Barrio Azteca Gang Shows How Crime Transcends Borders

A Barrio Azteca member from El Paso, Texas, detained in a Mexican prison has his hometown's initials tattooed on his stomach.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
March 24, 2014
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A guard looks on from a tower into the state prison outside the city of Chihuahua.

An alleged leader of a prominent gang based in El Paso, Texas, was convicted in federal court last month in the murder of two United States citizens. The killings happened in Ciudad Juárez, across the border in Mexico.

The trial showed the inner workings of the Barrio Azteca, a gang that profits from the international drug trade.

At a billiards bar in west El Paso, men in cowboy boots guzzle Mexican beer and shoot pool to the beat of American hip-hop.

A stocky bouncer in a polo shirt greets customers. This pool hall happens to be a hang-out of the Barrio Azteca gang.  

"The Barrio Azteca are everywhere," said Detective Jeff Gibson of the El Paso County Sheriff's Department. "Many of them you'd never know. They dress well, they eat in family restaurants the same as we would."

Gibson first encountered the gang as a rookie jailer 22 years ago. He's been on their tail ever since. The Barrio Azteca started in prison in 1986 when inmates from El Paso banded together for protection.  

"The Barrio Azteca had a constitution and signed it," Gibson said. "That's how formal these guys are."

The constitution is written in both English and Spanish. According to Gibson, the first and last rule states that once you join the gang, you're in for life. Another rule prohibits making moves on another member's wife.  

The Barrio Azteca embody the U.S.-Mexico border, starting with its name. 'Barrio' refers to the poor Mexican-American neighborhoods where they grew up. 'Azteca' is a nod to their pre-Hispanic roots. Its members live and work in both the United States and Mexico.

"The Barrio Azteca are integrated with the drug trafficking organizations from across the border," Gibson said.

This integration happened when Mexican drug smugglers joined up with the Barrio Aztecas in prison. The gang started working for the Juárez cartel, moving and selling its drugs. But in 2008 a rival challenged the Juárez cartel for control of its territory. A war broke out and suddenly the Barrio Azteca took on a more militant role.  

"Now we're talking about Barrio Azteca members who wear body armor and know how to build car bombs and how to use an M-4 or an AK-47 or some of these more high-caliber, nasty military weapons," Gibson said.

The Barrio Azteca also acquired weapons in the U.S. and smuggled them into Mexico to arm the cartel. In Juárez, members formed assassination teams whose mission was to hunt down rivals.

A recording obtained by the U.S. government and played in a recent federal trial provided a rare glimpse into the operation of one of these assassination teams. The recording is of radio chatter between Barrio Azteca members in March 2010, on the day an American couple was murdered as they were driving home from a birthday party in Juárez. The wife worked for the U.S. consulate, her husband was a jail guard in El Paso. They were chased down and shot dead in their car.

In the recording, listeners can hear the hit men give confirmation that the deed is done. The speaker used coded language to say they killed a woman and a man in front of city hall. The sole survivor of the attack was the couple's infant daughter, who was found wailing in the back seat.

News of the murders reached President Barack Obama, who denounced the crime. Later, U.S. authorities determined the couple was targeted by mistake. In those days the bloodshed in Juárez was so great that a day without a murder was front page news. At trial, one Barrio Azteca member testified to killing 100 people a month.

Today there are Barrio Azteca members jailed on both sides of the border, including at a prison in the city of Chihuahua, four hours south of El Paso. The prison has a cell block exclusive to the gang in order to prevent conflict with rivals.

Jose Enrique Jimenez Zavala, 31, is one of the Barrio Aztecas housed in the Chihuahua prison. He is serving a life sentence for murdering 16 people at a bar in Chihuahua two years ago. He's accused of killing 300 others, including activist Marisela Escobedo, who in 2010 staged a protest outside the Chihuahua state capital calling for justice in the case of her murdered daughter. 

"There was nothing nice about my world," Jimenez Zavala said. "Just parties, girls, cars, all the material things that we're always looking for. It's just a real big price I had to pay at the end, I'm looking to spend the rest of my life here."

Jimenez Zavala was born in Juárez and came to the United States illegally as a child. He grew up in El Paso raised by a single mother who was a drug dealer. At 18 he did time for robbery. He joined the Barrio Azteca in prison. After serving his sentence, he was deported to Juárez where he got into drug trafficking. Mexican authorities arrested him two years ago for carrying a weapon inside a Walmart. 

Jimenez Zavala is now part of a prison program where he speaks to young people about the consequences of gang life.

Each year, the United States spends an estimated $18 billion dollars on border enforcement, trying to keep out illicit traffic. Still the Barrio Azteca gang is one example of how crime manages to transcend borders.