Author’s note: the following information about the Barrio Azteca and the safe city narrative is excerpted from the author’s book: “Barrio Azteca, The El Paso “Safest City – Conspiracy Sealed In Blood,” available on Amazon.

El Paso’s recent headlines about crime have been dominated by youth violence, shootings and gang activity. A shooting on February 15 at the Cielo Vista Mall brought the rising violence among El Paso’s youth to the public’s attention. By 9:00 pm., after El Pasoans feared another mass casualty event driven by ethnic hate, El Paso officials gave the all clear, announcing one person was dead and three injured. El Paso’s official response to the shooting can best be described as disjointed with incomplete information trickling out leading many El Pasoans to fear a major shooting targeting El Pasoans. To this day, El Paso officials refuse to provide details about the shooting arguing an ongoing investigation prohibits them from offering more details.

Other than it involved two groups of youths, a chance encounter and a conceal carry permit holder, with the help of an off-duty officer ending the shooting, little is known about the event, including the motive for a 16-year-old pulling a gun out and killing a 17-year-old. According to police, the shooting was a “random incident” between two group of teenagers. El Paso police have refused to label the incident as gang related, although gang violence in El Paso has been rising in recent months.

Since January there has been “an increase in youths being involved in violent felonies,” including a viral video of 17-year-old Antonio Robles firing a pistol out of a moving car in El Paso. Before the Cielo Vista Mall shooting there had been an “out-of-control house party in West El Paso” where an 18-year-old was shot. Omar Carmona, a defense attorney, told KTSM that the rise in youth violence in El Paso demonstrates “a big rise in gangs” in the city.

Last Thursday, the FBI executed multiple search and arrest warrants across El Paso. The FBI were searching for members of the Chuco Tango gang. The Chuco Tango is part of the Puro Tango Blast, who like the Barrio Azteca (BA) started in Texas prisons at around the same time as the BA. The Chuco Tango is the El Paso loose affiliate of the Tango Blast.

Although the evidence exists to show that gang violence is rising in El Paso, city officials refuse to acknowledge it. Only days after the Cielo Vista Mall incident, El Paso’s city council again proclaimed El Paso as one of the safest cities in the nation.

However, the truth is that El Paso’s safe city narrative is an illusion based on a false narrative perpetuated by city officials to mask the truth of the violent criminal undercurrent that exists under the surface of El Paso’s “safest city” designation.

The Safe City Conspiracy

El Paso’s “safest city” conspiracy can be traced back to November 13, 1985 when an inmate by the name of José “Raulio” Fierro Rivera at the Coffield unit of a Texas prison asked fellow inmate, Benny Acosta, to start a “carrucha” to protect themselves from the Mexican Mafia at the prison. The El Pasoans created the Barrio Azteca with other El Pasoans to “provide solidarity for the guys who were from El Paso.” From there, the El Paso prison gang grew to control El Paso’s criminal underworld, join up with one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the world – the Juárez cartel – and enter a tacit conspiracy with El Paso’s officials to create the false narrative of a safe El Paso.

Throughout the history of the Barrio Azteca and even today, El Paso officials minimize their impact and that of El Paso’s criminal underworld to keep the “safest city” narrative intact. The price of the narrative is an underground criminal world and thousands of people killed each year.

While El Paso’s officials continuously argued that they had the Barrio Azteca under control, the fact was that the “Barrio Azteca feels they are the owners of El Paso,” a law enforcement officer testified at a 2008 court hearing. Today, El Paso’s officials carry forth the same narrative pretending that the growing gang violence in El Paso is nothing to worry about.

For about a decade, the Barrio Azteca grew in the Texas prison system absorbing other El Paso gangs, like the X-14, the T-Birds and Los Fatherless into their ranks, and committing prison murders at the El Paso jail, while El Paso officials insisted that they had everything under control.

The 1994 murder of Afredo Ordoñez, a Texas Syndicate member at the county jail brought unwanted attention to the BA. Although “several fights” between the Barrio Azteca and the Texas Syndicate were occurring, El Paso officials told the news media that the gang problem in El Paso was “under control.” Even when federal officials started to note in 1998 that the BA was starting to link up with the Juárez cartel, El Paso officials were not concerned about it, at least publicly.

But by 2006, the Barrio Azteca had grown to be larger than the Texas Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate. The BA was also firmly in control of El Paso’s criminal underworld, taxing it and keeping it away from the public’s view. By 2018, the BA was operating “in more places in Texas” than the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) that was making the headlines.

Throughout it all, the Barrio Azteca’s base of operation and source of power was centrally based in El Paso, Texas.

Barrio Azteca, The El Paso “Safest City” Conspiracy Sealed In Blood

Gang murders in El Paso prisons in 1994, 1996 and 1997 made short headline news and both the news media and El Paso officials did not seem concerned that the BA was growing stronger each year. It wasn’t until 1999 that county officials started to track the Barrio Azteca’s presence in the county jails. At first tracking the prison gang was nothing more than a hobby for jailers who traded their notes as homemade “baseball cards” of jailed BA members.

While officially the BA gang was “under control,” El Paso officials tried to reign them in through a 2003 gang injunction and two subsequent federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) prosecutions. Rather than curtail their criminal activities, the gang injunction and RICO prosecutions drove the BA straight into the arms of the Juárez cartel.

As El Paso officials continued the narrative of El Paso’s “safety,” the Barrio Azteca was killing thousands in Juárez leading El Paso’s sister city to be labeled, at one time the “deadliest city in the world.” But they weren’t only killing the people of Juárez. They were also killing El Pasoans.

The inconvenient reality is that El Paso’s officials would like El Pasoans to believe that the murders and violence were and are a Juárez thing. They do this through a “sleight of hand” that ignores the underlining criminal activity that ends up in murder in Juárez, like the kidnappings that lead to the murders or the orders that are issued out of El Paso to kill people.

Sometimes it wasn’t just a kidnapping with a murder in Juárez, sometimes the murder happened in El Paso. El Paso’s police chief and officials argued that murders on the street, even when they happened in El Paso, were “not something you see in Mexico.” But the fact is that drug violence had crossed the border. For example, the 2009 murder of José Daniel González Galeana who was shot “up close” in broad daylight in front of his house. The victim lived right behind then police chief Greg Allen’s house. But González Galena wasn’t just a victim, he was targeted because he was a lieutenant in the Juárez cartel. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also an informant for federal law enforcement.

When asked about the drug cartel assassination right behind his house, Allen told reporters that the murder was “not something you see in Mexico right now.” What is important to understand about the González Galeana murder, other than it happened in El Paso in front of his children, is that he was working for the Juárez cartel from his “upscale” house in El Paso.

More important is that one of the assassins sent to kill González Galeana was an active duty U.S. soldier stationed at Ft. Bliss. Another murder targeting an El Pasoan in El Paso was averted because law enforcement had been alerted to the murder and had stepped up police presence to thwart it.

In addition to cartels operating in El Paso, ordering murders and drug violence occurring on El Paso’s streets, the Barrio Azteca had informants working for them in U.S. federal offices. And, they were now a transnational criminal gang.

The Aztecas

During the height of the drug violence in Juárez another prison gang was operating in Juárez killing many people in El Paso’s sister city. Although some of the narrative is that the Aztecas are a separate prison gang working with the BA, the fact is that the Aztecas are the transnational extension of the Barrio Azteca. The BA had expanded not only across the southwest but internationally as well into México.

A September 2, 2008 murder of 18 individuals at a Juárez drug rehabilitation center exposed the Aztecas as part of the BA, in addition to showing that the BA did not allow its members to be addicted to the drugs they made money from. The Barrio Azteca operated drug rehabilitation centers to help addicted drug gang members to get off their drug habits.

It is the attacks on Juárez drug rehabilitation centers that helped to expose the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) operation Fast and Furious. Many guns tracked by the ATF operation were used in the violence in Juárez, including the drug rehabilitation centers.

In one incident, El Paso Police officers recovered 40 AK-47 rifles at an El Paso stash house. The rifles, who were part of the Fast and Furious operation, were on their way to Juárez.

Barrio Azteca, The El Paso “Safest City” Conspiracy Sealed In Blood

However, the murder of the Juárez cartel operative behind the police chief’s house was not enough to force El Paso officials to publicly acknowledge the drug violence on El Paso’s streets. It was the murder of two El Pasoans who were government officials that helped to pry open the El Paso prison gang some more.

The Redelfs Murders

On March 13, 2010, U.S. Consulate employee, Lesley Enriquez and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, an El Paso Sheriff’s deputy were ambushed and killed in Juárez. Although officials almost immediately knew that the BA was involved, they refused to provide the public details. The initial motive for the murders was that Arthur Redelfs was mistreating BA members at the county jail. A second motive also circulated in the community alleging that Lesley Enriquez had interfered with a gang member’s visa application. Jesús Ernesto Chávez pled guilty to the murders because of Lesley Redelfs’ “performance of her official duties” at the Juárez consulate.

Although the guilty plea was accepted, it is not true.

The truth is that the Redelfs were murdered because of a mistaken identity provided to the sicarios from the El Paso side of the border. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued a press release after two BA members were found guilty in 2022. The DEA presser states that the Redelfs “were mistakenly” identified as rival gang members and that their murders highlighted “an unfortunate reality: leaders within growing criminal enterprises such as the Barrio Azteca continue to promote violence and manage their drug trafficking activities” from the comfort of El Paso.

To this day, two separate convictions with contradictory motives stand, one that it was a case of mistaken identity and the second that one victim was targeted because of her work at the U.S. Consulate in Juárez.

Two motives for one crime that contradict each other not only demonstrates a concerted effort by officials to mask the truth but it is also the byproduct of keeping El Paso’s “safest city” lie alive.

The “Safest City” Narrative Is Fueled By A Safe Haven For Drug Cartels

The obvious question is why the tacit conspiracy exists. For El Paso officials the motive is obvious, to keep the “safest city” lie in place. But what about the criminal underworld? Why are they helping El Paso officials keep the lie?

The answer lies in that the criminal underworld, especially for the drug cartel members, is that El Paso offers, in addition to a transit point for illicit narcotics on the way to American consumers, a safe haven for their families and themselves.

Former El Paso Police Deputy Chief, Robert Almonte, explained that the “there is an implicit truce under which cartel operatives consider El Paso a safe haven for their families.”

The conspiracy is simple enough. As long as the drug violence happening on El Paso’s streets is kept out of the headlines, local officials will ignore the crime. It is not that drug violence is not happening on El Paso’s streets, but rather that it is not being documented by local officials.

Take for example, the murder of Sergio Saucedo in September 2009. Saucedo was kidnapped from his El Paso home. His body was found in Juárez “with his arms severed and placed on top of a cardboard sign on his chest.” Saucedo’s kidnapping and subsequent murder, for what is believed to be a drug deal gone bad is not counted in El Paso’s crime data because the body was found in Juárez. Was he killed in El Paso? No one knows because although we know he was kidnapped in El Paso, his murder is counted in Juárez. Thus, the public hears that the homicide rate is low in El Paso. The kidnapping isn’t counted either, so violent crime is documented as low as well.

Drug Violent Crime In America Continues To This Day

Because El Paso officials continue to argue the one of the “safest cities in the nation” narrative, it is impossible to know how much crime on El Paso’s streets simply go unreported. But drug violence has crossed into America. Recently six individuals were executed in California for what has been described as a drug crime related murder.

In South Padre Island a headless body was found. The individual convicted as part of the murder into the headless body was active-duty Border Patrol agent, Joel Luna, whose two brothers were in the drug trafficking business with one brother identified as a sicario for the Gulf cartel.

Today, El Paso officials, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, proclaim El Paso as one of the “safest cities” in the nation while violent youth violence, including the recent shooting at Cielo Vista Mall, is on the rise across El Paso.

Interested in learning more? Support El Paso News by using this link to buy the book about the Barrio Azteca.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...