First-Round Felons

Mexican Cartels Tap U.S. Prisons to Expand Operations and Draft New Talent

“I'm telling you, it’s like a job fair in here,” a prisoner tells Gorilla Convict Seth Ferranti.

06.09.13 8:45 AM ET

Mexican cartels are identifying and recruiting talent in American prisons, seeking “free agents” to connect on their release with their south-of-the-border counterparts in the ever-expanding drug job market. Think of it as a jailhouse draft, where the year’s crop of coming releases can showcase their skills to multinational drug conglomerates in need of bodies and criminal talent.

While the cartels are waging vicious, brutal, and often bloody battles in Mexico with one another and with the Army and law enforcement there, they are simultaneously recruiting American prisoners to increase their manpower, access to arms, distribution points, and trafficking abilities in a multifaceted strategy to keep drugs going north and money and weapons back south.

"There's an awful lot of Mexicans locked up in the feds," a prisoner tells The Daily Beast, “doing 20- to 30-year bids, effectively out of action for the cartels. So what they're doing is recruiting other prisoners, who are about to get out, to sell drugs for their people."

"The conditions are perfect right now for the cartels," the prisoner says. "They have a pool of captivated, untapped talent and ready-made resources, which they can access in our prisons. I'm telling you, it’s like a job fair in here. I'm at the end of a 10-year bid in the feds, and I got a couple of different Mexican dudes making me offers. They want to send me 20 keys right when I get out, on the front. It’s crazy. I didn't want to go back to selling drugs, but 20 keys? I could come up quick and be set for life, you know what I mean?"

A recent indictment out of Little Rock that captures the new dynamic identifies Idalia Ramos Rangel, a.k.a. la Tia or Big Momma, as a high-ranking female member of the Gulf Cartel operating in Matamoros, Mexico, and charges her and her son, Mohammed "Mo" Martinez, with leadership roles in a group that brought hundreds of kilos of cocaine north to Arkansas. According to the indictment, the family recruited federal inmates at FCC Forrest City to distribute the organization’s cocaine after their release.

This has become a standard operating procedure for the cartels, which have also begun using prison-based gangs to do their dirty work. "La Eme (also known as the Mexican Mafia) and the Aryan Brotherhood work for the Tijuana and Gulf Cartels as enforcers and hit men. They've been doing this for a minute," the prisoner says. "They act as go-betweens, bringing in hundreds of kilos of meth at a time and selling it. In prison they make a big deal of trying to impress the narco guys, so they can gain their confidence and show them they are reliable, effective, and solid gangsters who aren't afraid to put in work. It used to be they were trying to hook up with the Italian mobsters, but now the prison gangs know the cartels are where it’s at."

As the alliances have been cemented, gang members on the outside work for the cartels, protecting smuggling routes, collecting debts, transporting drugs and weapons, and executing rival traffickers.

"Gangs like Tango Blast and the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas got Houston sewed up for los Zetas," the prisoner says. "The Zetas get them to steal cars, smuggle weapons to Mexico and start businesses to use as fronts." The gang members, often recruited in prison, are not part of the cartel hierarchy, but instead are employed on a work-for-hire basis. By incorporating preexisting American gangs into their operations, inside and outside prisons, the cartels have increasingly made the U.S. an operational hub, not just a distribution point.

"By recruiting those well versed in criminal knowledge and underworld tactics, the cartels are hedging their bets as they move everything north," the prisoner says. "These Mexican dudes in here are looking for prisoners to sell drugs for them, dealers to connect to their people."

But some of the new recruits tend to be easy marks for law enforcement, as the Arkansas indictment shows.

"A lot of Mexican dudes got family in Mexico, where the cartels can get at them, so they can't snitch," the prisoner says. "If they did, their families would get murked, but the American guys, the same threat isn't there. When the heat comes down, they got no problem telling."

With aspiring drug traffickers filling our nation’s prisons, the cartels have had no problem attracting new recruits. "A lot of these guys in here don't got no skills," the prisoner says. "All they know is the drug life. And with these Mexican dudes selling them dreams and offering them the connect of a lifetime, they're in no position to say no. They all think they'll be the next Scarface. They want to feed their families and get on their feet. But even Tony Montana didn't last. That's the nature of the business. Still, the easy money is too big a temptation to ignore for most of these guys."