Mexico's current unprecedented level of cooperation in extraditing organized crime suspects to the U.S. is good news in the short term, but could build stronger ties between U.S. prison gangs and Mexican drug cartels.
Extradition of its citizens to the U.S. is a touchy subject in Mexico, whose history is filled with incidents of U.S. invasion and perceived and real economic encroachment. But in its modern fight against organized crime and the resulting desire for U.S. military aid, Mexico has proven more willing to extradite citizens wanted for drug trafficking to its northern neighbor. The country has sent more than 150 suspects to stand trial in the U.S. since 2005, according to the U.S. Embassy. The Mexican government has even said that extradition is key to "institutionalizing the rule of law,” part of its four-pillar strategy against organized crime.
Extradition provides an advantage for Mexico in its war on drugs: cartel leaders extradited to the U.S. cannot continue to run operations in their home country. One example is Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, former leader of the Gulf Cartel. He was arrested in Mexico 2003, but was not extradited until January 2007. This prevented him from mediating conflicts between his group and its armed branch, the Zetas. Cracks soon began to show, and it was only a matter of time before the two factions split and went to war. We are now seeing the effects of that fracture in the once peaceful industrial city of Monterrey. Other major traffickers have continued to run their business from behind bars in Mexico, including Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. He ran trafficking operations from his well appointed federal prison cell and was even able to escape in 2001.
One drug cartel recently hit hard by the new willingness to extradite Mexicans is the Arellano Felix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel. Recently extradited members serving time in the U.S. include the cartel’s former financial chief Jesus Labra Aviles, alias "El Chuy;" former strategic head Javier Arellano Felix, alias “El Tigrillo;” former Tijuana operational commander Tijuana Ismael Higuera-Guerrero, alias “El Mayel;” and Manuel Ivanovich Zambrano Flores, alias “El Jimmy,” who headed a key money laundering cell, among many others named in the “Luz Verde” indictment of 43 members and employees of the group. These are just some of the many AFO members serving time in U.S. prisons.
Former California law enforcement officer and gang expert Felix Aguirre told InSight Crime that Arellano-Felix members incarcerated in California jails will likely form alliances with Mexican prison gang La Eme, exchanging contacts and information for protection in the foreign prison. “Regardless of how powerful these cartel members were on the outside, they are absolutely nothing in California's prisons without [La Eme],” explained Aguirre.
Some predict that Mexican inmates could even form their own gangs in U.S. jails. Gang expert Al Valdez, a former Orange County prosecutor, told InSight Crime, “These are transnational criminals who will attempt to and probably succeed in maintaining contact with their counterparts in Mexico and may establish a new prison gang with U.S. connections."
The significance of this increased contact between Mexican cartels and prison gangs like La Eme and Nuestra Familia is that, through these new supply connections, California and the rest of the United States could see a long term increase in the supply of drugs coming from Mexico and Central America. The connections will likely overlap so that even if the “choke-point strategies” of U.S. law enforcement are successful in arresting those individuals who serve as the links between Mexican cartels and U.S. gangs, the criminal networks will simply shift to other points of contact.
(Image, above: Members of LA-based gang La Florencia)