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December 12, 2009 -- El Paso Times (TX)

Infiltrated: Drug Cartels' Sway On U.S. Politics Rises, Expert Says

By Diana Washington Valdez, El Paso Times

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EL PASO -- Mexican drug cartels are helping elect and influence politicians in U.S. communities to advance their criminal activities, an expert on international gangs alleged.

Richard Valdemar, a retired California law enforcement officer, said authorities in California gathered intelligence showing that the cartels are corrupting American politicians to gain a foothold in the Southwestern United States.

Previous investigations showed that the Carrillo Fuentes, Arellano Felix and Sinaloan drug cartels targeted Southern California cities including South Gate, Hawaiian Gardens and Bell Gardens.

"Their efforts to influence and control these communities began in the 1980s, but investigators did not detect the trend until the 1990s," said Valdemar, who retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department after 33 years in 2004. He was also on a multi-agency investigative task force for 12 years.

"Some of the communities got cleaned up and some didn't," said Valdemar, who appears regularly on TV specials about gangs and other organized criminals.

The influence of gangs on politics is not suspected in El Paso, but gang experts said it could easily happen here.

Valdemar, a veteran investigator, said that in California, the Mexican drug organizations employed a method they had used in Mexico with success.

Cartels send representatives to U.S. cities to buy legitimate businesses, such as strip malls, restaurants, auto dealerships and used-tire shops. Then they invite local politicians and police to receive free meals and discounts, until they can develop relationships with influential people.

"They could give an entire city council a million dollars, and fire police chiefs, city managers, city attorneys, and anyone else who opposes them," Valdemar said. "They got local laws changed so they could run nightclubs, liquor stores and other businesses without interference. They went after cities' towing contracts and other types of contracts."

Although the true source of the money is hidden, he said, the cartels contribute cash to the election campaigns of politicians, and finance negative campaigns against their rivals.

They wait until a majority of elected offices are up for election in city councils, county commissions and water districts, and run a lot of candidates so they can seize a majority voting bloc.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado made similar allegations in his 2006 book, "In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America's Border and Security."

According to the book, a Bell Gardens city manager who allegedly was controlled by a drug cartel was forced to resign. Los Angeles County prosecutors also stepped in after Bell Gardens city officials tried to "shut down" the police department, Tancredo said.

In an interview, Tancredo said the United States government should consider legalizing marijuana because the war on drugs did not appear to be working [Emphasis added].

"Two things need to be done to curb the cartels," Tancredo said. "First, we need to secure the border with technology and human assets. Second, since marijuana represents 75 to 85 percent of the drug-traffickers' profits, we ought to legalize marijuana and take away the profit. No company will want to stay in business with that kind of loss."

Ramon Montijo, a former Los Angeles Police Department investigator, worked with Valdemar and is familiar with the California investigations. He is also a former police chief of Bernalillo, N.M., and Greenfield and El Centro in California.

"What happened in Southern California can easily (happen) in El Paso because of its close ties to Juárez," said Montijo, who is an international security consultant and educator based in New Mexico.

El Paso FBI officials said they did not believe the same problems now exist here.

"The FBI is aware of this taking place along the Mexican border," FBI Special Agent Andrea Simmons said. "We haven't had any information to date that indicates this is a problem in the El Paso area, but we continue to keep watch for it."

Montijo said the Juárez drug cartel developed a major criminal pipeline with California in the 1980s.

In 1989, authorities discovered a warehouse in the Los Angeles area containing 21.4 tons of cocaine. The drug belonged to Juárez drug kingpins who used businesses in El Paso to store drugs and launder money.

The Carrillo Fuentes organization had its own bank in El Paso, parked its jets at city airport hangars and owned commercial properties across the county, drug investigators said.

"The El Paso-California drug pipeline dates back to the Mexican Revolution of 1910," Montijo said. "Francisco 'Pancho' Villa paid for arms with bales of marijuana. The marijuana customers were in California."

Currently, the Carrillo Fuentes cartel is at war with the Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman Loera group, which has led to bloody gangland violence in Juárez.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, recently urged the Department of Homeland Security to re commit to securing the United States border and seaports.

"Securing our borders and preventing violence in Mexico from spreading into our country should be our top priority," Hutchison said. "Powerful Mexican drug cartels threaten the safety of our communities and the law-enforcement officials who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.

"It is vital that we work together to combat narcotics trafficking and safeguard families and neighborhoods along the border," she said.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said the American government was doing everything in its power to help Mexico's president fight the drug cartels.

Reyes said he was a key negotiator for the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, which provided equipment and training for Mexico's battle against drug dealers.

He said he also supported efforts to help provide what ever tools were needed to help Mexico reduce violence and restructure its justice system.

About 15,000 people have died in Mexico since the government began its crackdown on the cartels in December 2006; Chihuahua state alone has accounted for more than 4,000 of the deaths.

Reyes said the Mexican government was protective of its nation's sovereignty and did not want direct American involvement in the fight against the cartels.

However, because of the closer collaboration between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, he said, Mexico is "getting closer to catching" "Chapo" Guzman.

Last month, Mexican President Felipe Calderón inaugurated Mexico's new Federal Police Intelligence Center in Mexico City.

The center will use modern technology to gather information about organized crime and other threats to the nation.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at or 546-6140.

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