But there is something else that makes Brownsville – as well as the neighboring cities of Harlingen and McAllen – different from the average, small port community. And that is it is located a few hundred yards from the US-Mexico border and one of the most violent areas in Mexico.
As a result, many members of Mexico’s (TCOs) spend a considerable amount of time in south Texas. Some even own homes, property and small businesses here. Indeed, pulling up to a stoplight at around midnight on one of Brownsville’s more isolated roads you’re more likely than not to have a brand-new Cadillac Escalade with expensive rims and detailing pull up next to you. It isn’t difficult to make assumptions about who’s driving it. After all, the median annual income for Brownsville households is just under $25,000.
Several recent incidents have brought to light the fact that TCO members—some very high-ranking and some violent—are living among us in the United States, and definitely in much higher numbers along the southwest border.
In late October 2011, police officers in Port Isabel (which is just a few miles east of Brownsville) pulled over a vehicle during a routine traffic stop. To the officers’ surprise, one of the vehicle’s occupants was Rafael Cárdenas Vela, the nephew of Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, the jailed über-drug lord who headed the infamous and brutal Gulf Cartel. Cárdenas Vela also reportedly directed a faction of the Gulf Cartel called “Los Rojos.”
The officers discovered Cárdenas Vela was traveling with an authentic Mexican passport and US visa, but under a false name. He also was in the United States illegally and was accompanied by three bodyguards who were escorting him to his reputed palatial home on South Padre Island.
According to media reports, Cárdenas Vela apparently had avoided scrutiny in the Rio Grande Valley by not owning any property or assets under his name, including multiple vehicles, his South Padre Island condominium, a house in Brownsville and a 3,100-square-foot house outside Rio Hondo.
Fortunately, the routine traffic stop did not erupt into a hail of lead-slinging and Cárdenas Vela went peacefully with the officers.
[Editor’s note: Homeland Security Today recently reported that the Gulf Cartel had ordered its minions to engage US law enforcement when they’re confronted]
Cárdenas Vela has received considerable criticism from fellow TCO members in Mexico who’ve claimed he runs his business – which is estimated to be a multimillion dollar and multi-ton marijuana and cocaine smuggling operation – from safe havens in south Texas. Someone high up in the rival Gulf Cartel faction, “Los Metros,” reportedly sold him out by providing his location in Texas to US authorities.
Cárdenas Vela is just one high profile example of TCO members who reside in the US and manage their criminal operations from here. The same week that Cárdenas Vela was pulled over by police, US Border Patrol agents near the small town of Santa Maria, Texas arrested the Gulf Cartel’s Matamoros plaza boss, José Luis Zuniga Hernández.
In a separate incident, Eudoxio Ramos García, the purported Gulf Cartel boss of the northern Mexican town of Miguel Alemán, was arrested in Rio Grande City.
There are indications that both men were in Texas to avoid being killed by rivals in Mexico.
Also in late October, a TCO member shot a Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputy in the chest while the deputy was investigating a possible kidnapping and drug deal. Sheriff Lupe Treviño said the reported kidnapping was a bid to recover marijuana that was stolen when the Gulf Cartel’s reputed second-in-command, Samuel Flores Borrego, was killed in September. One suspect was gunned down and two were wounded in the exchange of lead. Afterwards, Treviño said, “now, there are more [TCO] members living in Texas, in the Valley, in the United States. I’ll guarantee you there’s a ton of them.”
The question is this: should we worry about the expanding and continuous presence of TCO members in our border communities? Authorities say it depends on what they’re doing while they’re here and how much US officials are willing to overlook.
Retired DEA supervisor Phil Jordan told KRGV News in October that TCOs and their operatives are investing drug money in south Texas restaurants, meat markets and hotels.
Last year, for example, real estate developer Marin Herrera bought 77 pieces of property in McAllen and made an estimated $4 million from these investments. But it turned out that Herrera was in charge of money laundering for the Gulf Cartel and had used drug money to buy the properties. He’d laundered the $4 million through two of his companies, New Millennium Developers and Herrera Properties and Investments.
It’s hard to deny that in today’s economic climate the infusion of millions of dollars – even if they’re narco dollars – into a hard-hit local economy comes at an opportune time.
Under normal circumstances, TCO members living in the United States are typically difficult to identify because they’re very good at keeping a low profile. Shootouts like the one that occurred between two members of the Gulf Cartel on a McAllen highway in mid-October are almost unheard of, as are confrontations with law enforcement like the one that happened in Hidalgo County.
But the concern is that as TCOs get squeezed more tightly by authorities on both sides of the border, the more willing they’ll be to engage in risky violent behavior in the United States [as Homeland Security Today reported in June].
The fact that members from rival TCOs could be living in close proximity to each other in border cities and communities makes the situation that much more tenuous. The best that law enforcement officials can hope for is to focus on intelligence-driven operations and investigations that help identify TCO members who are engaged in trafficking and money laundering in the United States before their behavior escalates into public violence.
A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009, she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency’s situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her first book, “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars,” was published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com