By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Forensic personnel collect bullet shells at a crime scene where three men were killed in Monterrey.
Los Aldamas, MEXICO -- Javier Martinez Gonzalez may have thought himself a lucky man as he arrived in pressed khakis for his first day of work as a police officer in this little country town.
Half an hour later, masked men dragged him from the station. His body was later found in a patch of weeds alongside those of two fellow officers. Their killings early this month marked a dangerous new front in Mexico's battle against drug gangs in the borderlands south of Texas.
More than 22,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón unleashed his war on traffickers in December 2006, according to a confidential government report circulated last week, a toll that far exceeds previous media estimates. The northeastern states along the Gulf of Mexico had been mostly quiet as drug cartels and the Mexican military fought farther west. But powerful and warring crime syndicates have now launched a campaign of terror here, abducting journalists, beheading police officers and assaulting military garrisons.
After assailants lobbed a fragmentation grenade at the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo this month, the State Department temporarily shuttered offices in the region. The Mexican interior minister, Fernando Gómez Mont, said gangsters are attacking U.S. interests to provoke both countries, aiming to bring more Mexican troops into the area and possibly weaken rival cartels, a tactic known as "heating up the plaza." "Plaza" is slang for a trafficking route to the United States.
The cartels' tactics are growing in sophistication. Crime bosses have used stolen vehicles as barricades, blocking major highways, busy downtowns and international bridges for hours. In Reynosa and Matamoros, commando raids on two state prisons, probably aided by corrupt guards, allowed dozens of inmates to escape.
In the days before Easter, as Mexicans celebrated Holy Week, attackers threw up roadblocks and sprayed automatic-weapons fire on government checkpoints in apparently coordinated confrontations with the military.
But the assailants were overwhelmed, with 18 attackers left dead in a single day. Army officials called the attacks a "reaction of desperation" against civil government and military forces, which are pouring into the region.
At least four journalists from Reynosa have gone missing. Local authorities are terrorized and systematically assassinated, especially in rural villages. In Los Aldamas, attackers not only killed the rookie cop Martinez and his cousin on the force, who got him the job, but also dragged the police chief from his home in his boxer shorts. They fired repeatedly into the bodies, leaving more than 30 casings at the scene.
"He was an innocent," Mayor Alberto Lopez said of the chief, Oliver García Peña, who had spent his life in Los Aldamas. Peña had been left to defend the town with just a pair of pistols after Mexican federal authorities stripped municipal police of their official weapons because they did not trust them.
After the killings, the rest of the police force -- all six officers -- quit and fled. A lock and a chain now hang from the door of the abandoned station. Almost no one is on the streets at noon. Kidnappings are rampant. Nine people have been taken from Los Aldamas.
"We are being crushed between forces," said the mayor, sitting in his empty city hall, awaiting the arrival of promised troops.
Warnings via Twitter
The spasm of killing, kidnapping and extortion in the northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon -- vital trade, energy and manufacturing centers on the Texas border -- marks a serious escalation in the U.S.-backed drug war and comes with a 21st-century twist: Mexican officials struggle to calm what they call a mass psychosis of fear, stoked by social-media chatter and grisly YouTube videos, by using Twitter to post warnings about "situations of risk."
Faced with swirling rumors and a local news media possibly corrupted or cowed by criminal organizations, Juan Triana Marquez, a director of the Reynosa city government, decided to start tweeting updates about military operations, gun battles and narco-barricades, warning people to stay away from certain neighborhoods or intersections. The government now has almost 1,800 followers on Twitter, including CNN en Español.
"We are attempting to confront the misinformation and simply inform the people of the current risks," said Triana, who along with two assistants keeps the tweets coming 18 hours a day. He is as anxious as many here about the jump in violence. "There is absolutely no strategy from the federal government. They just throw the army at the bad guys, and they clash in our streets," he said.
But he does not have any sympathy for the cartels. "They would rather kill a person than step on a cockroach," Triana said, "because a cockroach might soil their boots."
This is dangerous talk these days. Four local journalists are presumed missing in Reynosa, though the family of only one, a reporter from the newspaper El Mañana, has reported his disappearance, according the Committee to Protect Journalists. A fifth journalist was beaten, by police or other assailants, after a night of drinking in a cantina and later died in a hospital.
The possible abductions have occurred in a place where many police reporters are assumed to be compromised. "Even their fellow journalists say they might have ties to crime," said Reynosa Mayor Oscar Luebbert Gutierrez, who in February went on the airwaves to assure his constituents that he had not, as was widely rumored, been kidnapped and assassinated.
"It appears the narcos have penetrated the media, and to be a crime reporter means you have to take their money or you will be killed, because it is very hard to be an honest reporter right now," said Mike O'Connor, an investigator for the Committee to Protect Journalists who recently spent a week in Reynosa.
A violent rivalry
Compared with the spectacular levels of violence in other parts of Mexico, such as Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso, the border region from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros had been more peaceful. But a simmering rivalry between two crime syndicates has exploded in open warfare this year, as the Gulf cartel and its former bodyguard corps, a paramilitary unit known as the Zetas, fight for control of lucrative smuggling corridors to the billion-dollar U.S. drug markets and for the right to steal oil from the state energy company, according to Mexican law enforcement officials.
Equally troubling, intelligence reports indicate that the Gulf cartel has aligned with the La Familia crime syndicate -- formerly a bitter enemy -- to fight the Zetas, according to Ramon Pequeno, the head of the anti-narcotics division of Mexico's federal police. The hyperviolent La Familia, a cartel-cult from the western state of Michoacan, is infamous for its use of torture and beheading and for the fanaticism of its members, who swear allegiance to a leader known as El Mas Loco, the Craziest One, and believe that heads toppled with their chainsaws represent "divine justice."
The alliance between the Gulf and La Familia cartels was announced by the gangsters themselves in banners hung from overpasses and in mass e-mails that warned people not to leave their homes.
"What worries me is that this is looking more and more like an urban warfare scenario," said Alberto Islas, a security consultant based in Mexico City. Searching for a comparison, he said: "Mogadishu.