Off the Map in Mexico

Off the Map in Mexico

In the wake of a militarized drug war, the power of cartels is more pervasive than ever.


Reynosa, Tamaulipas

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.

Despite the state’s efforts to destroy the drug trafficking organizations through force, Los Zetas, which may be Mexico’s most feared armed group, now exercises control over broad swaths of Tamaulipas, including San Fernando and Ciudad Victoria, the state capital.

The state’s highways have become so dangerous that bus routes have been canceled, and many Mexican commuters take US roads whenever possible. Driving new-model vehicles is almost taboo, and taking the wheel of a new SUV, or worse, an extended-cab pickup, is akin to asking to be held up. After the most recent murders, night buses, long a weary traveler’s staple throughout Mexico, are considered off-limits in Tamaulipas. Those who must still travel do so by the light of day.

As my bus continued into Reynosa from San Fernando we were again waved to a stop. This time, police boarded the bus, questioning each passenger about his or her business in Reynosa. Being a tourist in the violence-ridden border town is cause for suspicion, so I told them I was riding straight through to Houston. The officer took a careful look at me, smiled and wished me safe travels. It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned that this particular roadblock was in the service of the Gulf Cartel.

* * *

Reynosa is a sprawling city of 608,891 people that lies about ten minutes by car from McAllen, Texas. The old city is built up against the Rio Grande; from there, single-family housing spreads out south from the river. Since manufacturing industries began to take off in the 1960s and ’70s, Reynosa has been a magnet for people from other parts of Mexico seeking employment. Some of those who came with the maquila boom built houses in what were then unplanned settlements on the edges of town.

Today, though in some cases they still lack paved roads, these neighborhoods form part of the urban core, interrupted by overpasses and busy streets lined with big box grocery stores, fast food restaurants and parking lots. Unless you happened to stumble on a firefight, under the right light parts of Reynosa could still pass for the urban sprawl of a US city.

Tamaulipas has been controlled at the state level by the PRI for more than eighty years, and local and state officials have been involved in drug trafficking since the early days.

“For years, the PRI had a live-and-let-live attitude—and that’s being kind—but a live-and-let-live attitude with the Gulf Cartel,” said Grayson. “And so the murders in Tamaulipas were among the lowest, certainly the lowest of any border state, and among the lowest in Mexico for drug-related murders.”

In the mid-2000s, during what was perhaps the end of the golden era of cocaine trafficking through the region, the Gulf Cartel made public gestures reminiscent of its Colombian predecessors, providing flood relief to citizens of Reynosa and hosting special celebrations with free toys for the city’s children.

Few dispute that state and local governments are inseparable from organized crime, and both use repression to do away with their opponents. “Here, [local governments] use car thieves to steal the cars of anyone who opposes them; house thieves who will rob your house to frighten you; narcotraffickers, who they use as a way to create fear in the people, so that you don’t participate, so that you don’t raise your voice or go against the government; they even send their own to throw grenades at city halls,” said Francisco Chavira Martínez, rector of the University of Northern Tamaulipas.

“Why?” he asked himself, pausing to sip his coffee. “So that the people are scared and don’t go to City Hall to make demands; they won’t go and demand that public accounts be transparent, or [ask] what the money is being spent on.”

Violence began to flare in Reynosa following an hours-long midday gun battle between drug traffickers and federal police and soldiers on February 17, 2009. When I was there, on the second anniversary of the shootout, I asked a local man what happened that day, and he opened his laptop to show me a TV news clip uploaded to YouTube. Since then, confrontations between the drug cartels, and between the cartels and the state, have continued, but the media coverage has stopped.

“That was the last time we saw news coverage of the fighting on TV,” he said.

He now checks online forums and social networking sites to keep up-to-date on what’s happening in the city. Eight journalists were disappeared in Reynosa last year over the space of fourteen days. Two of them are still reported to be missing. No one disputes that newspapers are controlled by the cartels, which want to avoid “heating up the plaza” and bringing unwanted attention to the region.

This has been going on for a while. Yolanda Figueroa was one of the few writers to document links between the Gulf Cartel and the Mexican government, notably with the family of former President Carlos Salinas. Shortly after Figueroa’s book came out, she was murdered with her husband and three children in an exclusive neighborhood of Mexico City. That was in 1996. Her book is nearly impossible to find today.

“Studying Tamaulipas is much more complicated than studying any other part of Mexico right now,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville. “You only have access to information through informal media,” she said. “There are no references; we do not have a lot of background information.” Correa-Cabrera is one of the few remaining Brownsville residents who still regularly make the trip across the Rio Grande to Matamoros, a city near the Gulf Coast due east of Reynosa. “People stopped crossing over,” she said bluntly. “They don’t want to have anything to do with the other side of the border.”

To an outsider, a veneer of normalcy is maintained in Reynosa’s busy malls and congested streets, even as truckloads of police and soldiers circulate in an apparent attempt to keep both cartels at bay.

Spend a day with a local, however, and you might start to notice things you didn’t before: young men hanging out in parked cars for hours at a time, perpetually empty playgrounds with one or two people standing on each corner, twenty-four-hour pharmacies doing brisk business late into the night, permanently closed roads in front of city buildings and concrete houses that have been gutted by grenades.

“The cartel’s control is so extensive that cops and cabbies and street vendors are its spies, watching the Mexican army’s patrols, watching for rival drug traffickers, watching for federal investigators, watching, even, their fellow citizens,” reads a report from Reynosa published late last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists. These spies, called antennas, or halcones, which means falcons, form a surveillance network that spans the city, complemented by checkpoints on the highways into and out of town. It is said that Matamoros, considered a sacred plaza to both the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, is even more tightly controlled.

Even inside their own homes, people in Reynosa speak in hushed tones about what is happening in their city, afraid their voices will carry out a window. They avoid naming the cartels out loud, sometimes referring to them in code, but generally just calling members of organized crime groups “them,” the bad ones, or la maña, which means “the bad habit.”


On my fourth night in Reynosa, I had the chance to meet with a young man who depends on the Gulf Cartel to survive.

El Zape, as we’ll call him, sold his first drugs in the fourth grade. By the time he was 16, he had been recruited to work for the Gulf Cartel, guarding a stash house. That was eight years ago. The day I met him he posed a question to me. Do I believe, he asked, that a person can be psychologically scarred by seeing the bodies of murdered people burned in a bathtub using diesel oil?

Though he was still a low-ranking cartel member, he said there’s no way out.

In the course of our interview, El Zape pointed to an often overlooked dimension of the crisis along Mexico’s border: many of the cartel’s posts around the city serve as more than surveillance nodes; they also serve as distribution points for drugs, particularly crack cocaine.

For those who make it into more established positions, such as accountants, lawyers, money launderers or technicians, working for a cartel can replace a normal job.

“With them, there’s a salary, there’s bonuses; it’s also called ‘the company’ because they offer what any other company would in benefits, except they’re devoted to drug trafficking,” said one man, a 27-year-old father of two, who like most in Reynosa asked that his real name not be used.

We spoke on a Thursday, inside a small rancher just off Reynosa’s main drag. He explained that the previous Sunday his cousin had been kidnapped, but there had been no call for a ransom. He’d spent the previous evenings searching for the body on the outskirts of the city, followed all the while by halcones. There was nowhere to go for help, he said, because the police, local attorneys and even the workers at the morgue are under the control of organized crime.

As if having the mafia operating from inside wasn’t bad enough, the morgue in Reynosa has another unfortunate characteristic: it is too small. Every once in a while, it emits a rotting corpse stench that residents say is unbearable.

Since 2006 there have been more than 34,000 deaths officially linked to the drug war, and 5,397 people have been reported disappeared. Los Zetas has extended its presence throughout the country, much to the ire of more-established cartels. In Tamaulipas, there were 1,209 officially recorded murders in 2010, the third-highest rate in the country after Chihuahua (4,427) and Sinaloa (1,815).

Many of the experiences being lived out in Tamaulipas and other parts of Mexico are in fact familiar consequences of the militarization of antidrug responses, which has been the preferred policy of the United States since the 1990s. Mexico is “a victim of the hypocrisy of the universal narco-system, where some provide the noses and others provide the dead, some declare war and others receive the bullets,” said Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano, when he spoke in Mexico City in February.

According to Julia Buxton, the use of the military to prevent the movement and production of drugs in countries like Colombia and Thailand did little other than move the problem elsewhere. “Not only did the militarization of anti-drug strategies fail to deliver tangible benefits, they exacerbated existing problems of social and political violence, popular alienation, and state illegitimacy,” wrote Buxton in her 2006 book The Political Economy of Narcotics.

President Calderón’s much-publicized strategy of sending 10,000 soldiers to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, hasn’t reduced the violence: Juárez is still considered the murder capital of the world. The murders there get much more media attention than those in Reynosa, which unlike Juárez doesn’t have a proliferation of nongovernmental advocacy, research or aid organizations devoted to assisting victims of the conflict and their family members. The Center for Border Studies and the Promotion of Human Rights closed its office in Reynosa last year.

“I wouldn’t say that what happens in Tamaulipas would be reproduced in other states of Mexico if violence increases,” said Correa-Cabrera. “Tamaulipas has its own dynamics; it’s different, and you can see [this] from the shape of its borders and local politics and the relationship of governors with the central governments.”

Since July 2010, grenades have exploded at city halls in Reynosa, Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Victoria. A town called Ciudad Mier, which sits halfway between Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, was evacuated last year because of the frequency of gun battles in the middle of town.

“No matter what happens to people, nobody, no one, will make an accusation…in fact, things get even worse for the person who makes a formal complaint,” said a teacher at Reynosa Technical Institute. “That’s what’s killing us, the impunity.”

The people of Tamaulipas have been abandoned, losing their loved ones and living in fear and silence as their cities are transformed into battlegrounds, in the shadow of Texas.

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