The Barbarians Are Past the Gate

The first of three excerpts from “In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America’s Border and Security.”

Testifying before Congress in 2005, FBI director Robert Mueller Jr. revealed that his agency had “received reports that individuals from countries with known al Qaeda connections have attempted to enter the United States illegally using alien smuggling rings and assuming Hispanic appearances.” Mueller confirmed that the FBI suspected many of these people had changed their Islamic surnames and had adopted false Hispanic identities in order to escape detection and blend into American society.

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Additionally, Richard Clark, the counterterrorism czar who worked in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, disclosed, “Of the 17,000 people who are missing in the United States somewhere, some are from countries of concern, and could be known terrorists. We really have no way of knowing who they are.”

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, U.S. Border Patrol agents experienced an increase in apprehending so-called special-interest aliens (SIAs) trying to sneak into this country from nations that we know support or tolerate terrorism. In 2003, the Border Patrol snagged about 39,000 illegal immigrants from countries “other than Mexico” (OTM), which includes SIA nations. By the end of 2005, that number had grown to 155,000, more than double the 76,000 apprehended in 2004.

Evidence of terrorists in our midst does not stop there. U.S. and Mexican authorities are well aware of suspected training camps, one of them near Matamoros, Mexico, a few miles across the Rio Grande and south of Brownsville, Texas. There are reports that a large number of people are being trained in paramilitary warfare and exotic explosives in these camps, which are operated by the Zetas, a group of former Mexican military special forces troops who deserted in the mid-1990s to work as highly effective enforcers for the drug cartels. The FBI believes that such paramilitary organizations working in partnership with the drug cartels have the networks and the capacity to smuggle terrorists and weapons into the United States as easily as they smuggle drugs and people seeking jobs. Texas and federal law-enforcement agencies believe these paramilitary forces have been monitoring and evaluating U.S. law-enforcement operations along the Rio Grande.

What raises suspicions even more among law-enforcement officials is that the training camps are frequented by a variety of ethnic groups, including Arab and Asian nationals. Since 9/11, Mexican authorities have reportedly apprehended hundreds of individuals with suspected terrorist ties in the border region. Sometimes the suspected terrorists are held in Mexico, and sometimes they are turned over to local U.S. authorities because federal officials will not accept custody. Most local law-enforcement agencies eventually turn them over to the FBI, but they never hear what happens to them.

Evidence of terrorist infiltration has led one retired federal agent—who is too nervous to talk about it publicly—to speculate that, for years, terrorists have been exploiting our porous Mexican and Canadian borders to bring explosives into this country. The former agent says he believes the explosives are designed to be detonated simultaneously in all parts of the United States.

In March 2006, FBI director Robert Mueller Jr. told a House appropriations subcommittee hearing that the FBI had broken up a smuggling ring organized by the terrorist group Hezbollah that had operatives cross the Mexican border to carry out possible terrorist attacks inside the United States. “This was an occasion in which Hezbollah operatives were assisting others with some association with Hezbollah in coming to the United States,” Mueller told the subcommittee. He also testified that the organization had been “dismantled” and the FBI had identified the individuals who had been smuggled into the country.

Two things are striking about this latest FBI admission. First, we only learned of this event as an item in the FBI’s annual report to the House appropriations subcommittee that controls funding for the bureau. The FBI did not inform the Congress or the American public about Hezbollah’s activities in Mexico at the time they were uncovered and disrupted. No public announcement was made by the FBI. Instead, the news was buried in routine testimony. The second interesting facet of this statement is that it was not considered “newsworthy” by the mainline news media, so most Americans are still unaware that there are active Hezbollah cells in Mexico within a day’s drive of our porous border.

MS-13, the Zetas, and the Unknown

As my colleague and friend Charles Heatherly and I sat in a booth in a hotel restaurant waiting to meet with an informant, we wondered about the information he was bringing us. It turned out to be everything we could have hoped for. I cannot say much more about him. Suffice it to say, he was a former law-enforcement officer who wanted someone to know what he had come across in the years he had spent in the profession.

He began by telling us about Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 as it is commonly referred to. At that time, few had ever heard the name. That has since changed. The FBI has set up a unit devoted solely to this criminal gang.

Mara Salvatrucha is one of the most violent and bloodthirsty gangs ever to prey on our society. Originating in Los Angeles in the 1980s, the gang was founded by Salvadorans fleeing a civil war. The displaced Salvadorans found themselves settling in the poorest neighborhoods, unemployed, and disliked by other Hispanics. Its original members came from the leftist insurgent forces that opposed the Salvadoran government in the 1980s. Members were trained in firearms, explosives, and booby traps. Considered one of the fastest growing gangs in the United States, MS-13 not only has a large presence in Los Angeles but also in Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and more than thirty U.S. states.

Most of MS-13’s tens of thousands of members in the United States are illegal aliens. They are a huge problem in northern Virginia, where their calling cards are dismembered limbs that were severed by machetes. MS-13 is heavily involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking, assaults, homicide, robbery, extortion, turf battles, drive-by shootings, and exporting stolen cars to El Salvador. Additionally, MS-13 maintains links to other gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Tattoos indicate both gang membership and one’s area of responsibility. For instance, a dragon tattoo indicates the individual is involved in smuggling immigrants into the country. These dragones transport their human cargo from El Salvador through Mexico by train. Conductors and railroad officials are bribed to facilitate the mission. At some point, the cargo is transferred to vehicles to better penetrate the U.S. border. The routes are spotted with safe houses along the route to ensure their success. And make no mistake, they are highly successful in delivering their cargo.

Numerous media reports have featured intelligence officials’ warnings of a connection between MS-13 and al Qaeda. In July 2004, reports surfaced of an al Qaeda figure meeting with MS-13 in Honduras in order to secure entry routes into the United States. Reports also surfaced that, during the summer of 2004, Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was possibly in contact with MS-13 and/or the Farabundo Matri National Liberation Front (FMNL) in an attempt to get them to commit terrorist acts in El Salvador with the hope of forcing that government to withdraw its support for U.S. efforts in Iraq. The FBI will not comment on these reports.

Our informant also told us about the corruption that is spreading throughout the United States that is linked to Mexican-based drug cartels and the Mexican mafia. To interested observers within the law-enforcement community, there seems to be a pattern of corruption in which these cartels are buying influence and seeking comfort within U.S. cities. Like so many stories involving illegal immigration and drug smuggling, this story begins in Southern California.

The Tijuana-based Felix drug cartel and the Juarez-based Fuentes cartel began buying legitimate businesses in small towns in Los Angeles County in the early 1990s. They purchased restaurants, used-car lots, auto-body shops, and other small businesses. One of their purposes was to use these businesses for money-laundering operations. Once established in their community, these cartel-financed business owners ran for city council and other local offices. Over time they were able to buy votes and influence in an effort to take over the management of the town. They wanted to create a comfort zone from which they could operate without interference from local law enforcement.

In the small suburban city of Bell Gardens in central L.A. County, there was an effort to shut down the police department. City officials who would not cooperate with the Mexican-born city manager were forced out of office. Eventually, the L.A. County attorney’s office moved in, and the city manager was prosecuted on charges of corruption. Unfortunately, Bell Gardens was only the tip of the iceberg. Other Los Angeles suburbs—including Huntington Park, Lynwood, and Southgate—became targets for the cartels.

The corruption spreading from south of the border is not confined to Southern California. In Cameron County, Texas, the former sheriff and several other officials were recently convicted of receiving drug-smuggling bribes. In Douglas, Arizona—where the international border runs down the middle of the town and divides it from its sister city of Agua Prieta, Mexico—the mayor’s brother was discovered to have a tunnel from one of his rental properties going into Mexico.

The sad story of drugs and our porous borders doesn’t end here, because no discussion of the problem is complete without recounting the story of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation in Arizona, which shares just a tiny fraction—seventy-one miles—of the nearly two-thousand-mile U.S. border with Mexico. Homes burglarized by illegals, deadly car wrecks caused by reckless smugglers, drug runners brandishing weapons as they demand help from the local people—all of this happens daily on the reservation. The reservation is the scene of one of the major drug corridors between the United States and Mexico. In 2002, tribal police seized 65,000 pounds of narcotics. During the first four months of 2003, tribal police reported seizing 33,000 pounds of marijuana and discovered 1,877 vehicles abandoned by smugglers. One of the busiest smuggling routes through the reservation begins about twenty-five miles to the west, where taxis finish a fifteen-minute run from Sonoyta, Mexico, by dropping off their passengers at a flimsy border fence.

Tohono O’odham children are being taken into the drug cartels, sometimes forcibly but oftentimes joining in for the money. On a visit to the reservation, I saw five-year-old children stumbling around stoned. Their parents are going crazy; they don’t know what to do. They can’t deal with the fact that they have been invaded.

The War on Terror Comes to Our Backyard

Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr. of Zapata County, Texas, sees the sixty miles of border his deputies patrol as a front line in the war on terror. He says the biggest fear they face is that smugglers will bring terrorists and dirty bombs into the country through his county.

In November 2005, he told a conference in San Antonio that it was not a matter of if, but when a terrorist will enter the United States through Mexico with a dirty bomb or some other portable weapon of mass destruction. “We tried everything we know, with little success, to make the federal government aware of the problems we face and how they have affected us. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security has done nothing to help us,” he concluded.

Gonzalez has given credit to federal officials, however, for warning him that al Qaeda terrorists were looking to use smugglers, including the brutal MS-13 gang, to bring terror operatives across the border. “If smugglers can bring a hundred people or 2,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States, how simple would it be to bring terrorists into this country, or a suitcase loaded with a dirty bomb? I am very surprised it hasn’t happened,” he told a newspaper.

Gonzalez’s frustration over the lack of cooperation from the Border Patrol was evident when Zapata County deputies responded to a rancher’s report of people in black attire crossing his land late one night. The sheriff’s department knew the rancher to be a solid, stable sort who would not concoct such a story, so deputies took up position on his land and waited. Around 9:00 p.m. one night they heard the footsteps of people marching in cadence. With the aid of night-vision equipment, they saw a group of approximately thirty men dressed in black and marching in twos. The first two men and the last two carried automatic weapons while the rest lugged large duffel bags between them. Since the deputies were outnumbered and outgunned, they quietly observed. As soon as they could, they reported to the sheriff in an attempt to get assistance from the Border Patrol. When the armed group moved toward a light in the distance near a paved road, the deputies withdrew.

Later, the sheriff learned that nineteen of the men had been apprehended. When he asked about their disposition, he was stunned to learn that they had almost immediately been returned to Mexico. Even worse, after reviewing pictures taken of the nineteen men, it was determined that one of them was one of the original thirty-one Zetas. Los Zetas is known for its heavy weaponry—AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles—and its ties to drug trafficking, assassinations, kidnappings, and murders throughout Mexico. Follow-up inquiries yielded nothing. One can only speculate if corrupt officials, who are so pervasive on the border, were responsible for the return of these people to Mexico.

Other border authorities have filed reports of similar groups. In Jim Hogg County, Texas, Sheriff Erasmo Alarcon Jr., in a letter published in the local newspaper in the spring of 2003, warned of unidentified armed men dressed in military fatigues who had been spotted a number of times by area citizens and ranchers. The sheriff said that witnesses had described the men as wearing “professional-looking” backpacks and walking in military cadence.

In another Tex-Mex border county, a sheriff’s department said deputies discovered a large metal container that had washed ashore from the Rio Grande. The container held several cylinders, each filled with papers covered with Arabic writing. This finding, among other evidence, is part of the reason why another Texas sheriff has prepared a training CD for the Border Patrol and other officers and agents working in the area. The CD features a picture of Osama bin Laden and urges officers and agents “to stop looking for him and start looking at the mega-drug cartels running rampant south of the border.”

Terrorists Among Us

In December 2005, the Department of Homeland Security sent word that authorities had arrested dozens of terrorist operatives who were already inside the country. While the total number of suspects was unknown, officials reported at least fifty-one people from countries known to support terrorist activities or harbor terrorist sympathies— Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Syria—had been intercepted by the Border Patrol and other members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) since the unit began tracking such arrests a little more than a year before. These suspected illegal-alien terrorists had been apprehended for a wide variety of charges, including weapons smuggling and illegally wiring large sums of money into the country.

Though I had sought the information for some time, the December 2005 JTTF report was the first I’d seen that provided hard figures regarding suspected terrorists arrested inside the United States. It served as an admission of sorts by the government that there is a problem with terrorist infiltration. Prior to the report’s release, much of the evidence had been anecdotal.

In August 2005, a Rand Corporation analysis stated that the United States was likely to be the next country that would experience suicide bombings similar to those carried out in London against mass-transit targets the month before. At about the time this report was released, federal, state, and local officials, along with a number of U.S. civilians, were discovering additional evidence of a terrorist presence in the country. Items such as discarded beverage boxes with Arabic writing, a jacket with a patch depicting an airliner flying into a tall building followed by the words “Midnight Mission,” and other clothing, including an Arab military patch, proved this possible terrorist presence.

In November 2005, Texas congressman John Culberson released information that an Iraqi with ties to al Qaeda and on the terrorist watch list had been arrested and detained at the border. This apprehension, of course, fueled concern from several elected officials. “Remember that for every illegal border crosser caught at least another three make it in,” argued Arizona congressman J. D. Hayworth. “We are playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette, and the longer we resist securing our border and enforcing our immigration laws, the more likely a terrorist incident becomes.”

If this incident isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is. What scares me is not that list from federal law enforcement—after all, we’ve already caught those terrorists. What scares me is the potentially hundreds of terrorists who make their way through our porous borders each year and go undetected. Where are they? What are they planning? Where are they planning to strike? When? How many are there? How rough do the seas have to get before we know the storm is about to engulf us?