World and Nation

In search for killers in Mexico, focus on a cross-border drug gang

MEXICO CITY — They carry both U.S. passports and high-caliber weapons, making them the perfect cross-border assassins. They confuse the authorities by using a coded language that blends English, Spanish and the Aztecs’ ancient tongue of Nahuatl. The threat of prison is no big fear for members of the Barrio Azteca street gang, because they consider the cellblock to be home.

About 200 U.S. law enforcement agents on Thursday cracked down on Barrio Azteca in El Paso as suspicions grew that members of the notorious Texas-based gang might have been behind the shooting deaths of three people connected to the American Consulate in Ciudad Juarez last weekend.

“It’s an intelligence-gathering operation,” said Special Agent Andrea Simmons, a spokeswoman for the FBI field office in El Paso, as local, state and federal officials interviewed about 100 people suspected of being gang members in and around El Paso on Thursday and arrested those with outstanding warrants.

A spokesman for the Mexican military in Ciudad Juarez, Enrique Torres, said soldiers were conducting intelligence operations on the Mexican side of the border. In addition, FBI agents have been deployed to Ciudad Juarez, which has become Mexico’s murder capital, to assist with the investigation.

Although the motive for the killings remains unclear, Mexican officials have said that the Barrio Azteca gang, which supplies hired killers for the drug traffickers who operate in Ciudad Juarez, may have been behind the brutal shooting deaths on Saturday of the husband of a consulate employee and, minutes later, of another consulate employee and her husband.

One of the people being sought was Eduardo Ravelo, 41, a leader of the Barrio Aztecas in Ciudad Juarez, who was put on the FBI’s most wanted list last year. Ravelo, the only major leader of the gang who is not in prison, is accused of ordering killings and carrying them out himself, according to federal law enforcement officials, who are offering a $100,000 reward for information on his whereabouts.

Founded in the mid-1980s inside Texas prisons, the Barrio Aztecas have morphed into a prime example of the cross-border nature of Mexico’s drug war, in which guns and money flow south and drugs flow north in a sinister trade that costs thousands of lives, far more of them Mexican than American. The gang’s members are Mexican citizens and Mexican-Americans.

“Horrifying and tragic as it is that three people associated with the consulate were killed, last year there were 200 every month and seven every day who died in Juarez,” said U.S. ambassador Carlos Pascual.