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Local Gang Members Become ‘Foot Soldiers’ Of Drug Cartels


San Diego street gangs historically lay claim to their own neighborhoods. But investigators say their allegiance now extends beyond their own turf and across the U.S.-Mexico border.

— Javier, not his real name, is a documented gang member in Oceanside. Tattoos are scrawled along his arms and neck. Javier said he was born into a gang.

He was known as “the cook,” making and selling drugs for his gang family. His father is now serving time in a federal prison for drug trafficking.

Javier said it is not uncommon for local gang members to do the “dirty work” for drug cartels. He has heard of job offers such as “bringing someone’s head to the cartel” for $1 million.

“There is no guarantee that you’re coming back with that $1 million. You can't trust the cartels,” he said. “They’re crazy. They’re like the Taliban - one small army.”

Drug cartel violence has been well documented in Tijuana with beheadings, mass graves, and kidnappings.

Now police worry that kind of extreme violence is spilling into San Diego County as more gang members partner with Mexican drug cartels to do their dirty work.

“When you get men to band together like that for criminal activities, violence occurs,” said Mark Amador, San Diego County deputy district attorney.

Amador prosecutes transnational gang members. He said Hispanic street gangs are no longer gritty neighborhood groups. Some have morphed into deeply-rooted criminal organizations with strong ties to the Arellano Felix cartel and other drug trafficking organizations.

Amador said San Diego’s proximity to the border allows for these nefarious alliances to flourish - from San Ysidro to Escondido.

But most importantly, he said, gang members and their cartel associates share a similar lifestyle: intimidation, violence and making money.

Amador said for older gang members, money is thicker than blood.

“They evolve into businessmen. Its not about fighting with local street gang rivals, but it’s about making money for yourself, using the ties of the gangs to your advantage. You have the tattoos, you have the street credibility because you've been in and out of prison. It becomes solely a money-making proposition,” said Amador.

Police said over the past decade, gang members have gotten more involved in all aspects of drug trafficking, like smuggling cocaine, marijuana, meth and other drugs into the country. They distribute them to dealers and sell the drugs on the streets.

Amador said what is even more alarming is more cartel members are shifting their operations to California because local street gangs already have a criminal network in place.

“They set-up shop in our communities and start committing the same kind of cartel violence," said Amador. "That’s why we have this proliferation of kidnapping groups that we’ve seen in San Diego. Different crews have moved into San Diego suburbs … where they have been able to recruit other gang members from San Diego.”

Even by gang standards, these spin-off groups tend to be ruthless.

One example is the Los Palillos kidnapping crew. A rogue Mexican drug cartel leader moved to Chula Vista and recruited local gang members to carryout killings, kidnappings and torture. Prosecutors are now seeking the death penalty against four of the members.

Richard Valdemar is a retired law enforcement official who serves on Arizona's gang taskforce. He said another disturbing trend is how cartels and gangs are recruiting young people to do their dirty work.

“There is always a kid who wants to be the bad guy," said Valdemar. "Once they taste blood, they grow in their ability to do violence until the first kind of violence is not satisfying anymore.”

Law enforcement officials said they’re trying to crack down on transnational gangs. Amador said he wants to protect San Diego from the violence that Tijuana has experienced.

“It is terrorism, in effect," stated Amador. "And that’s what we want to make sure doesn't happen in the U.S., that the spillover into San Diego doesn't result in any more violence than it already has.”


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