Through the grimy windows of the bus, the road sign for San Fernando came into view. The name held grim associations. The previous August, in that tiny town in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the bodies of seventy-two migrants, most of them Central Americans, had been found stacked in the back of a ranch. I’d pored over the account, one more dot in a pattern of gruesome violence I’d been tracing on buses like this one as I roamed the border area.
The bus slowed, and through the window I now could see uniformed men waving us to a stop. They ordered everyone off the bus, interrogating each of us, searching our belongings, leaving us to stand in the hot, windy February afternoon until they were satisfied and waved us back aboard.
Two months later, on April 7, thirty-four mass graves would be found outside San Fernando containing at least 177 bodies. News reports indicated that some of those victims had been pulled from buses by armed men.
San Fernando sits south of a 200-mile stretch of the US-Mexico border that runs between Brownsville and Laredo, Texas, that has surfaced as the site of some of the most brutal acts committed in the increasingly violent and complex conflict known as the Mexican drug war.
A series of executions, arrests and extraditions over the past decade weakened the Gulf Cartel, which had long been the power brokers in Tamaulipas. The 2007 extradition of former Gulf leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén put the cartel on unsure footing with Los Zetas, its armed wing. Regardless, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel maintained informal agreements for control of Tamaulipas: Nuevo Laredo, the busiest commercial border crossing between the United States and Mexico, would go to Los Zetas, and the Gulf Cartel would continue to control the plazas of Reynosa and Matamoros, as well as cities along the Gulf Coast on established trafficking routes.
But the murder of a high-ranking Zeta by members of the Gulf Cartel in early 2010 marked the end of their pact. Since then, the two groups have been at war. Los Zetas is often linked to the most heinous crimes, from the mass killings and clandestine graves to the assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantú, the gubernatorial candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), along with four members of his entourage less than a week before the election last July. Los Zetas got its start in the late ’90s as a band of elite soldiers—some of whom were trained by the United States—who deserted the Mexican army to work as hired guns for the Gulf Cartel. “The absolute sadism of the Zetas gives them clout when it comes to extortion, for example, or when it comes to kidnapping, or any of the crimes in which they’re involved,” said George W. Grayson, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Virginia state legislator.
The escalation of violence and kidnappings in Tamaulipas has taken place in tandem with President Felipe Calderón’s decision to use the military to attack the cartels, deploying more than 40,000 soldiers throughout Mexico since late 2006. In 2007 George W. Bush announced the Merida Initiative, signaling that the United States had cast its weight behind a militarized approach to reducing drug production and trafficking in Mexico and Central America. The initiative, worth more than $1.4 billion, supplied Mexico with US-bought helicopters, canine units, police technology and training. It was dubbed Plan Mexico by critics because of its likeness to its failed predecessor, Plan Colombia. As US assistance to fight the drug war flowed, the death toll climbed steadily.