Pubdate: Fri, 12 Dec 2008
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A16
Copyright: 2008 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth, Washington Post Foreign Service
Bookmark: (Mexico)


Well-Coordinated Cartel Hits Show Greater Sophistication

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- The hit was fast, bold, lethal. Jesus Huerta 
Yedra, a top federal prosecutor here, was gunned down last week in a 
busy intersection 100 yards from the U.S. border in a murder of 
precise choreography.

In Mexico's chaotic drug war, attacks are no longer the work of 
desperate amateurs with bad aim. Increasingly, the killings are being 
carried out by professionals, often hooded and gloved, who trap their 
targets in coordinated ambushes, strike with overwhelming firepower, 
and then vanish into the afternoon rush hour -- just as they did in 
the Huerta killing.

The paid assassins, known as sicarios, are rarely apprehended. 
Mexican officials say the commando squads probably travel from state 
to state, across a country where the government and its security 
forces are drawing alarming conclusions about the scope and skill of 
an enemy supported by billions of dollars in drug profits.

"They are getting very good at their jobs," said Hector Hawley 
Morelos, coordinator of the state forensics and crime laboratory 
here, where criminologists and coroners have been overwhelmed by more 
than 1,600 homicides in Juarez this year. "The assassins show a high 
level of sophistication. They have had training -- somewhere. They 
appear to have knowledge of police investigative procedures. For 
instance, they don't leave fingerprints. That is very disturbing."

Alejandro Pariente, the spokesman for the attorney general in 
Chihuahua state, said, "They are called organized crime for a very 
good reason. Because they are very organized."

In Ciudad Juarez, a tough industrial city across the river from El 
Paso, where 42 people have been killed in the last week, the morgue 
serves as a grim classroom for the study of drug violence along the border.

In an interview last week, a busy coroner in the forensics lab spoke 
while performing an autopsy. A dozen dead men awaited final exams, 
sprawled on metal tables, their bodies pebbled with fat bullet holes, 
open eyes staring at fluorescent bulbs. The men were all eventually 
classified as "organized crime" homicides, which account for the 
majority of deaths in Ciudad Juarez, the most violent city in Mexico.

On Monday, federal Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said there 
have been 5,376 drug-related killings this year in Mexico, double 
last year's number. Later that evening, Victor Hugo Moneda, who led 
Mexico City's investigative police agency, was killed in an ambush as 
he was exiting his car at his home in the capital. The assailants, 
using a car and motorcycle, fired 22 shots, according to police.

In the Juarez morgue, the three walk-in freezers are filled to 
capacity with more than 90 corpses, stacked floor to ceiling, in 
leaking white bags with zippers. After a few months, those who are 
not identified are buried in a field at the city cemetery at the edge 
of the desert.

"The patterns that we often see with organized crime homicides are 
high-caliber weapons, multiple wounds, extreme trauma," said Alma 
Rosa Padilla, a chief medical examiner, who completes as many as five 
full autopsies each day. "They don't go to the hospital."

One U.S. anti-drug law enforcement officer, who spoke on the 
condition of anonymity because he works in Mexico, said, "The Mexican 
army has had a problem with deserters. So have the police, including 
special anti-crime units. They are now working for the other side."

More than a dozen top Mexican law enforcement officials have been 
detained recently for allegedly working for the drug cartels, 
including Noe Ramirez Mandujano, the nation's former top anti-drug 
prosecutor. He was arrested last month on suspicion of accepting 
$450,000 in exchange for sharing intelligence with traffickers.

According to information released Thursday by the Mexican congress, 
more than 18,000 soldiers have deserted the Mexican army this year. 
In the last three years, 177 members of special-forces units have 
abandoned their posts, and many went to work for organized crime.

Recently, Chihuahua Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza said that hired gunmen who 
have been arrested confessed that they carried out executions for 
1,000 pesos per killing, about $75.

Weapons pour over the border here from Texas, bought illegally from 
street gangs or legally at sporting goods stores in the United 
States. Last month, the Mexican army made the largest seizure of 
illegal firearms and military-type weapons in more than two decades, 
uncovering a cache of 540 rifles, 165 grenades and 500,000 rounds of 
ammunition in a house in Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, Tex.

According to Mexican officials, rifles stolen from Fort Bliss, a U.S. 
Army post in El Paso, end up on the streets of Juarez. At the 
forensic laboratory, the ballistics team pulled out a dozen weapons, 
including AK-47s, AR-15s, M-16s and other military-grade arms.

"I think that the government is simply overwhelmed. The cases are 
coming in fives and tens now, and it is probably very hard to keep 
up," said Tony Payan, an expert on the drug trade and professor at 
the University of Texas in El Paso. "The government is on the 
defensive. The thugs have the upper hand here. They probably perfect 
their techniques faster than the government can find the experts or 
the resources to combat them."

Huerta's murder was a bold strike. He was the second-ranking federal 
prosecutor in the state. Recently, the 40-year-old lawyer was handed 
the case of slain journalist Armando Rodriguez, a veteran police 
reporter at El Diario newspaper who was killed by a gunman in front 
of his house last month in Ciudad Juarez. The reasons behind Huerta's 
killing remain unknown.

When forensic investigator David Garcia and his partner arrived in 
their white van 15 minutes after the shooting on the afternoon of 
Dec. 3, the municipal police were marking the perimeter of the crime 
scene with yellow tape and the first soldiers were arriving to stand guard.

The sunny, broad intersection of Arizona Street and Boulevard Pope 
John Paul II abuts the Rio Grande and is a five-minute drive from a 
main bridge into El Paso. Easily visible across the river was a 
picket line of U.S. Border Patrol vehicles.

Huerta was riding in the passenger seat of a new silver-colored Dodge 
Journey SUV with Texas plates, which had stopped at a red light. The 
car was driven by a secretary at the prosecutor's office, Marisela 
Esparza Granados. When Garcia arrived, the splintered windshield 
wipers on the vehicle were still struggling to operate.

The intersection around the Dodge was littered with spent shells. 
Garcia and his partner, who carry clipboards but no weapons, 
methodically photographed the scene and collected 85 casings, all in 
the caliber consistent with the account some witnesses told police -- 
that two hooded men from two vans pulled in front of the Dodge and 
opened fire with AK-47s.

The criminologists at the forensic lab were struck by several 
details. First, they suspected that Huerta was followed by at least 
one, and perhaps several, chase vehicles, which would have helped the 
gunmen get into position to ambush Huerta. They knew the car Huerta 
would use and his route, the investigators said.

Second, the criminologists were impressed with the precision, speed 
and audacity of the attack.

When it rolled to a stop at the traffic light, Huerta's vehicle was 
surrounded by other cars at a crowded intersection. But no other 
vehicles were hit by stray bullets. Later, Hawley, the lab 
coordinator, pointed out the tight pattern of gunfire pocking the 
SUV's windshield.

"You see they hit where they aim. He was the target. Not her," Hawley 
said. The assassins concentrated their fire directly at Huerta, who 
was not wearing a bulletproof vest. "If they know they're wearing a 
bulletproof vest, they ignore the chest and shoot the head," he added.

The autopsy revealed that Huerta had been struck at least 40 times, 
most in the chest. The passenger seat of the SUV was soaked with 
blood. The secretary, Esparza, was struck only three times, though a 
neck wound was fatal.

In the crime laboratory, the shell casings were examined by the 
ballistics team and recorded. The bullets are almost always from the 
United States. The assassins do not trust bullets made in Mexico, 
Hawley said, adding, "The American bullets are better."
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