The Mexican Cartel, Los Zetas, has been vigorously expanding its U.S. connections and influence since at least 2010, a confidential FBI document shows.
The recently leaked FBI bulletin was published by the equal information advocacy website Public Intelligence. It says U.S. gangs formed by both Mexican and non-Mexican Americans are actively collaborating with Los Zetas in drug dealing and enforcement activities on both sides of the border.
The bulletin also noted a shift in their recruiting methods. In the "past, accurate FBI reporting indicated Los Zetas previously focused its recruitment on members with prior specialized training... However, current FBI reporting indicates that Los Zetas is recruiting and relying on non-traditional, non-military trained associates."
Security analysts and law enforcement organizations say the cartel, which is currently Mexico's most powerful, is also now working side-by-side with organizations that would have been immediate rivals a few years ago. Rather than spend resources on turf wars, the criminal groups now cooperate, providing one another with greater reach.
In the U.S., Los Zetas have established business relations with gangs like Tango Blast and Los Piojos in cities that range from Houston to Chicago -- a city the Drug Enforcement Administration says is home to more than 100,000 gang members.
These ties don't mean the gangs are now part of the Zetas hierarchy, but this novel approach could still herald new crime waves.
"Many of the gang members that work with Zetas are just work for hire," said George W. Grayson, co-author of "The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created. "You may want to extort money, so you hire an American-based or a bi-national gang to participate in the extortion. You can pay them without inducting them into the cartel."
Across America, Los Zetas operatives have reportedly been doing just that. According to the FBI and to recent trials, the Mexican cartel has hired American gang members to steal cars for them and to assist them in smuggling weapons across the border. In addition, men allegedly linked to Los Zetas have started U.S. business ventures as part of an effort to launder millions of dollars of drug money.
The United States has, in fact, become a major operations hub for drug cartels. Like Los Zetas, several other Mexican cartels have moved parts of their businesses north, according to a recent in-depth investigation by the Associated Press, raising concerns among experts and security officials.
"It's probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime," Jack Riley, head of the DEA's Chicago office, told the AP.