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And the beast continues to grow -- spilling across the border into the US.

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Drug Gangs: The Brutal Beast South of the Border

And the beast continues to grow — spilling across the border into the US.

Hailed as a national hero, a Marine was killed December 16th in a raid to take down a top terrorist drug lord.  His funeral five days later was attended by his grieving family, friends and others.  But the family’s grief was short-lived.  In a shocking display of brutality, a terrorist hit squad entered the grieving family’s home later that night and opened fire.  When their guns fell silent, four members of the fallen Marine’s family — his mother, two sisters and an aunt — lay dead.  The terrorist group had sent a message — police and military personnel acting against them put their own families at risk. 

Unfortunately, this brutality was not the product of an overly creative Hollywood mind — it is a reality in the ongoing drug war being fought to the south of our border.

Mexican police and Marines had stormed the hideout of powerful drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva — a name with long tenure on Mexico’s, and America’s, “most wanted” list of traffickers.  During the ensuing two-hour gun battle, Leyva — along with six of his bodyguards — and Mexican Marine Melquisedet Angulo died.  The Beltran Leyva cartel was a cartel that had established a reputation for committing any act of violence imaginable.  For this reason, the Marine’s funeral had been conducted amidst heavy security.  But no one foresaw the level of violence to which this murderous group of thugs would next seek to escalate. 

Until the raid, Beltran Leyva cartel had been run by five brothers.  It was the eldest brother who was killed — an act for which his surviving brothers sought revenge against the dead Marine’s family.  Even during the most violent days of America’s ruling mafia gangs, criminals played by a skewed moral code recognizing the sanctity of life of family members and, in particular, women — a code which served silently to shield families of rival gangs from revenge killings.  In perpetrating the attack on the Mexican Marine’s family and killing the four women, however, Beltran Leyva demonstrated it has no moral compass. 

The brothers were assisted in their murder plot by an affiliate gang — the Zetas — comprised of former military elite who have turned on their own comrades-in-arms.  Four Zeta gang members who served as accomplices in the killing are now in custody.  Evidence has also revealed some police officers were on the cartel’s payroll and may well have been involved in helping the killers escape following their attack. 

As a result of this incident, the Mexican government reported it will no longer disclose names of military or law enforcement personnel killed in the war.  While taking this step so as to protect the “innocents,” the government is taking a completely different approach toward the four arrested Zeta gang members.  The group was paraded out in public wearing bulletproof vests — each vest with an attached sheet of paper identifying the wearer’s name.

It was the success Colombia enjoyed in slaying its own drug cartel beast during the 1990s that gave birth to Mexico’s beast.  Rival gangs in Mexico began vying for lucrative drug trafficking routes into the US.  Until President Felipe Calderon came to office in 2006, the Mexican government did little to contain the beast.  Calderon decided it was time to act.  Thus the war among rival drug cartels expanded to include the Mexican government.  This conflict has witnessed a continuous stream of criminal acts including kidnapping, murder, body dismemberment, torture, etc.  The death toll has climbed to 12,000-15,000.  Bodies stack up for autopsy so quickly, morgues are literally left with standing room only — i.e., bodies have to be propped up on stretchers against a wall to await their turn. 

The degree of violence is unconscionable.  Some gangs, to intimidate opponents, have developed “signature” killing techniques.  One, known as “El Teo,” places its victims, dead or alive, into a barrel of acid.  (A Tijuana man was responsible for dissolving more than 300 bodies in this manner.) 

Corruption within the police force necessitated the involvement of the military in the war.  Today, 45,000 military personnel have joined the fight as evidence of the government’s commitment to win it.  It is a war absent of collateral damage only because there are no “unintended” victims of cartel violence — as seen by the recent murder of the four women of the Angulo family, everyone is a target.

It is a war in which participants are unsure who is friend and who is foe.  Therefore, Mexican police and military often wear ski masks to hide their identity out of concern they — or their families — will be targeted if recognized.  A police chief in northern Mexico whose position made it impossible to disguise his identity, courageously stood tall against the traffickers in an effort to end a cartel’s reign of terror, only to be gunned down — nearly 100 rounds riddling his body.

Years of neglect by previous administrations to destroy the beast leaves one wondering if Calderon can do so now.  The drug gangs have impacted upon every walk of life in Mexico — from extorting businesses for “taxes” which are then denied to the government to threatening teachers to surrender bonuses or face death.

The beast continues to grow — spilling across the border into the US.  According to the US Department of Justice, these gangs are now the “biggest organized crime threat to the United States,” boasting operations in hundreds of cities and towns. 

Responsibility for releasing this beast into the wild rests on both sides of the border.  Early lack of concern over drugs being sold by its cartels in the US, the Mexican government perceived no threat to its own power posed by the gangs.  The cartels were allowed to thrive, building an infrastructure that now consumes or minimizes government institutions.  Meanwhile, on the US side, we continue to feed the beast with an insatiable appetite for illegal drugs.  Now that both governments seem to recognize just how serious the threat is, it will take a well-coordinated effort by both countries to slay the beast. 

The young Marine Melquisedet Angulo courageously sacrificed his life — and, unfortunately, the lives of four members of his family — hoping to save his country from the evils of the drug cartels.  In doing so, that sacrifice was also made for us.  We now owe it to him to make sure it was not in vain.

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Written By

Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father -- Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc. He has also been cited in numerous other books and publications for unique insights based on his research on the Vietnam war, North Korea (a country he has visited ten times and about which he is able to share some very telling observations) and Desert Storm.

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