad Juárez and other parts of Chihuahua). It engages in drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion, intimidation, and murder (enforcement). Other activities include prostitution, kidnapping, arson, and auto theft. According to the FBI, “because of the BA’s alliance with the Juarez Drug Cartel, the gang receives illegal drugs at low cost and profits on its importation, sale, and distribution within the United States.”[vii]
The Aztecas’ allies include several El Paso gangs, including Puro Barrio Sandoval, Barrio Cantu Rifa, Varrio Hacienda Heights, the Colonel Street Locos, and Varrio Northeast. Their rivals include Los Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos (AA) both linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. The Aztecas are linked with the Juárez cartel and the mercenary enforcement army known as La Línea.
La Línea Links
The Aztecas have chapters in Ciudad Juárez, where they act as proxies and enforcers for the Juárez Cartel (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization). Both the BA and Los Aztecas are believed to be integral components of the La Línea organization. Here the transnational network linkages that permeate the Juárez Plaza are apparent. Money laundering, extortion, and enforcement are linked on both sides of the border. La Línea is a hybrid entity within the array of networked non-state actors in Mexico’s narco-conflict. It serves as a protective detail, an enforcement operation, and collectors of street taxes. Its members are a cadre that may serve as liaison officers to other organizations. “La Línea has their networks in gangs like Los Aztecas who are hired killers (sicarios) and the municipal police that protect their precious cargo.”[viii] [ix] Together, Los Aztecas and La Línea form a hybrid node in the transnational criminal network. Barrio Azteca is a tier-two enterprise (i.e., a superpandilla) with regional reach working for a tier-one transnational criminal organization (the Juárez Cartel).[x] Together with La Línea, it is a specialized variant of a third-generation gang whose members are essentially serving as mercenaries. It has transnational reach through its allies and inter-networked cross-border gangs and cartel partners.
Azteca Attacks and Tactics
The Aztecas (on both sides of the border) played a key role in the brutal violence in the battle for the Juárez Plaza. Massacres in prison, including Juárez’s Cereso prison, and in the community are their hallmark. Notable prison massacres include the March 5, 2009, attack on Los Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos that left 20 dead[xi] and the July 26, 2011, attack on Los Mexicles that left 17 dead and 20 injured.[xii] Community attacks include the Villas de Salvárcar massacre[xiii] where 16 youths (aged 15-20) were gunned down using the Cuerno de Chivo (AK-47) and the October 23, 2010, Horizontes del Sur massacre where 14 were killed and over 20 injured.[xiv] Both occurred in Juárez and it is believed that the gangsters mistakenly believed rival gang members were at the locations.
The Aztecas (in league with La Línea) are also linked to the US Consulate assassinations on March 13, 2010, where three people affiliated with the consulate were killed in two separate incidents.[xv] Azteca tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) center on mass shootings; however they are known to employ blocking positions in surrounding areas to support their attacks. While they appear to primarily employ small arms, they can be expected to marshal the full range of armament associated with La Línea, including rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), and IEDs (including car bombs).[xvi]
Conclusion: Cross-Border Gangsters
Barrio Azteca/Los Aztecas are a networked third-generation/second-tier gang. Together, their network operates on both sides of the Texas Chihuahua border with a prison-street cross-border nexus. They are linked with the Juárez Cartel and La Línea and are active participants in Mexico’s drug war. Their ability to negotiate the human terrain on both sides of the “hyperborder” makes these cross-border gangs a valuable ally to the major cartels. It also makes them a threat to police and communities on both sides of the frontier.
About the author
Mr. Sullivan is a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He is a senior research fellow with the Center for the Advanced Studies of Terrorism (CAST) and a member of the Advisory Board of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence.
[i] Fernando Romero/LAR, Hyper-Border: The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and its Future (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).
[iii] Federal Bureau of Investigation,“New Top Ten Fugitive: Leader of Violent Barrio Azteca Gang,” news release, October 20, 2009, http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2009/october/ravelo_102009.
[iv] John P. Sullivan, “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air & Space Power Journal — Spanish Edition, July 1, 2008,http://www.Airpower.maxwell.af.mil/apjinternational/apj-s/2008/2tri08/sullivaneng.htm.
[v] El Paso Police Department, “An Innovative Tool to Create safe Communities,”, http://www.elpasotexas.gov/police/gang_injunctions.asp
[vi] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Barrio Azteca Leader Sentenced to Life in Prison and Two Barrio Azteca Soldiers Sentenced to 20 and 30 Years in Prison,” press release, El Paso Division, June 29, 2012,http://www.fbi.gov/elpaso/press-releases/2012/barrio-azteca-leader-sentenced-to-life-in-prison-and-two-barrio-azteca-soldiers-sentenced-to-20-and-30-years-in-prison.
[viii] “La Línea,” Borderland Beat, October 14, 2009, http://www.Borderlandbeat.com/2009/10/la-linea.html;
[ix] John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan, “La Línea: Network, Gang, and Mercenary Army,” The Counter Terrorist, Vol. 4, No. 4, August/September 2011.
[x] Samuel Logan has developed a three tier ranking of criminal enterprises operating in Mexico. Tier-one enterprises are transnational criminal organizations; tier-two organizations are regional superpandillas that often work for tier-one entities; tier-three entities are local street gangs. Tier-two entities correspond to second or third generation gangs; tier-three entities correspond with first generation gangs. See Ciudad Juárez Criminal Environment, Southern Pulse, 2012 and John P. Sullivan, “Maras Morphing: Revisiting Third Generation Gangs, Global Crime, Vol. 7, Issue 3-4, 2006, p.478-504.
[xii] Jo Tuckman, “Mexican Prison Massacre That Left 17 Dead Captured on Video,” The Guardian, 28 July 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/28/mexican-prison-massacre-video.
[xiv] Elisabeth Malkin, “Death Toll in Juárez Attack Rises to 14,” The New York Times, October 24, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/25/world/americas/25mexico.html?_r=0.
[xv] Marc Lacey and Ginger Thompson, “Two Drug Slayings in Mexico Rock U.S. Consulate,” The New York Times, March 14, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/world/americas/15juarez.html?pagewanted=all.
[xvi] Sullivan and Logan, “La Línea” and John P. Sullivan, “Explosive escalation: Reflections on the Car Bombing in Ciudad Juárez,” Small Wars Journal, 21 July 2010 at http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docstemp/474-sullivan.pdf.