Fliers, Banners Urge Soldiers to Defect for Good Pay, Free Cars, Better Food
MEXICO CITY -- One of Mexico's biggest drug cartels has launched a brazen recruiting campaign, putting up fliers and banners promising good pay, free cars and better food to army soldiers who join the cartel's elite band of hit men.
"We don't feed you Maruchan soups," said one banner in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, referring to a brand of ramen noodles.
The recruiting by the Gulf Cartel reflects how Mexico's fight against traffickers increasingly resembles a real war, nearly 17 months after President Felipe Calderon ordered the army into drug hot spots.
"Army and police-force conflicts with heavily armed narcotics cartels have escalated to levels equivalent to military small-unit combat," the U.S. Embassy said last week in a travel warning to Americans.
Fliers urging soldiers to defect began appearing earlier this month in the border city of Reynosa. They were pasted on telephone poles over government posters that offered rewards to drug informants.
"Former soldiers sought to form armed group; good pay, 500 dollars," the fliers read.
And a 10-foot-long banner appeared on a pedestrian bridge over Nuevo Laredo's Reforma Avenue, coaxing soldiers to join the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel's hit squad.
"Operative group 'the Zetas' wants you, soldier or ex-soldier," the banner said. "We offer you a good salary, food and attention for your family. "
It listed a cellphone number, which was disconnected a few days later. The banner was taken down a few hours after it was spotted.
Last week, another banner in the city of Tampico asked soldiers and federal agents to defect.
"Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel," it said. "We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice."
Authorities said the signs, rather than a serious recruiting effort, were probably an attempt to demoralize the soldiers and police.
"They do these things in public places to create confusion among the authorities themselves," said Ruben Salinas, commander of the Reynosa police department's second division.
Military analysts said the recruiting campaign, whether genuine or a ruse to sow discontent, shows increasing sophistication of the cartels.
"This is combat between two forces, one regular and one irregular," said Jorge Luis Sierra, a military specialist and author of a book about the Mexican special forces.
In recent months:
. Federal police discovered a 50-foot-long target range, complete with soundproofing foam, a ventilation system for gun smoke and buckets for spent cartridges, hidden under a house in Tijuana in January. The house also had a machine shop for assembling and repairing weapons.
. Soldiers seized a Jeep Grand Cherokee in March outfitted with a smoke-screen generator, bulletproofing and a device for spraying spikes onto the road. The vehicle was abandoned by gunmen after a shootout with the army in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
. Federal police arrested 16 men in Oaxaca state last week on charges of belonging to the Zetas, including three soldiers who deserted in the 1990s.
. Prosecutors last week formally charged five municipal police officers with being Zetas in the northern state of Coahuila.
. Former Mexican soldier Daniel "Cheeks" Perez Rojas was captured in Guatemala on April 8 in connection with a shootout there that killed 11 people in March. The Mexican Justice Department said Perez Rojas is a deserter from the Mexican army's special forces who became a Zetas leader.
The shootout in Guatemala, about 900 miles from the Gulf Cartel's home turf, showed the international reach of the hit squad, the Mexican Justice Department said. Much of the cocaine smuggled by the Mexican cartels moves first through Central America.
Many of the Zetas are former members of the Mexican army's special forces, the U.S. Justice Department has said.
Some, like Perez Rojas, came from commando units that received U.S. training and surplus American "Huey" helicopters in the 1990s. Most of the Vietnam War-era helicopters were eventually returned to the United States because of chronic mechanical problems, leaving the commandos frustrated and with slim chances to advance. A few switched sides, Sierra said.
The Mexican military has long had a problem with desertion. From January to September last year, 4,956 soldiers deserted, about 2.5% of the force, according to the National Defense Secretariat.
Soldiers are facing more incentive to switch sides because of Calderon's decision to use troops against the drug traffickers, said Arturo Alvarado, a sociologist who studies criminal-justice issues at the College of Mexico.
Thousands of soldiers have spent months away from their families, patrolling border cities. An army private earns an average of $533 a month, the National Defense Secretariat said.
"I don't see why these supposed recruiting ( signs ) should be a particular worry to the government because the recruiting occurs in other ways," Alvarado said.
"But what's true is that there is enormous desertion in the Mexican army and police force," he said. "They should be worried about that and take action to offer better working conditions."
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Pubdate: Fri, 25 Apr 2008
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
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