The Dallas Morning News
Nuevo Laredo – Longstanding tensions between the Zetas paramilitary group and their old employers, the Gulf drug cartel, have exploded into a full-blown war, worrying U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials that a likely protracted battle will further threaten this stretch of the Texas-Mexico border. Parts of it are already under heightened security.
The resumption in violence shatters a three-year uneasy truce in this region and represents a potential menace to places such as North Texas where the Zetas and a rival drug trafficking organization known as La Familia are entrenched, according to a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"This is where the drug war began [Tamaulipas in 2003] and hopefully where it will end," said Eduardo "Buho" Valle, an analyst and former adviser to Mexico's attorney general's office. "We're looking at a war that will change the drug cartels' national structure. That's why everyone is on edge, nervous."
In Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state Gov. Eugenio Hernandez Flores issued a message Sunday through the Internet, cautioning residents, "Don't pay attention to rumors."
Hernandez also asked residents to check the state's official Web site for updates.
At least five attacks took place in Nuevo Laredo and the state of Nuevo Leon over the weekend, led apparently by members of the Gulf cartel who allegedly drove from the Matamoros-Reynosa area in search of members of the Zetas, according to the U.S. intelligence official. Their convoy included 20 SUVs with the logo, "CdG [Gulf Cartel]" and "X" plastered on the backs of the vehicles to distinguish themselves from the Zetas. The vehicles carried an undetermined number of heavily armed men.
Using grenade launchers, they struck police installations, according to accounts that couldn't be independently confirmed by authorities in Mexico City.
Nuevo Laredo Mayor Ramon Garza said he, too, had heard the stories of convoys and attacks. But to date, "I can only confirm that there was one attack on Feb. 19, and two pipe explosions on Friday," he said.
He also noted that the rumor that he was kidnapped and killed was false. "As you can see, I'm still alive and well," he said Sunday evening.
The number of deaths or injuries in the attacks is not known, though some media reports estimate that, in the last week or so, at least 25 people have been killed in Tamaulipas. At least five more were killed in the bordering state of Nuevo Leon.
Precise figures are difficult to obtain. Mexican officials are reluctant to speak publicly, and the local media, which openly practices self-censorship, has been sternly warned by the feared Zetas to maintain a media blackout or face deadly consequences.
Skirmishes between the Zetas and the Gulf cartel have been brewing for years, but war was declared in late January after Sergio Peña, a top lieutenant to Miguel Trevino Morales, was gunned down in Matamoros by an alleged member of the Gulf cartel. Moreover, the sentencing last week in Houston of Osiel Cardenas to 25 years in U.S. federal prison "opened the flood gates," said Valle.
"The rather light sentence suggest that Cardenas sang, gave names, details and that's only contributed to the mayhem," Valle added.
Ciudad Juárez, some 600 miles up the border from Nuevo Laredo, remains by far the most violent city in Mexico, accounting for more than 450 killings this year, and more than 4,650 since January 2008. Tamauilipas state, however, is a powder keg. This is home to the Gulf cartel and the Zetas. Some of the members were trained as elite special forces operatives by the U.S. and other foreign governments before Cardenas lured them into deserting and forming their mercenary army.
In the last few weeks, according to U.S. intelligence, the Gulf cartel, with the backing of La Familia from Michoacan and the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the most wanted criminal in Mexico, decided to "wipe out the Zetas, get them out of the way," Valle said.
"The glue was Osiel, the 25-year sentence was the trigger he is not coming back," said Alberto Islas, an analyst on organized crime in Mexico City.
Last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderón angrily denied allegations that he was favoring the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico's war against the cartels. Since he took office in 2006, Calderón has sent 45,000 troops across the country to regain control of communities under the influence of drug traffickers, often working with Mexican authorities.
In the middle is Laredo-born and raised Edgar Valdez, otherwise known as "La Barbie" – perhaps the most powerful U.S citizen-turned Mexican cartel kingpin, who's also in charge of a group of hitmen. The U.S. intelligence official believes Valdez is working for the Sinaloa cartel and now represents the possible link with the Gulf cartel.
On Saturday, Mexican authorities shut down two of the four international bridges crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, momentarily interrupting traffic from Matamoros to Brownsville following bomb threats. They were reopened about an hour later. The U.S. Consulate in Matamoros ordered its offices in Reynosa closed last Friday until further notice. The consulate in Monterrey advised Americans to avoid travel to the border cities of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, citing frequent gunbattles.
In Nuevo Laredo, streets appeared tense on Sunday. As the sun set, workers and visitors hurried home or across the border to Laredo. Merchants were somber, worried about the latest outbreaks of violence and the impact it will probably have on their already struggling businesses. Some tried to be positive, even as talk spread of more gunfights in the outskirts of the city.
"For the most part everything is fine, normal," said Ricardo Dominguez, 26, an unarmed policeman assigned to the downtown area to assist tourists, adding, "But there are exceptions" to the rule.
Regarding any gunbattles on Sunday, "We haven't seen any," Dominguez said.
The vagueness left residents along the border scrambling for information via the Internet. In one e-mail to the media, Connie Swain, a member of the Texas Apostolic Prayer Network, pleaded for coverage: "Terrible things.... I'm not seeing anything locally or nationally. Apparently this has erupted only within the last couple of days. Can you guys confirm some of this stuff???"