Stratfor: the Mexican cartels strike at Phoenix, AZ

This is one in an increasingly bold series of violent actions — military-level operations — by the Mexica cartels, now working both sides of the border.  Stratfor has covered this story early and well.  Perhaps one day the mainstream media will cover it as well.

Mexican Cartels and the Fallout From Phoenix“, Stratfor (2 July 2008) – Posted with permission.  Bold emphasis added.


  1. Summary
  2.  Violence Crosses the Border
  3.  Targets
  4.  Tactical Implications

1.  Summary

Late on the night of June 22, a residence in Phoenix was approached by a heavily armed tactical team preparing to serve a warrant. The members of the team were wearing the typical gear for members of their profession: black boots, black BDU pants, Kevlar helmets and Phoenix Police Department (PPD) raid shirts pulled over their body armor. The team members carried AR-15 rifles equipped with Aimpoint sights to help them during the low-light operation and, like most cops on a tactical team, in addition to their long guns, the members of this team carried secondary weapons – pistols strapped to their thighs.

But the raid took a strange turn when one element of the team began directing suppressive fire on the residence windows while the second element entered – a tactic not normally employed by the PPD. This breach of departmental protocol did not stem from a mistake on the part of the team’s commander. It occurred because the eight men on the assault team were not from the PPD at all. These men were not cops serving a legal search or arrest warrant signed by a judge; they were cartel hit men serving a death warrant signed by a Mexican drug lord.

The tactical team struck hard and fast. They quickly killed a man in the house and then fled the scene in two vehicles, a red Chevy Tahoe and a gray Honda sedan. Their aggressive tactics did have consequences, however. The fury the attackers unleashed on the home – firing over 100 rounds during the operation – drew the attention of a nearby Special Assignments Unit (SAU) team, the PPD’s real tactical team, which responded to the scene with other officers. An SAU officer noticed the Tahoe fleeing the scene and followed it until it entered an alley. Sensing a potential ambush, the SAU officer chose to establish a perimeter and wait for reinforcements rather than charge down the alley after the suspects. This was fortunate, because after three of the suspects from the Tahoe were arrested, they confessed that they had indeed planned to ambush the police officers chasing them.

The assailants who fled in the Honda have not yet been found, but police did recover the vehicle in a church parking lot. They reportedly found four sets of body armor in the vehicle and also recovered an assault rifle abandoned in a field adjacent to the church.

This Phoenix home invasion and murder is a vivid reminder of the threat to U.S. law enforcement officers that stems from the cartel wars in Mexico.

2.  Violence Crosses the Border

The fact that the Mexican men involved in the Phoenix case were heavily armed and dressed as police comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed security events in Mexico. Teams of cartel enforcers frequently impersonate police or military personnel, often wearing matching tactical gear and carrying standardized weapons. In fact, it is rare to see a shootout or cartel-related arms seizure in Mexico where tactical gear and clothing bearing police or military insignia is not found.

One reason for the prevalent use of this type of equipment is that many cartel enforcers come from military or police backgrounds. By training and habit, they prefer to operate as a team composed of members equipped with standardized gear so that items such as ammunition and magazines can be interchanged during a firefight. This also gives a team member the ability to pick up the familiar weapon of a fallen comrade and immediately bring it into action. This is of course the same reason military units and police forces use standardized equipment in most places.

Police clothing, such as hats, patches and raid jackets, is surprisingly easy to come by. Authentic articles can be stolen or purchased through uniform vendors or cop shops. Knockoff uniform items can easily be manufactured in silk screen or embroidery shops by duplicating authentic designs. Even badges are easy to obtain if one knows where to look.

While it now appears that the three men arrested in Phoenix were not former or active members of the Mexican military or police, it is not surprising that they employed military- and police-style tactics. Enforcers of various cartel groups such as Los Zetas, La Gente Nueva or the Kaibiles who have received advanced tactical training often pass on that training to younger enforcers (many of whom are former street thugs) at makeshift training camps located on ranches in northern Mexico. There are also reports of Israeli mercenaries visiting these camps to provide tactical training. In this way, the cartel enforcers are transforming ordinary street thugs into highly-trained cartel tactical teams.

Though cartel enforcers have almost always had ready access to guns, including military weapons such as assault rifles and grenade launchers, groups such as Los Zetas, the Kaibiles and their young disciples bring an added level of threat to the equation. They are highly trained men with soldiers’ mindsets who operate as a unit capable of using their weapons with deadly effectiveness. Assault rifles in the hands of untrained thugs are dangerous, but when those same weapons are placed in the hands of men who can shoot accurately and operate tactically as a fire team, they can be overwhelmingly powerful – not only when used against enemies and other intended targets, but also when used against law enforcement officers who attempt to interfere with the team’s operations.

3.  Targets

Although the victim in the Phoenix killing, Andrew Williams, was reportedly a Jamaican drug dealer who crossed a Mexican cartel, there are many other targets in the United States that the cartels would like to eliminate. These targets include Mexican cartel members who have fled to the United States due to several different factors. The first factor is the violent cartel war that has raged in Mexico for the past few years over control of important smuggling routes and strategic locations along those routes. The second factor is the Calderon administration’s crackdown, first on the Gulf cartel and now on the Sinaloa cartel. Pressure from rival cartels and the government has forced many cartel leaders into hiding, and some of them have left Mexico for Central America or the United States.

Traditionally, when violence has spiked in Mexico, cartel figures have used U.S. cities such as Laredo, El Paso and San Diego as rest and recreation spots, reasoning that the general umbrella of safety provided by U.S. law enforcement to those residing in the United States would protect them from assassination by their enemies. As bolder Mexican cartel hit men have begun to carry out assassinations on the U.S. side of the border in places such as Laredo, Rio Bravo, and even Dallas, the cartel figures have begun to seek sanctuary deeper in the United States, thereby bringing the threat with them.

While many cartel leaders are wanted in the United States, many have family members not being sought by U.S. law enforcement. (Many of them even have relatives who are U.S. citizens.) Some family members have also settled comfortably inside the United States, using the country as a haven from violence in Mexico. These families might become targets, however, as the cartels look for creative ways to hurt their rivals.

Other cartel targets in the United States include Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement officers responsible for operations against the cartels, and informants who have cooperated with U.S. or Mexican authorities and been relocated stateside for safety. There are also many police officers who have quit their jobs in Mexico and fled to the United States to escape threats from the cartels, as well as Mexican businessmen who are targeted by cartels and have moved to the United States for safety.

To date, the cartels for the most part have refrained from targeting innocent civilians. In the type of environment they operate under inside Mexico, cartels cannot afford to have the local population, a group they use as camouflage, turn against them. It is not uncommon for cartel leaders to undertake public relations events (they have even held carnivals for children) in order to build goodwill with the general population. As seen with al Qaeda in Iraq, losing the support of the local population is deadly for a militant group attempting to hide within that population.

Cartels have also attempted to minimize civilian casualties in their operations inside the United States, though for a different operational consideration. The cartels believe that if a U.S. drug dealer or a member of a rival Mexican cartel is killed in a place like Dallas or Phoenix, nobody really cares. Many people see such a killing as a public service, and there will not be much public outcry about it, nor much real effort on the part of law enforcement agencies to identify and catch the killers. The death of a civilian, on the other hand, brings far more public condemnation and law enforcement attention.

However, the aggressiveness of cartel enforcers and their brutal lack of regard for human life means that while they do not intentionally target civilians, they are bound to create collateral casualties along the way. This is especially true as they continue to conduct operations like the Phoenix killing, where they fired over 100 rounds of 5.56 mm ball ammunition at a home in a residential neighborhood.

4. Tactical Implications

Judging from the operations of the cartel enforcers in Mexico, they have absolutely no hesitation about firing at police officers who interfere with their operations or who dare to chase them. Indeed, the Phoenix case nearly ended in an ambush of the police. It must be noted, however, that this ambush was not really intentional, but rather the natural reaction of these Mexican cartel enforcers to police pursuit. They were accustomed to shooting at police and military south of the border and have very little regard for them. In many instances, this aggression convinces the poorly armed and trained police to leave the cartel gunmen alone.

The problem such teams pose for the average U.S. cop on patrol is that the average cop is neither trained nor armed to confront a heavily armed fire team. In fact, a PPD source advised Stratfor that, had the SAU officer not been the first to arrive on the scene, it could have been a disaster for the department. This is not a criticism of the Phoenix cops. The vast majority of police officers and federal agents in the United States simply are not prepared or equipped to deal with a highly trained fire team using insurgent tactics. That is a task suited more for the U.S. military forces currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These cartel gunmen also have the advantage of being camouflaged as cops. This might not only cause considerable confusion during a firefight (who do backup officers shoot at if both parties in the fight are dressed like cops?) but also means that responding officers might hesitate to fire on the criminals dressed as cops. Such hesitation could provide the criminals with an important tactical advantage – an advantage that could prove fatal for the officers.

Mexican cartel enforcers have also demonstrated a history of using sophisticated scanners to listen to police radio traffic, and in some cases they have even employed police radios to confuse and misdirect the police responding to an armed confrontation with cartel enforcers.

We anticipate that as the Mexican cartels begin to go after more targets inside the United States, the spread of cartel violence and these dangerous tactics beyond the border region will catch some law enforcement officers by surprise. A patrol officer conducting a traffic stop on a group of cartel members who are preparing to conduct an assassination in, say, Los Angeles, Chicago or northern Virginia could quickly find himself heavily outgunned and under fire. With that said, cops in the United States are far more capable than their Mexican counterparts of dealing with this threat.

In addition to being far better trained, U.S. law enforcement officers also have access to far better command, control and communication networks than their Mexican counterparts. Like we saw in the Phoenix example, this communication network provides cops with the ability to quickly summon reinforcements, air support and tactical teams to deal with heavily armed criminals – but this communication system only helps if it can be used. That means cops need to recognize the danger before they are attacked and prevented from calling for help. As with many other threats, the key to protecting oneself against this threat is situational awareness, and cops far from the border need to become aware of this trend.

Posted with permission of Stratfor.

Other articles about Mexico

  1. Is Mexico unraveling?  (28 April 2008) — summary of Stratfor’s warnings about Mexico.
  2. “High Stakes South of the Border”  (13 May 2008)
  3. Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State?“, George Friedman, Stratfor (13 May 2008)
  4. Mexico: Examining Cartel War Violence Through a Protective Intelligence Lens“, Stratfor (14 May 2008)
  5. Crime and Punishment in Mexico: The big picture beyond drug cartel violence“, posted at Grits for Breakfast (18 May 2008) 

11 thoughts on “Stratfor: the Mexican cartels strike at Phoenix, AZ”

  1. Duncan Kinder

    The problem flows not only from Mexico to the United States but also from the United States to Mexico. The guns the Mexicans are using have been smuggled to them from the United States.

    Guns without borders“, FLYP (an online video magazine) –Excerpt from their press release:

    Mexico’s drug cartels have turned increasingly violent as they fight back against President Felipe Calderon’s efforts to regain the upper hand in the country’s drug war. An analysis in the current issue of FLYP, a new online multimedia magazine that can be accessed at , demonstrates the dramatic increase in the cartel’s firepower. Almost all of the weapons are bought in the U.S. and smuggled across the border.

    “The cartels are arming themselves with .50-caliber sniper rifles, rocket launchers, fragmentation and gas grenades, and a wide range of assault weapons,” said Matthew Schaeffer, who wrote “Guns Without Borders.” “We documented Mexican government seizures this year alone of 900 heavy weapons, 270 handguns and 330 grenades — and everyone acknowledges this only scratches the surface of the cartels’ arsenals,” he continued.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps this is correct, but FLYP is hardly a definitive source.

    I have not watched this (life is too short). Since the guns are manufactured elsewhere (not Mexico and US), why would they be shipped to Mexico through the US? There is no substantial US market for rocket launchers, and I doubt Mexico’s border controls are tighter than those of the US.

  2. Robert Petersen

    Thats odd. The American army is fighting an insurgency in Iraq and in Afghanistan and as far as I can understand right at the American-Mexicon border there is a third insurgency brewing? Mounted by former elite-soldiers and police men with cutting edge weaponary? Fighting over drugs? Thats amazing.

    The question is, of course, is this a military problem or a police problem? I could imagine that if the problem got worse it would be necessary to call in the army, regardless of what the Posse Comitatus Act says. Either way the American police would be forced to become more military-like or the army would be forced to do police-work at the border area.

  3. Possibility A: The Bush regime is genuinely incompetent and does not act to stop this because it cannot.

    Possibility B: The Bush regime, through an old-boy network of CIA alumni, is deeply connected to the drug lords and refrains from stopping them due to loyalty.

    Possibility C: A little from column A is served with a little from column B.
    Fabius Maximus replies: These troubles in Mexico did not suddenly erupt during the past 7 years. Did the Clinton Administration have any policies with respect to Mexico that greatly differ from the Bush team’s? Do you believe that the Obama Administration will be able to fix this?

  4. As has sometimes been noted (by Lind in particular), all this counterinsurgency stuff, which is little short of fantasy when used to support occupations, may come in handy when we do real C/I here in the US.

  5. This begs the questions: Would a SysAdmin response benefit us and northern Mexico?
    And what of Thomas Barnett’s calls for the US at add states at the expense of Mexico?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Re: your first question — here is a syllogism:

    (1) We do not have a “SysAdmin force.”
    (2) After spending billions on such programs during the past 3 decades (both domestically and abroad), we have demonstrated zero apptitude for “SysAdmin”.
    (3) We will not have build an effective “SysAdmin force” in the foreseeable future.

    Re: Mexico

    From Barnett’s blog on 26 May 2008:

    “The northern states of the United States of Mexico (actual name) grow far more rapido than the southern ones, and logically feature much smaller percentages of people living in poverty. No surprise. The northern states have basically joined the United States (our official name does not include “of America”) economically, but not politically. Naturally, Mexico is divided politically too. Eventually, the logic of expanded U.S. membership will win out. Mexico, after all, gave us plenty of states in the past.”

    It would be interesting to field-test this theory. Which of the following has more support among the Mexican people:

    (a) Leaving their own nation, and joining the US?
    (b) Taking back the States the US conquered?

    Given the strong nationalistic spirit I have seen among Mexicans, my guess is (b). Rallies of hispanics in the US often display Mexican flags. Do demonstrations in Mexico ever display American flags (other than when the burn them, that is)?

    Does anyone reading this have any expert opinions on this?

  6. Duncan Kinder

    I have not watched this (life is too short). Since the guns are manufactured elsewhere (not Mexico and US), why would they be shipped to Mexico through the US? There is no substantial US market for rocket launchers, and I doubt Mexico’s border controls are tighter than those of the US.

    This has been widely reported. Google Operation Gunrunner, for many more reports on this topic.

    Operation Gunrunner is the ATF’s program to interdict this smuggling.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks, that is helpful! Still, a quick skim of these articles shows no explanation of what is going on. Why ship weapons to Mexico via the US? Are they manufactured in the US (unlikely, but possible — except for flowback from US arms shipments to other nations)? If the US borders were tightened, would weapons be shipped directly into Mexico from other nations?

  7. When/if Mexico truly becomes a “failed state”, there is presumably little we can do about it. We will become like Israel.

    Beyond drugs, there is the problem of Mexico’s impoverished farmers, victims of NAFTA, companies like ADM, and the switch to corn for enthanol. They are already pouring across the border looking for work in a shrinking US economy. Then there is the prospect of climate change, making much of northern Mexico unliveable. James Kunstler pictures another flood of Mexicans moving into the US in search of water.

    I wonder if the election of populist/socialist candidate Lopez Obrador could have made any difference int the long-range picture?
    Fabius Maximus replies: NAFTA has clearly hurt many farmers in Mexico, those competing with US farmers receiving government subsidies — like corn. A smaller number benefit, exporting to the US. See this brief article for details: “Is NAFTA Good For Mexico’s Farmers?“, CBS, 1 July 2006 — “Trade Agreement Killing Some Crops, Others Flourish”

    But why would would our ethanol program hurt Mexico’s corn farmers? The US subsidies divert a large fraction of our corn corp away from exports into domestic ethanol consumption. Also, this increases the price of corn — helping Mexico’s farmers (hurting Mexico’s urban dwellers).

    Also, even IPCC forecasts show that N. American climate change so far — and forecast for the next few generations — is far smaller than the effect of drought cycles normal for N. America. The US Southwest and much of northern Mexico are only marginally suited for the type of agriculture now conducted there.

  8. My own experience living among Hispanics in Southern California for the last 40+ years indicates that many immigrants and even some native born Hispanics see the Southwest as part of Mexico that one day will be taken back.

    Southern California is well on its way even now.

    Further evidence of this can be seen with plethora of Hispanic identity groups like LaRaza, Mecha, Aztlan and others who aggressively promote open borders between the U.S. and Mexico in order speed up the acquisition of the Southwest by flooding the region with Mexican nationals who have no intention of becoming Americans.

    Then add in the refusal of both politcal parties, especially the Democrats to even try to secure our borders and enforce immigration laws and we’re creating the ground for part of the U.S. to be reclaimed by Mexico. Because at the rate illegals are flowing into the U.S. Sooner or later we will be forced to cede the Southwest or deal with a growing and permanent underclass of Hispanic immigrants that wants nothing to do with American society except for its social service largesse.

  9. Not good at all. As a (retired) INS agent, I once developed and worked on an “interesting” (!) case that even now is hard to believe happened. The good guys won, but through no fault of our glorious leadership. The hardest thing about it was to communicate how much potential danger it presented without appearing paranoid. A fine line to walk, indeed…

    As it turned out, it was far worse than even I had anticipated, and only by the grace of God did we not see another Jonestown debacle or worse.

    Sometimes nightmares do come true.

  10. “Did the Clinton Administration have any policies with respect to Mexico that greatly differ from the Bush team’s? ”

    I should clarify that I don’t believe CIA corruption started with Bush the Elder or Bush the Younger, but rather that the CIA has been corrupt since its inception. Also, AFAICT, Clinton was quite corrupt and mixed up with cocaine flights out of Mena, Arkansas. Likewise, the problem isn’t just Mexico, it’s drug lords with high-ranking connections.

    The Activities at Mena“, posted at What Really Happened — “MENA is no myth!”
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is not something about which I know much, but multi-billion dollar businesses require extensive cooperation from elements among the police and politicos. So it was with Prohibition. So it is today.

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