Michael Lauderdale

Lieutenant Norris McKenzie, of the Austin Police Department's Organzied Crime Division, says his intel suggests cartel activity is a real threat in Austin.

Photo Credit: Daily Texan Multimedia | Daily Texan Staff

Check out Daily Texan Multimedia's A Discussion on Cartel Influence in Austin video.

Austin’s proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border may lend itself to drug cartel activity in the city and surrounding areas, officials say. 

“We’re only 234 miles from Laredo,” Michael Lauderdale, a social work professor who is writing a book detailing Mexico’s political, social and economic development, said. “For all the reasons Austin’s nice, if I’m worth five or ten billion dollars running a cartel, I want to move up here. It’s safer here than it is anywhere in Mexico. There’s certainly reason to worry.”

Lauderdale said the last three years have seen cartel activities accelerate in the Central Texas area, with Austin increasingly becoming a command and control center for contraband flowing up and down Interstate 35. 

“There have been several instances that illustrate the reality of cartel presence in Austin,” Lauderdale said. “A cartel-related case is currently being tried in federal court here in Austin. The Zetas were laundering millions of their dollars through the American quarter horse industry. They were training their horses in cities as close as Bastrop. They owned a ranch in Oklahoma.”

The Zetas are one of Mexico’s most notorious and violent drug cartels. Their primary base of operations is the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, which borders Laredo. 

Marcela Ramirez, an anthropology senior, grew up in Laredo and has family in Nuevo Laredo. Ramirez said some parts of Nuevo Laredo can be described as lawless warzones.

“It’s been quite a while since I’ve visited my family in Nuevo Laredo,” Ramirez said. “My father was accosted by gang members. They tried to take his car, but he managed to fend them off... A lot of people from Nuevo Laredo that I know moved to Laredo because of the violence.” 

Lauderdale also cited the police take down of two major drug distribution networks — one of which had direct ties to a Mexican drug cartel — earlier this month. Authorities seized more than $1 million dollars in proceeds and large amounts of cocaine and marijuana, as well as 75 kilos of methamphetamines. 

According to a report by the Austin-American Statesman, law enforcement officials said the distribution network was managed by a cell of a Mexican drug cartel called Knights Templar. Officials said once the drugs arrived in Austin via hidden compartments shipped to JT Body and Paint, an East Austin body shop, the drugs were then prepped for transport to distributors in Dallas, Oklahoma City and other cities. 

Lt. Norris McKenzie, who works in the organized crime division of the Austin Police Department, said his intel suggests cartel activity is a real threat in Austin and has dealt with cases directly tied to Mexican drug cartels. 

“In organized crime we’ve dealt with prostitution, human trafficking and the distribution of narcotics,” McKenzie said of his experience with cartel-related activity. “Human trafficking is just as big a money maker sometimes as cocaine is in these areas. They work with coyotes to smuggle illegals here. Then they hold them hostage till someone, usually the family, pays.” 

Lauderdale said Austin would provide adequate cover for billionaire cartel leaders. 

“There’s a fair amount of cover here in Austin,” Lauderdale said. “We got people coming in and out all the time. It’s not like Amarillo, where the population is relatively static and there’s not a ton of strangers. There were 1.9 million visitors to this campus last year — just campus alone. It’s much more likely that a drug cartel leader would go relatively unnoticed in Austin.”

A Discussion on Cartel Influence in Austin from The Daily Texan on Vimeo.

A series of public forums beginning Friday will feature the final four candidates for the position of University of Texas Police Department chief. The candidates will address campus concerns and discuss the future of the department. 

The forums will round out the selection committee’s process, allowing candidates to address the public before one is selected for further recommendation. The committee hopes to finalize a decision by the end of the semester. Last semester, UTPD Chief Robert Dahlstrom announced his retirement effective next month.

David Carter, Assistant Chief of the Austin Police Department, will be the first candidate to be featured in the forum. It will be held at the Avaya Auditorium at 2 p.m. 

Michael Lauderdale, chairman of the selection committee and criminal justice professor, said candidate performance at the forums will weigh heavily on the committee’s consideration and encouraged students to attend. 

“The open forum is important as we want to make the candidates available to others that are not on the various interview committees,” Lauderdale said. “How the candidates present themselves in public, respond to questions and read our community interests will be an important factor in our considerations.”

The search committee will select a finalist based on a series of qualifications unique to the police chief position, according to a committee press release. Given the University’s large infrastructure, the chief of police must demonstrate a clear sense of leadership and administrative coordination. 

Lauderdale said the chief must be enthusiastic and able to work with a diverse group of people. The chief also needs to be comfortable working with other law enforcement entities.

“This is not a sleepy college town,” Lauderdale said. “We’re a very visible campus with big-time visitors, about one to two million [visitors] per year. We need to have a chief that is respected and works collaboratively with the Austin Police Department and the Travis County Sheriff’s office as well as the Texas Department of Public safety, the DEA and FBI.”

Lauderdale said the chief of police should approach the position with the educational goals of the institution in mind, utilizing the position to further the education of students and the mission of faculty and staff at the University. The forums will help indicate whether the candidates can fulfill such requirements.

Although the committee’s recommendation will single out a final candidate, the ultimate hiring decision rests with UT President William Powers Jr.

“We will have one individual come back to meet with President Powers,” Lauderdale said. “The president’s responsibility is to see if the individual meets his criteria. Our hope is that we can have all of this done and that we have chosen a candidate by the time graduation occurs. We’d like to have some transition before Chief Dahlstrom leaves the campus.”

The Austin Police Department will be the first law enforcement agency in the nation to use door triggers to activate an updated dashboard camera system in patrol cars and motorcycles.

Public Safety Commission chairman Michael Lauderdale said the developments are an overall step in the right direction, but he questioned the officers’ ability to deactivate the dash-cam triggers at their own discretion.

“I think [keeping the cameras on] is critically important because in the long run, it protects the officer,” he said. “But what I think is more important is that it provides information to us, as citizens. It lowers the likelihood of questions being raised around the conduct and integrity of the officer.”

Lauderdale said that if the police department had digital cameras earlier, there would have been fewer questions of propriety in officer-involved shootings, including when former Officer Leonardo Quintana fatally shot 18-year-old Nathaniel Sanders II in May 2009, without activating his dashboard system.

The existing system requires officers to manually turn on the cameras to record footage, which is operated by VHS tapes. APD officers save the tapes for 180 days before wiping the footage and reusing them — only if the tapes do not contain criminal evidence, according to current department rules.

Under the new system, dash-cams will be automatically activated through various triggers on police vehicles, including when officers turn on their lights, sirens or are involved in a crash. Camera footage will be stored on a card and will be wirelessly transmitted to APD headquarters downtown from substations across the city.

The new system will cost an estimated $15.5 million, and the department has used $3.5 million to buy equipment and carry out staff services. The city borrowed the money and will be under contractual obligations until the debt is paid, generally over a five-to-seven year period.

“When I look at the amount of money and look at potential settlements of the city being sued, I think it’s a good investment,” Lauderdale said.

The police department recently chose a server and wireless transmitter network for the dash-cam system. APD will continue to test the substations and receive officer input to ensure the system meets their internal standards, said Sgt. Art Arevalo, supervisor for the police and technology unit.

“We’re looking for a solution that is going to last us for the next five to 10 years,” he said. “So we’re trying to pick our product wisely and to use the money wisely.”

APD plans to employ the new system in 38 vehicles in January and will ask City Council in February to approve the additional $12 million to finalize the project.