Border Narco War Returns

In the northern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, the spring of 2014 was ushered in with blood in the streets.  Drawing in different factions of organized crime groups and the Mexican army, a multi-sided conflict has left dozens dead, paralyzed cities, emptied schools, shuttered businesses, and frightened residents into staying home.

A bomb that exploded March 24 in the state capital of Ciudad Victoria caused no injuries but presaged things to come.

Internal power struggles within the Gulf Cartel (CDG) are reportedly behind a wave of violence in the coastal strip of Tampico, Ciudad Madero and Altamira, a historic zone of the Mexican petroleum industry.  On April 14 and 15, a social hall was set ablaze and a restaurant-bar shot up in separate incidents registered in Tampico.

Sweeping the region in early April, shootings and executions left at least 28 victims dead, including a young man gunned down in a Walmart parking lot during broad daylight.  The violent surge came on the eve of the Holy Week-Easter holiday season, when a half-million people were expected to pack Tamaulipas’ beaches and other tourist destinations.

Herminio Garza Palacios, Tamaulipas state secretary, said the murderous rampage was connected to regional rivalries that flared up within the GDG after the arrest of reputed capo Javier Garza Medrano in Taxco, Guerrero, last month.

The arrest of Jesus Alejandro Leal Flores along with the death of Aaron Rogelio Garcia, both reputed CDG leaders, were also reported as precipitating factors in the outbreak of violence. However, an unidentified military official denied that Leal was a leader of importance.

“He’s a criminal with his own trajectory and has family members who are also high-ranking criminals within the CDG,” the unnamed source was quoted.

A second conflict pits the CDG against its former armed branch, the Zetas, which emerged as a separate  organization several years ago. The split was consummated in a bloody war that raged across Mexico until the end of the presidency of Felipe Calderon in late 2012, when an uneasy truce between the two groups was reportedly reached. Now, however, full-fledged fighting has apparently reignited.

A recent message purportedly from the Zetas circulated on the Internet, vowing a “battle to the death” against the CDG in Tamaulipas and warning the local population to stay out of the line of fire.

Apart from Tamaulipas, the CDG-Zetas dispute extends into the states of Mexico, Veracruz, Zacatecas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila.

In opposition to the renewed violence, more than 1,500 people staged a march Sunday, April 13,  in Tampico. The participants included Hilda Gomez, ex-president of the local branch of the conservative National Action Party, and other ex-municipal functionaries from the same political party. The demonstrators carried placards and banners that read “We Want to Live in Peace” and “President Enrique Pena Nieto: Listen to Us.”

A young student identified as Manuel Salazar articulated the sentiments of marchers. “We can’t live like this,” Salazar said. “The authorities are overwhelmed.”

The latest outbreaks of violence feature road blockades, shootouts and clashes between the Mexican army and armored convoys said to belong to the CDG, especially in the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, which are situated across the Rio Grande from the Texas cities of McAllen and Brownsville, respectively.

In the confrontations, mafia gunmen have wielded grenade launchers, automatic weapons and tactical gear.

Commenting on the website of Mexico’s La Jornada daily, a reader wrote about a recent trip to Reynosa. Identified as David, the writer reported seeing late model trucks driven by “women of the mafia members,” an empty restaurant and few souls out in the streets.

“We hurried to the hotel in order to arrive by 8 pm,” David wrote. “The street is virtually empty. The city is sequestered by bad people who govern in apparent partnership with the politicians from the PRI party.”

A local press, long silenced by threats, murders of journalists and bombings of newsrooms, predictably did not report the latest events in Tamaulipas, leaving it up to national and social media.

While street battles have waxed and waned during the Pena Nieto presidency, other criminal activities including human trafficking and kidnapping, with alleged official complicity, continue at a steady pace.  At the end of March and the beginning of April,  Mexican soldiers and marines “rescued” 101 Central American migrants from two safe houses in Tampico and Miguel Aleman.

The National Public Safety System recently ranked Tamaulipas at the top of the national list for kidnapping, with more than 1,000 cases formally denounced during the last two years.

The number does not include cases unreported to the authorities, or the forced disappearances known as “levantones,” in which no ransom is demanded and victims are frequently murdered.

A big question that rises out of the Tamaulipas violence and the various conflicts related to it: How will the recent detentions and/or deaths of leaders from the Sinaloa and Knights Templar cartels influence the dynamic of underworld violence both locally and nationally, given that both the CDG and Zetas have long had designs on areas dominated by the other groups?

Sources: La Jornada, April 14, 15 and 16, 2014. Articles by Mireya Cuellar and editorial staff. El Universal, April 13 and 15, 2014. Articles by Silvia Otero and editorial staff.  Proceso, April 2 and 6, 2014. Articles by Jose Gil Olmos and editorial staff. El Diario de Juarez/Apro/El Universal, March 24 and April 15, 2014.

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