EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Mexican cartels are aggressively recruiting El Paso gang members to distribute their drugs, bring them guns from the U.S. and – should they get deported – come join their warfare on the streets of Juarez.

This type of recruitment “is always ongoing and continuous,” and often takes place within the confines of state and federal correctional facilities, says Paul Davis, supervisory special agent with the FBI El Paso Field Office.

“When (gang members) are in prison, they like to recruit them and if they know they’re going to be deported, they make them punch in once they get deported. They know which spot, which bus station they’re going to be at, and they expect them to be active participants” right away, Davis said.

The cartels also rely on American gang members for straw purchases of guns and ammunition, which are difficult to obtain in Mexico due to strict firearms laws and a lack of gun-manufacturing facilities.

The border is fertile ground for this symbiotic relationship given the relative freedom in which the leaders of transnational criminal organizations operate across the border and how the United States is their primary market for marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl exports.

Two cartels, Sinaloa and La Linea, and four major gangs control drug trafficking in Juarez. Their rivalries have left more than 3,000 people dead in the past two years. Victims are often dismembered, burned, dressed in women’s clothing or riddled with bullets fired from assault rifles.

El Paso has more than 100 gangs and more than 1,000 gang members, though the city has been exempted from the violence that plagues Juarez. That’s due in part to extensive cooperation and sharing of intelligence between federal, state and local police agencies, Davis said. There’s also the reluctance of El Paso gang members to draw attention to themselves and risk harsh penalties under American racketeering laws, which have a “chilling effect” on them.

FBI Special Supervisory Agent Paul Davis (photo from Skype)

“Juarez is our sister city. […] Along with all the strengths, business and economic, that come with a large population across the border, we do have some of those gangs straddling the border,” Davis said. “Some of the larger Hispanic gangs will have leadership on that side where it’s not easy to dismantle or disrupt their organizations.”

The FBI declined to say which El Paso gangs are at the forefront of drug and other criminal activity, saying the groups thrive on publicity and use it as a recruiting tool.

But Davis said federal agencies conduct long-term investigations and are ready to apply tools like the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and illegal possession of firearms laws by felons or gang members when appropriate.

“When we do bring RICO cases, it has a chilling effect on those who want to take leadership roles in gangs,” Davis said. “People often don’t want to be the leader of a gang or don’t want to make it well-known that they are because (of fear of) a RICO case.”

West Texas Anti-Gang Center members

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies track gang activity in the region through the West Texas Anti-Gang Center. Their focus is identifying the most violent and most active gangs and their leaders.

The center’s web page highlights a tips line and features photographs of fugitive gang members.

“El Paso is very unique in our gang activity. It’s different than Chicago and New York because being along the border presents an opportunity for every gang member to have direct connections to drug suppliers (in Mexico),” Davis said. “We don’t see a very hierarchical structured leadership. […] It’s pretty much who has a supplier of drugs and who can distribute it on the street.”

El Paso gangs also aren’t very territorial.

“We have some hybrid gangs […] Their structure isn’t so hard and firm. When someone has a good price on, let’s say cocaine or meth or other drugs and he says, ‘hey, let’s get together.’ They are opportunistic if they can flip an ounce or a kilo of drugs as a result,” he said.

At least in this region, the cartels haven’t yet taken advantage of the migrant surge to recruit among the newcomers. Davis says that’s probably because the migrants don’t intend to stay in the area to begin with.

But some gang members from elsewhere drop by, the FBI does intervene. “We do get out, we do interview and want to know what they’re doing, why they’re coming through and we do go out and make it known that we’re paying attention,” he said.

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