EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- As drug cartel-related violence spikes in Ciudad Juárez, criminal organizations in Mexico are increasingly attempting to recruit U.S. deported veterans, according to multiple sources who spoke with ABC-7.
The veterans' set of skills, learned while serving in the military, makes veterans deported into Mexico a valuable asset for criminal organizations, former Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) director in El Paso, Oscar Hagelsieb, said.
“The deported US veterans are appealing because first of all they've been trained by the US military, which by far is the most technically advanced military in the world.
They've been trained not only in weapons, but tactical maneuvers in combat, technical expertise like communications,” Hagelsieb said.
Hagelsieb believes, however, that many of those deported veterans are not being forcibly recruited, but rather are actively looking to work for drug cartels.
“I would go as far as to say that it is not only the cartel that is recruiting them, but some of the deported veterans are seeking out employment,” he said.
This is why organizations like All Relations United, based in El Paso, Las Cruces, and Ciudad Juárez, are working hard to bring hundreds of deported veterans back to U.S. soil before it is too late.
Francisco López, a deported veteran himself and who oversees the Bunker in Ciudad Juárez, a house turned-shelter for deported vets, and part of the All Relations United organization, said that although he has never been approached by the cartel, probably because of his advocacy work, it is crucial to bring more “brothers” back home.
“It feels sad and worrying to be in a country that you haven’t been in years other than a couple of weeks during vacations,” López said.
But not everyone is that lucky.
El Vet, as the cartel calls him, is a U.S. Marine veteran who was deported in 2010 after detonating a firearm in an undisclosed Texas city.
“I made a mistake, but I didn’t hurt anyone and the price I had to pay was too much”, El Vet said during an interview with back in 2021.
El Vet was deported to Ciudad Juárez during the peak in violence in 2010.
He said the cartel members reached out to him as he walked across the Paso del Norte International Bridge into Mexico.
“They offered me a job with a salary, clean clothes and a house to live in. All I had to do is to go and train some kids in Sinaloa,” he said.
El Vet was murdered in Ciudad Juárez late in 2021.
Data on the number of deported US veterans currently living in Mexico is not available. Neither is the number of deported veterans working for criminal organizations.
Organizations like All Relations United helped at least 10 deported veterans in 2022 alone, and they hope to eventually bring home over 400 who still remain in Mexico.
A 2017 report from the National Immigration Forum said about 40,000 immigrants serve in the US military, and about 5,000 non-citizens enlist each year.
During his presidential campaign, Biden addressed the deportation of US veterans several times. At a CNN town hall in 2019, Biden promised "to bring them back."
Luis Chaparro is ABC-7's reporter for the Puente News Collaborative, a partnership among local media outlets bringing in-depth border reporting to the Borderland.