When Mexican drug traffickers need someone killed or kidnapped, or drugs distributed in the United States, they increasingly call on American subcontractors: U.S.-based prison gangs that run criminal enterprises from behind bars, sometimes even from solitary confinement. Prison gangs long have controlled armies of street toughs on the outside. But in interviews with The Associated Press, authorities say the gangs' activity has expanded beyond street-level drug sales to establish a business alliance with Mexican cartels.
"They'll do the dirty work that, say, the cartels, they don't want to do" in the United States. "They don't want to get involved," said a former member of Barrio Azteca, a U.S. prison gang tied to Mexico's Juarez cartel. The violence affects everyone living nearby as this video of El Paso youth explains.
The partnership benefits both sides: The gangs give drug traffickers a large pool of experienced criminals and established distribution networks in the United States, and the cartels provide the prison gangs with discounted drugs and the logistical support of top criminal organizations. To carry on their gang activity, imprisoned gang members resort to elaborate subterfuge: using sign language, sending letters through third parties, enlisting corrupt prison officials, holding conference calls using contraband cell phones. Some even conduct business in an ancient Aztec language to foil censors.
The situation is so bad that authorities issued a travel alert last week. Public Radio International reported that 70 percent of the cocaine destined for the USA comes through Juarez.
FBI special agent Samantha Mikeska spent nearly a decade investigating the Barrio Azteca. Last year, three leaders got life sentences, but she questioned the real value of sending them back to prison.
"I think I've made them stronger," she said.
The latest annual National Drug Threat Assessment, released in February by the Justice Department, said prison gangs were operating in all 50 states and were increasing their influence over drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Federal authorities have documented numerous links between most of the major U.S. prison gangs and Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
For instance, federal prosecutors in San Diego, California, charged 36 people last year in a racketeering case that connected California's infamous Mexican Mafia prison gang to the Arellano Felix drug trafficking organization in Tijuana. Gang members and associates allegedly worked in drug-trafficking, kidnapping and attempted murder for the Mexican cartel.
Baldemar Rivera ran a large Texas prison gang called Raza Unida for years while confined in isolation, which is common for gang members.
Rivera, who is known as "the Professor" and perpetuates the name with wire-rimmed glasses and calm demeanor, said he used sign language to discuss business with a subordinate who visited him in prison. When Rivera needed to communicate with gang members in other Texas prisons, he turned to his captains _ who were also imprisoned _ to write to the men.
"Within three or four days, everything was known," Rivera, 50, said recently from a medium-security facility near Cuero, where he is serving a 60-year murder sentence. He says he left gang life a decade ago after finishing the state's gang-renouncement program.
Rivera was running Raza Unida in the 1990s, when prisoners often used the mail to communicate with each other and the outside world. Now they have cell phones. Authorities confiscated 1,200 phones from Texas prisons last year.