EL PASO, Texas – Just as government officials had feared, the drug violence raging in Mexico is spilling over into the United States.
U.S. authorities are reporting a spike in killings, kidnappings and home invasions connected to Mexico's murderous cartels. And to some policymakers' surprise, much of the violence is happening not in towns along the border, where it was assumed the bloodshed would spread, but a considerable distance away, in places such as Phoenix and Atlanta.
Investigators fear the violence could erupt elsewhere around the country because the Mexican cartels are believed to have set up drug-dealing operations all over the U.S., in such far-flung places as Anchorage, Alaska; Boston; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
"The violence follows the drugs," said David Cuthbertson, agent in charge of El Paso's FBI office.
The violence takes many forms: Drug customers who owe money are kidnapped until they pay up. Cartel employees who don't deliver the goods or turn over the profits are disciplined through beatings, kidnappings or worse. And drug smugglers kidnap illegal immigrants in clashes with human smugglers over the use of secret routes from Mexico.
So far, the violence is nowhere near as grisly as the mayhem in Mexico, which has witnessed beheadings, assassinations of police officers and soldiers, and mass killings in which the bodies were arranged to send a message. But law enforcement officials worry the violence on the U.S. side of the border could escalate.
"They are capable of doing about anything," said Rusty Payne, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in Washington. "When you are willing to chop heads off, put them in an ice chest and drop them off at a police precinct, or roll a head into a disco, put beheadings on YouTube as a warning," very little is off limits.
In an apartment in Columbiana, Alabama, police found five men with their throats slit in August. They had apparently been tortured with electric shocks before being killed in a murder-for-hire orchestrated by a Mexican drug organization over a drug debt of about $400,000.
In Phoenix, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of the Mexican border, police have reported a sharp increase in kidnappings and home invasions, with about 350 each year for the last two years, and say the majority were committed at the behest of the Mexican drug gangs.
In June, heavily armed men stormed a Phoenix house and fired randomly, killing one person. Police believe it was the work of Mexican drug organizations.
Authorities in Atlanta are also seeing an increase in drug-related kidnappings tied to Mexican cartels. Estimates of how many such crimes are being committed are hard to come by because many victims are connected to the cartels and unwilling to go to the police, said Rodney G. Benson, DEA agent in charge in Atlanta.
Agents said they have rarely seen such brutality in the U.S. since the "Miami Vice" years of the 1980s, when Colombian cartels had cornered the cocaine market in Florida.
Last summer, Atlanta-area police found a Dominican man who had been beaten, bound, gagged and chained to a wall in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Lilburn, Georgia. The 31-year-old Rhode Island resident owed $300,000 to Mexico's Gulf Cartel, Benson said. The Gulf Cartel, based in Matamoros just south of the Texas border, is one of the most ruthless of the Mexican organizations that deal drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin.
"He was shackled to a wall and one suspect had an AK-47. The guy was in bad shape," Benson said. "I have no doubt in my mind if that ransom wasn't paid, he was going to be killed."
In July, Atlanta-area police shot and killed a suspected kidnapper while he was trying to pick up a $2 million ransom owed to his cartel bosses, Benson said.
State and federal governments have sent millions of dollars to local law enforcement along the Mexican border to help fend off spillover drug crime. But investigators believe Arizona and Atlanta are seeing the worst of the violence because they are major drug distribution hubs thanks to their webs of interstate highways.
In fact, drug officials have dubbed Atlanta "the new Southwest border," said Jack Killorin, a former federal drug agent and director of the Atlanta region's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.
El Paso, population 600,000, is only a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) away from Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, which has seen open gun battles and 1,700 murders in the last year. But El Paso remains one of America's safest cities, something Cuthbertson said is probably a result of the huge law enforcement presence in town, including thousands of Border Patrol and customs agents.
In the past year, more than 5,000 people have been killed across Mexico in a power struggle among Mexico's drug cartels and ferocious fighting between them and the Mexican government. The cartels have established operations in at least 230 U.S. cities, according to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.
Payne said the U.S. and Mexico are working together to pressure the warring cartels. Payne cited the extradition of high-level drug suspects — four members of the Arellano Felix cartel in Tijuana were brought to the U.S. in December — and the capture or killings of several other top cartel leaders across Mexico in the past year.
"We have to make sure that we attack these criminal organizations at every level so that we are safer not only in Mexico and on the Southwest border, but here in the rest of the country," Payne said.
While some Americans may feel victimized by the spillover of violence, others are contributing to it. Americans provide 95 percent of the weapons used by the cartel, according to U.S. authorities. And Americans are the cartels' best customers, sending an estimated $28.5 billion in drug-sale proceeds across the Mexico border each year.