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Sunday, 30 March 2008

Zetas training camps where hitmen from both sides of the border train with weapons from the United States

Former senior Mexican intelligence official said that the use of training camps has become "standard practice" for the cartels. "Yes, there are training camps where hitmen from both sides of the border train with weapons from the United States," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. There is no firm estimate of the number of people who have received training in the camps, but a U.S. intelligence official said the number was in the "hundreds" across Mexico. It's all part of a strategy by drug cartels to intimidate their enemies and assert control over besieged communities along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, the officials said. The result has been unprecedented violence – at least 5,000 people killed nationwide in two years – and ongoing brutal confrontations with local, state and federal forces.
"The Zetas paramilitarized the situation with training camps and military background," said a senior U.S. law enforcement official and weapons specialist, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They turned battles into a prolonged war."
In small towns along the Texas-Tamaulipas border, the Zetas operate with seeming impunity, driving late-model SUVs and carrying gold-plated rifles. Roadside altars are appearing that pay tribute to "Santa Muerte," the Saint of Death, adorned with candles and Grim Reaper figurines. Residents regard them as a sign of cartel activity. According to the witness testimony and interviews with U.S. and Mexican officials, training in the camps may range from a few weeks to months, and trainees have included American teenagers. One of them is Rosalio Reta, 18, who was sentenced last year to 40 years in prison for a murder in Laredo. Mr. Reta's career as a cartel hitman began at age 13, he told investigators. Authorities say he may have been involved in as many as 30 execution-style murders in the U.S. and Mexico.
Last year, Mr. Reta gave Laredo police Detective Roberto García an account of how he and other high school-age boys were trained as teenage hitmen for the Zetas. Mr. Reta told Laredo authorities he spent months training under Mateo Díaz López, "Comandante Teo," an alleged top Zeta member arrested last year in the state of Tabasco on drug and weapons charges. Mr. Reta's confession led to the discovery of three clandestine cells in Laredo, allegedly carrying out assignments for reputed cartel leader Miguel Treviño. "I know we're fighting terrorism throughout the world ... but here along the border the narco-terrorists operate on both sides of the border, and so far it's gone largely unnoticed by Washington," said Webb County Assistant District Attorney Jesús Guillén, who prosecuted Mr. Reta.
According to the printed testimony, Rancho Las Amarillas was under the control of reputed Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Mr. Cárdenas has been extradited to the U.S. and is awaiting trial in Houston on 17 counts of importing and distribution of drugs, as well as three charges of threatening a U.S. federal agent and one of money laundering. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. Mr. Cárdenas used the ranch to raise cattle as well as to train his personal militia, many of them former army soldiers lured by promises of higher pay, according to the testimony. Pay started at about $300 a week but would double within six months – far higher than salaries for soldiers or police. Pay for hitmen and bodyguards began at $1,000 per week, according to testimony. In September 2001, Mr. Cárdenas, a former federal police officer, began ordering new recruits lured from Mexican special forces units to the ranch for advanced training, according to the testimony. "That course lasted two months," according to the testimony of one protected witness, who said he worked for Zeta leader Arturo Guzmán Decena. "From that point on, the Zetas, numbering more than 50, began to engage in larger operations." Mr. Guzmán was later killed in a battle with the Mexican army in Matamoros. Today, the number of "hardcore" Zeta members is more than 300, according to an internal Mexican military intelligence report.
The training is extensive and includes the use of such weapons as AK-47 assault rifles, AR-15s, grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns, according to the testimony and U.S. officials. And the training can be deadly. In September 2002, Zeta member Omar Bautista Hernández drowned during an exercise that required him to swim with his backpack and high-powered weapon, according to the testimony.
The camps serve other purposes. In his confession, Mr. Reta told Detective García that the ranches are used as execution sites, where cartel members dispose of their enemies. In one incident, according to testimony, the bodies of four Nuevo Laredo police officers were set on fire inside barrels filled with diesel fuel. The remains were buried there the next day.

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