EL PASO, Texas — 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 have long 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 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 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 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 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.
In the 1990s, prisoners often used the mail to communicate. Now they have cell phones. Authorities confiscated 1,200 phones from Texas prisons last year.
Texas inmates can no longer mail letters directly to each other, but they now use third parties. Sometimes they get help from corrupt court or prison employees.
And while information flows out, money and drugs flow in. In at least two recent federal cases, gang members testified about how thousands of dollars from the gang's outside enterprises — extortion, drug sales and other illicit activity — was routinely funneled to gang members' commissary accounts in state and federal prisons.
The contraband is smuggled in by corrupt guards, lawyers and visitors, and paid for with the revenue from the streets — a cell phone can cost $2,000. The goods are dropped at pre-arranged locations where prisoners can retrieve them while on work detail.