A long-simmering conflict between drug cartels exploded into violence in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas bordering Texas last week. Shoot-outs, explosions, kidnappings and reports of large convoys with armed men freely roaming streets rattled a broad swath of the state, especially in the area stretching from Reynosa south to Matamoros known as the “Little Border.”
By Friday, February 26, more than 16 people were dead and 11 injured, according to Mexican and US officials. However, based on residents’ accounts of scores of victims, it’s likely the official figures are low. Amid an atmosphere of local media blackout, isolation and fear, false stories spread about high officials kidnapped and killed.
On Wednesday, February 24, the US Consulate in Matamoros issued a travel advisory for US citizens in and around Reynosa. Further, the US government announced the temporary closure of the Reynosa Consular Agency until additional notice. To the south, Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia cautioned US residents who did not have urgent business about crossing into neighboring Matamoros. “It’s best not to go,” Garcia said.
Last week’s violence hampered commerce, border crossings, school attendance and other routine activities in Reynosa, Valle Hermosa, Miguel Aleman, San Fernando, Matamoros, and other cities. By week’s end, the state education department acknowledged that school attendance had dropped by 60 percent in several cities.
Panic spread to the state capital of Ciudad Victoria, where schools were emptied by worried parents and businesses shuttered by frightened owners fearing armed encounters. Jaime Rodriguez Inurrigarro, Tamaulipas state attorney general, later denied that gun fights had broken out in the capital city.
Tamaulipas Governor Eugenio Hernandez Flores appealed on the population to ignore Internet-spread rumors he insisted had caused “a lot of damage in Tamaulipas” in recent days.
A primary gubernatorial candidate for the National Action Party, Mexican Senator Jose Julian Sacramento, had a different take on the situation.
“Tamaulipas is at war, and if there is no coordination between state and local governments, then the federal government will have a hard time waging a frontal attack on organized crime,” Sacramento said.
Although clashes were reported between Mexican soldiers and suspected cartel gunmen, a good deal of the violence was linked to a conflict between the long-dominant Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, Los Zetas.
Similar in some ways to an internal corporate power struggle- in this instance over the control of a vast enterprise known as “The Company”-tensions between the two groups have been escalating for more than one year. Besides illegal drug dealing, human trafficking, product piracy, oil diversions and other lucrative activities are up for grabs.
Currently, US authorities are seeking the arrests and extraditions of individuals associated with the leadership of “The Company.”
In the lead-up to this week’s widespread fighting, preliminary skirmishes in which civilian vehicles were commandeered to use as street barricades, broke out February 8 and 19 in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, respectively.
The violence could mean a new round of bad times for Nuevo Laredo, which has been relatively quiet in the past few years since an underworld pact largely halted a war that earlier devastated the city. In an unusual move, Nuevo Laredo Mayor Ramon Garza Barrios asked Roman Catholic Bishop Gustavo Rodriguez Vega for assistance in calming the nerves of the local population.
Last week’s violent showdown was practically announced, when the Gulf Cartel, La Familia and other smaller cartels unveiled narco-banners in several Mexican states earlier this month announcing an alliance against Los Zetas. Presumably authored by Los Zetas, narco-banners posted in Tamapaulipas and four other states this week sarcastically challenged the purported alliance.
Other actors may be part of the latest fray, too. In other presumed Zetas’
banners posted in 26 cities across Mexico last February 11, the authors blamed alleged Sinaloa Cartel leader “Chapo” Guzman for recent atrocities in Ciudad Juarez and Torreon. The messages also accused Mexico’s federal government of protecting Guzman.
As last week’s fighting unfolded, reports surfaced that members of Michoacan’s La Familia drug cartel were sent to Tamaulipas to reinforce their allies in the Gulf Cartel.
In Tamaulipas, the consequences of years of press intimidation by organized crime and government officials, the murders of reporters, official inaction in prosecuting attacks against journalists and media self-censorship were evident this week as local residents had little solid information from local news sources about what was happening on the street. Conversely, Mexican national and US border news outlets provided better information about the local situation.
But the big news development came from civil society. For better or worse, Tamaulipas residents turned to social networks like Twitter and Facebook. A writer on Twitter complained the circumstances in his hometown were almost like Somalia.
The websites of national media organizations quickly became forums for writers claiming to be from Tamaulipas. Many messages harshly criticized government officials for downplaying conditions on the ground, and some even provided details of the emerging situation
Posting on the La Jornada website, Manuel Garcia credited social media for keeping the population of Reynosa informed.
Garcia wrote: “Hasn’t (Reynosa’s mayor) ever seen the vehicles that drive in broad daylight with CDG (Gulf Cartel) or XX initials? The checkpoints that these men install at the entrances and exits to the city? The pickups with armed men, sometimes escorted by the municipal police?”
On El Universal’s site, a woman identifying herself as Martha from Tamaulipas wrote that the shooting had spread to the coastal area of Tampico-Madero.
The latest outbreak of violence coincided with the February 25 sentencing of former Gulf Cartel kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen on drug trafficking charges in a Texas federal court. Observers were surprised by Cardenas’s 25-year sentence, which was considered relatively light in view of the charges against the defendant. Important Texas media outlets blasted the decision of Judge Hilda Tagle to bar the public from the proceedings and permanently seal the trial records.
Like violence-torn Chihuahua to the north, the narco-war in Tamaulipas occurs in a state election year for governor and other officials. Another important parallel could be drawn between the situation in Tamaulipas and the one in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. In both instances, major incidents of “spill-over” violence have yet to materialize on the US side. Several Texas law enforcement agencies reportedly mobilized their forces this week to monitor any potential threats to US territory.
In response to the Tamaulipas trouble, the Mexican navy dispatched marines to hot spots like Reynosa. As in the states of Guerrero and Morelos far to the south, the marines are increasingly used to carry out tasks formerly the domain of the army.
The growing tend of employing navy personnel as the favored front-line fighters in the drug war was reinforced this week with the appointment of Captain Hector Garcia Aguirre as the new head of the federal attorney general’s office (PGR) in Ciudad Juarez. A lawyer by training and a veteran of previous civilian law enforcement functions, Garcia was sworn in at a February 26 ceremony attended by former senator and current PGR official Francisco Javier Molina Ruiz in Ciudad Juarez.
Coming at a time when the Calderon administration has pledged to invest major resources in restoring order to Ciudad Juarez, the Tamaulipas violence represents a serious challenge to the Mexican state. Indeed, given the potential of the fighting to rapidly expand and engulf other states, the Calderon administration once again faces the prospect of managing simultaneous damage control from a shifting, multi-front war.
Sources: La Jornada, February 25 and 27, 2010. Articles by Notimex and Gustavo Carrillo Garcia. El Diario de Juarez, February 27, 2010. Article by Blanca Carmona and Orlando Chavez Echavarria. El Universal, February 25 and 26, 2010. Proceso/Apro, February 23, 25 and 26, 2010. The Monitor (McAllen), February 23 and 25, 2010. Articles by Martha L. Hernandez, Sean Gaffney and Jared Taylor. The Brownsville Herald, February 21 and 26, 2010. El Manana (Reynosa), February 21, 2010. Proceso, February 7 and 14, 2010. Articles by Julio Carrasco Araizaga.