The Cartel Connection: Mexico to Austin

The KVUE Defenders investigate the growth of Mexican drug cartels using Austin as a "distribution point."

Cartels operating in Austin KVUE

AUSTIN - The operatives are considered “controllers” for the criminal organization.  They move black-market goods, human trafficking victims and drugs to Austin.  It gets stored, then shipped across the country.  Money from the illegal trade flows back through Austin to Mexico making  Austin a cartel “distribution point.”

“This is not your sleepy little town that it was years ago when I first moved here,” said Fred Burton, Vice President of Intelligence for Stratfor.

Stratfor is a global intelligence firm based in Austin.  They track cartel movement.

“You have organizations in Austin in what we call the balkanization of the Mexican drug cartels,” said Burton.

Stratfor lists 14 cartels in Mexico organized in three main areas: Sinaloa, Tierra Caliente, and Tamalipas.  Their intelligence, released in 2015, indicates the cartel organizations became less organized in 2014. 

In December, 2014, Austin had at least 6 organized crime groups with ties to Mexican cartels, according to the Resident Agent in Charge of the Austin DEA Office, Gregory Thrash.  He told the Austin Public Safety Commission Austin had a presence of Sinaloa, Beltran-Leyva Organization Remnants, Getas, Gulf Cartel, Jalisco Nuevo Generation, local Caballeros Templarios (knights Templar)/ La Familia Members.

“What we see is that the individual, the cell heads, are dealing directly with the plaza bosses (in Mexico),” said Thrash. “The leader of these kind of people are shopping next to my wife and your wife.”

The Threat to the Public

Cartel controllers operating on our streets may be killers in Mexico, but local investigators say the criminals keep a lower profile in Austin.  They said you may never notice a cartel operative.

“What the public needs to know is that the presence does exist, but for the cartels to achieve carrying out their illicit activities, they’re going to want to try to fit in with the rest of the public,” said Lt. Kurt Thomas, Austin Police Department.

Thomas said cartel controllers, who are willing to commit illegal acts such as drug distribution, can also have ties to extortion, robberies.

“The law enforcement needs the community,” said Tony Garcia, Director for South Texas HIDTA. “We need them to police themselves and we need them to tell us what they’re seeing.”

It's hard.  Some community members are like Miguel Linares may never see it unless they look for it.

“We’re changing the transmission,” said the body shop owner as he stood over his latest customer’s car.

He slowly smoked a cigarette while turning bolts on the car.
Linares owns a business along South Congress, near Stassney Lane.  The shop has deep roots in Austin.  He told us it dates back three decades.

Outside is a food truck, which was a taco stand in 2009.

A man was killed at that stand while ordering food. Texas DPS lists the death as a “cartel-related murder.”

It doesn’t concern Linares.

“Not at all. Not at all,” he said.  “The way I see it is that there is a onetime problem. It’s like, I don’t see it connected to the cartel.”

How Cartels Operate

Cartel strategy vary by organization, but the overall business is similar.  They move drugs, humans, and black-market goods from Mexico to the United States.

DEA highlighted how one cartel operated in Austin in 2009 and 2011.

La Familia, now known as the Knights Templar, controlled much of the big drug loads coming to Austin.

The cartel members come from the Luvianos region in Central Mexico, according to DEA intelligence.

Some moved to Austin decades ago to escape violence, poverty, or to build a better life.  It wasn’t about establishing a cartel route at the time.

In the early 2000s, the Luvianos area became lucrative to cartels, said Thrash to the Public Safety Commission.

The area is near a sea port and in a mountainous region. 

La Familia established a route, like their name suggests, using family members to bridge the distance.

Family members in Austin were recruited or forced to participate.

“It’s all generational and familial,” said Thrash.

Defenders: The Cartel Flow into Austin KVUE

The La Familia Cartel members moved illegal goods from Central Mexico to Austin through Laredo. The border town is a direct connection to Interstate 35.

“Remember these cartels are businesses. They’re going to find ways that they can avoid problems and increase their ability to move their product,” said Garcia.

The cells were able to keep a low profile in Austin because the area wasn’t considered a high trafficking area.

In 2009, DEA arrested hundreds of people in an operation called “Project Coronado.”  The investigation was a 44-month multi-agency investigation which targeted La Familia Michoacana.

303 individuals in 19 states were arrested.  Two people arrested lived in Pflugerville.  Three others lived in Austin.

It was clear then, Austin was a distribution point.

‘The city leaders and leaders in Travis County said we needed to get law enforcement together to start to combat this problem,” said Garcia.

One year later, Austin and other departments in Travis County joined the High Intensity Drug Task Force Area, or HIDTA, program.

“The larger the hub, the larger the crime rate,” said Garcia.

The 2009 Project Coronado led to another operation: Project Delirium.

DEA and HIDTA officers tracked drug loads from Austin to 11 other U-S states.

Meth and heroin were hidden within children's backpacks and lunch boxes.  The drugs were sent from Mexico, stored in Austin, then shipped elsewhere.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” said Garcia.

How the Public Can Help

Cartel connections aren't tied to one race. Both HIDTA and APD say there is no one way to identify cartels.

“I think that all the community, all citizens need to be cognoscente on their surroundings. Not necessarily of the drug cartels but of the current state of society,” said Garcia.  “Things (the public) need to look for… things that are out of the ordinary. What do you see when you’re walking into HEB, movie house, or any other business (that is) out of the ordinary in your mind? Be cautious about that.”

Your Questions, Answered

During this investigation, the KVUE Defenders launched a Facebook LIVE series called “Defenders Investigation in Progress.”  The goal is to get the answers you want regarding cartel activity. Below you can see the original chat and then some of the answers we found for your questions.

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