Mexico's Brazen Drug Lords

U.S. lawmen are calling it the most brazen confrontation they've had yet with a Mexican drug cartel. It occurred last month in downtown Matamoros, Mexico. An FBI and a DEA agent were riding with an informant when they noticed they were being followed, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.

After a pickup truck blocked their path, 15 armed men emerged, several wearing the uniform of the local police, and ordered the agents and informant out of the car.

As one of the gunmen leveled an AK-47, the agents flashed their badges and pleaded for their lives. It was only then that the gunmen backed off.

And the leader of the local drug cartel stepped forward to warn the Americans: "You gringos. This is my territory. You can't control it, so get the hell out of here."

Former DEA Director Tom Constantine said U.S. lawmen are still stunned by the event.

"Thanks to their courage and really their ingenuity, they were able to extricate themselves from that. But I will tell you they were very, very fortunate. The gods were with them that day," Constantine said.

Investigators say it's only the latest in a string of recent brushes with the Mexican gangs, who have been growing stronger, wealthier and meaner.

Four cartels now control much of the Mexican-U.S. border, stretching from Matamoros to Tijuana, while a fifth based in Guadalajara funnels in drugs from South America to the rest and beyond.

Investigators say the gangs are now the size of small armies. All have hired the protection of Mexican police. All are armed with automatic weapons. Some have used aircraft not only to run drugs, but stalk lawmen. And the Arellano Felix brothers have even threatened to kill U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey if he visits Mexico again. McCaffrey will go there anyway in February.

"I think the situation is worse than it is, or was, in the nation of Colombia, which was a very difficult problem for everybody," Constantine said.

And there is this: U.S. lawmen now confirm that the reason they were sure they would find bodies at those ranches they started digging up last month in Mexico is because they were led there by a Mexican policeman, who says he worked for the cartels and helped bury some of the victims.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed