CAMARGO, Mexico – The ranch near this border community is isolated, desolate and laced by arroyos – an ideal place, experts say, for training drug cartel assassins.
Mexican drug cartels have conducted military-style training camps in at least six such locations in northern Tamaulipas and Nuevo LeÃ³n states, some within a few miles of the Texas border, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities and the printed testimony of five protected witnesses who were trained in the camps.
The camps near the Texas border and at other locations in Mexico are used to train cartel recruits – ranging from Mexican army deserters to American teenagers – who then carry out killings and other cartel assignments on both sides of the border, authorities say.
“Traffickers go to great lengths to prepare themselves for battle,” said a senior U.S. anti-narcotics official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Part of that preparation is live firing ranges and combat training courses. … And that’s not something that we have seen before.”
Many of the camps are temporary, used for a time and then abandoned or used intermittently. Others are hidden on private land behind locked gates and have more permanent facilities, the officials said.
The land is seldom held in the name of known cartel members but is usually purchased through someone fronting for a cartel, authorities said. Sometimes “mobile” training camps are conducted on private land without the owner’s consent.
The camps include locations in Mexico’s interior, but U.S. law enforcement officials said they were acutely concerned about those located along the 1,000-mile-long Texas-Mexico border.
“As a Texan I find it offensive that they train in military-style camps just across the Texas border,” said a senior law enforcement official and expert in weapons trafficking, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s not good for Mexico and certainly not good for the United States. It’s unsettling.”
In the state of Tamaulipas, for example, the Zetas – the paramilitary enforcers of the Gulf cartel – train with other mercenaries, including the so-called Kailbiles from Guatemala, the officials said.
“These training camps are peppered throughout particular areas where major cartels, specifically the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, are located,” the U.S. anti-narcotics official said.
The testimony of the five protected witnesses is contained in documents from the Mexico attorney general’s office obtained by The Dallas Morning News. The spokesman for the attorney general’s office, Fernando Castillo, confirmed the authenticity of the documents and said the report of six training camp locations in two states abutting Texas was “about right.”
“We’re not talking about Marine-style or al-Qaeda-type training camps,” Mr. Castillo said. “These are more informal places used for target shooting and for physical exercising.”
According to the printed testimony, the training has taken place at locations southwest of Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville; just north of the Nuevo Laredo airport; near the town of Abasolo, between Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria; and at a place called “Rancho Las Amarrillas,” near a rural community, China, that is close to the Nuevo LeÃ³n-Tamaulipas border.
Two other ranches reportedly used as training camps, both east of Brownsville, have clandestine landing strips for cocaine shipments originating in Colombia and destined for the United States via Texas, according to the officials and testimony.
Mr. Castillo confirmed that some of the sites included landing strips and that the location known as “Rancho Las Amarillas” was a more permanent and sophisticated operation than the others.
“Rancho Las Amarrillas was unusually prepared as a training camp,” he said. “It was a bit more sophisticated, but we seized that ranch in 2002 and just last month we formally sentenced the person who was in charge of the ranch. Rancho las Amarrillas was an exception.”
Eduardo Salvador LÃ³pez, known as “El Chavo,” was sentenced Feb. 23 to 20 years in prison for drug crimes, the attorney general’s office said.
Mr. Castillo added: “When we know there is a training camp, we seized them shut them down. But because they’re often mobile and often temporary, we can’t do much about them.”
Mr. Castillo also said he had “no doubt” that Kaibiles and Israeli mercenaries used the camps “to help Zetas with their preparation.” He wouldn’t elaborate.
Two Mexican soldiers stationed in Reynosa, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the camps were sometimes heavily fortified.
“Tamaulipas is one big training camp. There’s danger everywhere,” one soldier said.
“In some cases they’re better armed than we are,” the soldier said of the cartel members. “They can bring down a plane.”
A 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.
Earlier this year, the Mexican government seized four tons of weapons and ammunitions in Miguel AlemÃ¡n, southeast of Nuevo Laredo and a mile or so from the Texas border, Mr. Castillo said.
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.
In Texas, Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores said he and other law enforcement officials are “doing everything we can to secure our borders with limited resources.”
“We know through intelligence sources that narco-traffickers invest money in Mexican nationals and U.S. citizens in training camps to instruct them in the black art of assassination and terror,” he said. “It’s even more shocking to hear that they even have mobile training sites because they take loads of money to set up.”
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 is unprecedented violence – at least 5,000 people killed in Mexico in drug-related violence in two years – and ongoing brutal confrontations with local, state and federal forces, plus military units.
“The Zetas raised the ante, they set a new bar,” said the senior U.S. law enforcement official and weapons specialist. “The Zetas paramilitarized the situation with training camps and military background. They turned battles into a prolonged war.”
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are considering a $1.4 billion aid package to help Mexico battle drug traffickers.
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 teen-agers.
One of them is Rosalio Reta, who was 17 at the time of his trial last year and is now serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder. 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.
Last year, Mr. Reta gave Laredo Police Detective Roberto GarcÃa an account of how he and other high school-age boys were trained as teen-age hitmen for the Zetas. Mr. Reta told Laredo authorities he spent months training under Mateo DÃaz LÃ³pez, “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 working for reputed cartel leader Miguel TreviÃ±o, known as Cuarenta, or 40. Laredo authorities now believe, however, that the number of cells is five, said Webb County Assistant District Attorney JesÃºs GuillÃ©n, who prosecuted Mr. Reta.
“I know we’re fighting terrorism throughout the world and we’re looking for them across the United States, 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,” Mr. GuillÃ©n said.
In small towns along the Texas-Tamaulipas border, the Zetas operate with seeming impunity, driving late-model SUVs and carrying gold-plated rifles. Along their trail are newly installed altars that pay tribute to “Santa Muerte,” the Saint of Death, a sign, residents say, of cartel activity in the area.
According to the printed testimony, Rancho las Amarrillas, near the border of Tamaulipas and Nuevo LeÃ³n, was under the control of reputed Gulf cartel leader Osiel CÃ¡rdenas GuillÃ©n.
Mr. CÃ¡rdenas has been extradited to the United States and is awaiting trial on 17 counts of importing and distribution of drugs, as well as three charges of threatening a U.S. federal agent and one count of money laundering. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Mr. CÃ¡rdenas 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. CÃ¡rdenas, 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 GuzmÃ¡n Decena. “From that point on, the Zetas, numbering more than 50, began to engage in larger operations.”
Mr GuzmÃ¡n was later killed in 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. and Mexican officials.
And the training can be deadly. In September 2002, Zeta member Omar Bautista HernÃ¡ndez 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 GarcÃa 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 policemen were set on fire inside barrels filled with diesel fuel. The remains were buried the next day.