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Southwest Border Region--Drug Transportation and Homeland Security Issues

Drug Transportation

The Southwest Border Region is the most significant national-level storage, transportation, and transshipment area for illicit drug shipments that are destined for drug markets throughout the United States. The region is the principal arrival zone for most drugs smuggled into the United States; more illicit drugs are seized along the Southwest Border than in any other arrival zone. Mexican DTOs have developed sophisticated and expansive drug transportation networks extending from the Southwest Border to all regions of the United States. They smuggle significant quantities of illicit drugs through and between ports of entry (POEs) along the Southwest Border and store them in communities throughout the region. Most of the region's principal metropolitan areas, including Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Diego, are significant storage locations as well as regional and national transportation and distribution centers. Mexican DTOs and criminal groups transport drug shipments from these locations to destinations throughout the country.

Homeland Security Issues

The threat posed to the nation by Mexican DTOs that operate in Mexico and the Southwest Border Region extends well beyond drug trafficking to other criminal activities, including border violence, firearms trafficking, and alien smuggling.

Border Violence

Violence is often associated with drug trafficking along the border; however, law enforcement officials have noted a significant escalation in the level of violence in recent years. Much of the violence occurring along the Southwest Border is a result of conflict between the Gulf Cartel and the cartels composing The Alliance2 for control of key drug smuggling routes into the United States, particularly through Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Since the arrest of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas-Guillén in 2003, The Alliance has attempted to wrest control of the drug smuggling corridor through Nuevo Laredo from the Gulf Cartel, resulting in a significant increase in violence along the Southwest Border in South Texas. In addition, drug-related violence is reportedly shifting from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas to the states of Nuevo León and Sonora. Recent law enforcement and open source reporting indicates that cartel-related violence is decreasing in a few Mexican cities such as Nuevo Laredo, while increasing in other areas of northern Mexico, particularly in Monterrey.

The escalation of drug-related violence occurring along the border among DTOs increasingly involves DTO use of violent paramilitary enforcement groups. Mexican DTOs use such groups to protect operations and drug shipments as well as to target members of rival drug cartels and law enforcement officers. Los Zetas, the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, may be the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent of these paramilitary enforcement groups. Some Los Zetas members are former Mexican Special Forces soldiers and maintain expertise in the use of heavy weaponry, specialized military tactics, sophisticated communications equipment, intelligence collection, and countersurveillance techniques.

Although much of the violence attributed to conflicts over control of smuggling routes has remained in Mexico, some has spilled into the United States. Murders and kidnappings linked to Mexican DTOs as well as assaults against U.S. law enforcement officers are becoming increasingly common along the Southwest Border. Violence directed at law enforcement officers along the Southwest Border, primarily U.S. Border Patrol agents, often is intended to deter agents from seizing illicit drug shipments or as a diversion during drug smuggling operations. In addition, drug-related violence has expanded from Tijuana, Baja California Norte; Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, into other geographic areas along the border, including Agua Prieta and Cananea, Sonora, and Palomas, Chihuahua.

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Firearms Trafficking

Mexican DTOs and their associated enforcement groups generally rely on firearms trafficking from the United States to Mexico to obtain weapons for their smuggling and enforcement operations. Drug traffickers, firearms smugglers, and independent criminals smuggle large quantities of firearms and ammunition from the United States to Mexico on behalf of Mexican DTOs, who then use these weapons to defend territory, eliminate rivals, enforce business dealings, control members, and challenge law enforcement. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimates that thousands of weapons are smuggled into Mexico every year. Firearms are typically purchased or stolen from gun stores, pawnshops, gun shows, and private residences prior to being smuggled into Mexico, where they are often sold for a markup of 300 to 400 percent. Moreover, large caches of firearms often are stored on both sides of the Southwest Border for use by Mexican DTOs and their enforcement groups.

Alien Smuggling

The Southwest Border Region is the principal entry point for undocumented aliens from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Undocumented aliens from special-interest countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan also illegally enter the United States through the region. Mexican DTOs collect fees from alien smuggling organizations for the use of specific smuggling routes. Among those individuals illegally crossing the border are criminal aliens and gang members who pose public safety concerns for communities throughout the country. In addition, hundreds of undocumented aliens from special-interest countries illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border annually. Available reporting indicates that some alien smuggling organizations and Mexican DTOs specialize in smuggling special-interest aliens into the United States.

Violence associated with alien smuggling has increased in recent years, particularly in Arizona. Expanding border security initiatives and additional Border Patrol resources are very likely obstructing regularly used smuggling routes and fueling this increase in violence, particularly violence directed at law enforcement officers. Alien smugglers and guides are more likely than in past years to use violence against U.S. law enforcement officers in order to smuggle groups of undocumented aliens across the Southwest Border. Conflicts are also emerging among rival alien smuggling organizations. Assaults, kidnappings, and hostage situations attributed to this conflict are increasing, particularly in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona.

End Note

2. The Alliance, also known as The Federation, is a cooperating group of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) that share resources such as transportation routes and money launderers. The Alliance was formed to counter the Gulf Cartel. The Alliance includes organizations headed by Joaquín Guzmán-Loera, Ismael Zambada-García, Juan José Esparragosa-Moreno, Arturo and Hector Beltrán-Leyva, Edgar Valdez-Villareal, Armando Valencia-Cornelio, and Ignazio Coronel-Villareal.

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