As if bombs at the Boston Marathon weren’t enough, the money-hungry Zetas drug cartel in Mexico is making a big push to recruit Americans, the FBI warns. Only the bureau isn’t exactly sure the Zetas’ apple-pie recruitment drive is a real threat.

That’s the conclusion of a 2011 intelligence bulletin from the bureau’s San Antonio Field Office, recently obtained by Public Intelligence (.pdf). From 2010 to 2011, according to the FBI’s contacts, the Zetas “attempted to recruit U.S.-based members in Houston, Texas, to join Los Zetas’ war against the Gulf Cartel on both sides of the border.”

That includes running and distributing drugs, and diversifying the cartel’s criminal portfolio in the U.S. by running guns and targeting rivals. The cartel has also found a supplier of AK-47 variant rifles from Texas-based Tango Blast street gangs. It’s no wonder the Zetas use these guys. Tango Blast, like the Zetas, have a relatively decentralized structure, with no formal colors or strict hierarchy. This has allowed them to flourish into becoming the state’s largest gang and made them resilient against law enforcement efforts to break them apart.

Beyond that, the Zetas have moved beyond its earlier practice of recruiting from Mexican ex-cops and ex-soldiers, something that has given the cartel a coherent, structured organization. Now the Zetas are seeking out U.S. citizens, American gang members, and “non-military trained, non-traditional associates to maintain drug trafficking and support operations.”

If you were a Mexican drug lord, you’d want to hire Americans, too. American nationals give the cartels’ illicit networks depth. They’re less likely to draw suspicion from federal law enforcement agents stationed along the border and at 32 permanent vehicle checkpoints inside the United States. In March, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that most drug traffickers arrested by the Border Patrol are U.S. citizens. In addition to sending drugs north, the cartels need guns and money to come south — a tempting source of extra income for U.S. citizens with cartel connections and the ability to help launder cash.

But the FBI bulletin equivocated about how dangerous the Zetas’ northern recruitment drive is. On the one hand, the bureau judges “with moderate confidence that Los Zetas will likely pose a higher national security threat to the United States.” But it concedes it lacks enough information to “adequately assess the threat.” And the information the FBI collected indicates the Zetas may actually be hindered by recruiting so many new goons.

Plus, it’s an open question whether the American Zeta affiliates know how to evade law enforcement. “With the recruitment of new members, Los Zetas have lost part of their disciplined command and control structure needed to maintain order within the organization, which is likely to hinder their ability to carry out complex attacks and could increase the likelihood that [Mexican] officials may learn of planned attacks or operations,” the bulletin states. Among their losses: kingpin Heriberto Lazcano, killed by Mexican marines in October 2012.

On the other hand, cartel agents are appearing in more U.S. citizens, and further across the border, than before. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported the cartels have moved some of “their most trusted agents” to work inside the United States and take direct command of drug distribution networks, which have traditionally been under the thumb of domestic gangs. Anything to chase that paper.

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