Former American soldiers are being hired as hit men by Mexican drug cartels, offering big money to highly-trained military personnel to carry out contract killings and potentially share their skills with gangsters south of the border, law-enforcement officials said on Thursday.
"We have seen examples over the past few years where American servicemen are becoming involved in this type of activity," Fred Burton, vice president for STRATFOR Global Intelligence, told Fox News.
"It is quite worrisome to have individuals with specialized military training and combat experience being associated with the cartels."
In three recent cases, American soldiers were involved in separate incidents, Fox reports. One included a 2009 murder for which a former Army private was sentenced to life in prison last week.
In that case, Michael Apodaca, 22, was a private first-class stationed at Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas, and was attached to the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade.
He had been recruited and paid $5,000 by the Juarez Cartel to shoot and kill Jose Daniel Gonzalez-Galeana, a cartel member who had been outed as an informant for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Fox reports.
Apodaca, who was the triggerman in the May 15, 2009, hit, was sentenced to life in prison in El Paso District Court on July 25.
Last September, Kevin Corley, 29, a former active-duty Army first lieutenant from Fort Carson in Colorado, pleaded guilty in federal court in Laredo, Texas, to conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire for the Los Zetas Cartel, Fox reports.
He was arrested in a sting operation – and, interestingly, the cartel was founded by Special Forces deserters from the Mexican Army.
Also arrested with Corley was former Army Sgt. Samuel Walker, 28. He was convicted of committing a murder-for-hire in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years in prison on June 21.
Walker served in Afghanistan with Corley’s 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division platoon in 2010-2011. Shortly after their return, they made contact with an undercover DEA agent they thought was a member of Los Zetas, Fox reports.
According to his plea agreement, Corley was introduced to undercover agents posing as members of Los Zetas in September 2011. He admitted to being an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army responsible for training soldiers.
Corley told his contact that he could provide tactical training for members of the cartel and buy weapons for them.
In later meetings, Corley discussed stealing weapons from military posts and military tactics, Fox reports. On Dec. 23, 2011, he agreed to perform a contract killing for the cartel in exchange for $50,000 and cocaine.
Apodaca’s fee for killing Galaena was nearly three times his monthly military pay, Fox reports.
A sergeant like Walker makes around $2,500 per month, while Corley earns $4,500. Both had hoped for $50,000 each and drugs from their Los Zetas connection.
Burton told Fox that some soldiers became corrupted after joining the cartels, while others are gang members who enlist specifically for the training they can get.
“There has been a persistent gang problem in the military for the past six to eight years,” Burton said. The cartels, he told Fox, greatly valued trained soldiers from the U.S., Mexico and Guatemala as "sicarios" – or hit men.
More recently, the May 22 murder of Juan Guerrero-Chapa, 43, a former lawyer for the Gulf Cartel, in a mall parking lot in an affluent Fort Worth suburb has raised concerns because it was carried out with such military precision, according to Fox.
"Obviously, the nature of this homicide, the way it was carried out, indicates –– and I said indicates –– an organization that is trained to do this type of activity," Southlake Police Chief Stephen Mylett said after the attack. "When you're dealing with individuals that operate on such a professional level, certainly caution forces me to have to lean toward that this is an organized criminal activity act.”
While Mylett acknowledged that the murder was a “targeted affair conducted by professional killers,” he would not confirm or deny suspicions that current or previous military was involved.
“The case is still being investigated,” Mylett said.
Meanwhile, a task force that includes members of the Southlake Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, FBI, DEA, and Department of Homeland Security is investigating the case.
But an expert on Mexican cartels, who declined to be identified, told Fox that the “operation was brilliant and disciplined.”
“I would be asking the question -- if military was involved -- if I was leading the investigation based on the MO, geography and precision,” the expert said. “I don't have any information to confirm, but we know that a hit team came in and out and there was also a stand-alone recon team.”
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Hispanic prison gangs along the Southwest border region are strengthening their ties with cartels to acquire wholesale quantities of drugs, Fox reports.
There are also strong indications that in exchange for a consistent drug supply, gangs smuggle and distribute drugs, collect drug proceeds, launder money, smuggle weapons, commit kidnappings, and serve as lookouts and enforcers on behalf of the cartels, law-enforcement sources tell Fox.
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