By BELO Border Bureau Chief Angela Kocherga Posted: Nov 26, 2009 12:20 PM
EL PASO -- Law enforcement authorities are concerned the influence of warring Mexican drug cartels may now be penetrating the U.S. military.
Retired Border Patrol agent David Jackson flips through pictures of last Christmas. "This is Mike," he said, referring to his grandchild, Michael Jackson Apodaca.
David tells ABC-7 he encouraged Michael to join the military. "We talked him into going in the military just to get him away from this environment," he said.
However, Michael's past caught up to him this summer. He's now facing capital murder charges for the alleged contract killing of a drug cartel informant in El Paso. "They picked him because of his background," said David. "Before of he joined the military he was a member of a gang, the East Side whatever."
Michael's case raises disturbing questions about drug cartels exploiting gang ties within the U.S. Military. The Department of Defense does not deny there are gang members within the ranks but stresses they're a small percentage of troops.
The U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division claims the cases only add up to a "few dozen" felony-level criminal cases worldwide during the last couple of years.
It may be a small number, but there is still a big concern when it comes to gangs. "The troubling trend is that if you do have former, active duty or reserve military that are engaging in this kind of activity," said Fred Burton, with Stratfor Global Intelligence. "It brings a level of discipline as well as military training and military bearing.
The Department of Justice highlights this very issue in it's National Gang Threat Assessment report for 2009. Local law enforcement authorities and gang experts echo the concern.
"What's even more dangerous in this situation is you have people who have been trained and actually seasoned by combat itself," said El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen. "With that potential in place, we have to definitely pay attention to it and stay on top of it."
Investigators said the suspected gunman at a recent shooting at a popular El Paso nightspot was a Fort Bliss soldier. His two alleged victims, also soldiers on post.
Similar cases may become more common along with the growth and expansion at Fort Bliss. The army will add 13,000 soldiers to the El Paso post in the next few years. The expansion comes as drug cartels fight a bloody turf war just across the border in Juarez.
"We have enough isolated cases of U.S. military personal being engaged with these gangs and cartels to indicate that it's a troubling trend that's developing," said Burton. "It's certainly something the U.S. military needs to keep an eye on."
The military has banned all personnel from traveling to Mexican border towns, but that did not stop a Holloman Airforce Base staff sergeant from visiting this strip club. David Booher was among six people gunned down there in early November.
Investigators in Mexico took the unusual step of providing a diagram of the crime scene. The hitmen killed 5 people in the main bar and shot the U.S. Airman in a VIP room upstairs.
"What was he doing there to begin with," asked Burton.
Mexican authorities who participated in the arrest of two hitmen linked to the bar shooting said the suspects are part of a hit squad that carried out the strip club killings.
Back in El Paso, David questions the evidence used to indict his 18-year-old grandchild. "They left his car open for 12 hours and said they found evidence there," he said.
Now, the young soldier who seemed to have made a fresh start waits for his day in court behind bars.