By Jared Taylor
Photo: Terra.com.mx Entrance to Ciudad Mier
Alberto Gonzalez rolled up to the gravel parking lot outside the apartment and got out of his old white and yellow taxicab.
The faded red letters on the Ford Crown Victoria’s door show a phone number and where he’s from — Ciudad Mier, Tamps.
"We came here because we are scared," the Mier native said in Spanish. "There’s nobody there now. It’s a ghost town."
Gonzalez, 38, talks of the drug cartels that have taken Ciudad Mier hostage since February.
That was when the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas formally split and began an all-out fight for control of territory along the Tamaulipas-Texas border.
A wave of refugees has flooded Mier’s eastern neighbor Miguel Alemán in recent weeks — the last holdouts of terrorized citizenry from Mier who, under order from the Zetas, finally packed up and left after the Nov. 5 slaying of Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cárdenas Guillen, the head of the Gulf Cartel.
Many of Gonzalez’s relatives and friends remained at the impromptu refugee camp in Miguel Alemán, he said. Earlier this year, though, his sister-in-law moved to the apartment in Roma’s Los Saenz neighborhood. Now, he was helping her to clean out the two-bedroom unit.
Officials in Roma said the exodus to their city from Mier has carried on since fighting across the border picked up in the spring. Most residents from Mier and other towns along the Frontera Chica — the "little border," as the region is known — with money or immigration papers had already fled to the U.S. before June.
"The people who went to Miguel Alemán were the ones who had nowhere else to go," said Roma City Manager Cris Salinas.
Telephone calls to the Mier city government went unanswered last week — officials there have reportedly relocated to Miguel Alemán.
Mexican military officials announced last week that about 3,000 soldiers, naval forces and federal police, were being deployed to the towns along the Frontera Chica to provide security so displaced residents could return home.
But city officials in Miguel Alemán confirmed that few Mier residents have left the refugee camp set up at the city’s Lions Club. More than 300 people have sought shelter there, leaving their community a ghost town.
"Initially it was 30 people, but then it went up to 60, 100, and now we have 300 that came here," Miguel Alemán Mayor Servando Lopez Moreno said this month. Lopez Moreno did not return several calls seeking comment last week.
Beyond the refugee camp, school officials in Roma report 295 new students were enrolled across the district at the end of October — as much as a tenfold increase from most years. Most of the new pupils are recent immigrants from Mexico, district spokesman Ricardo Perez said. So far, the district has been able to absorb the new students without problems.
"If this continues unabated, then we will begin experiencing some difficulty with regards to resources and whatnot," Perez said.
Churches and charities across the Rio Grande Valley have taken supplies over to the refugees who remain in Miguel Alemán. Their relatives in Roma take food, water and blankets across, as well.
A church employee in Escobares said fellow parishioners had been taking blankets and food to the refugee camp. But a shootout in Miguel Alemán on Wednesday and threats that the Lions Club would be targeted for a possible bomb attack prompted them to halt the relief effort.
"It’s very sad these days," the woman said in Spanish.
Feb. 22, 2010, was the day everything changed for the people of Mier.
An eight-page internal report written by a Mier city official on Nov. 7 — two days after Tony Tormenta’s death — chronicles the town’s demise, which began that late winter night.
Widespread firefights were heard about 8 p.m. that day. And before dawn the next day, suspected drug cartel members traveling in some 40 trucks overtook Mier’s City Hall, kidnapped the city’s police force and took their weapons.
More kidnappings were reported in the city and about 10 houses were burned, the report states.
Without police control, local government ceased to conduct its daily activities. A shootout between Mexican army soldiers and cartel gunmen ensued in front of a school on the city’s south side, "provoking chaos" and leaving casualties on both sides.
Since Feb. 22, the report states, school classes have been suspended in the city. Widespread and erratic shootouts pushed scared parents to keep their children home.
"Educational authorities took the decision to not have students in class until further notice," the report states.
More than 50 percent of the town’s 6,500 residents fled after the cartel violence ensued. In recent weeks, the number of people displaced has climbed. Those who have fled estimate only a few hundred people remain in Mier.
As is the case in nearby Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, public social activities — baptisms, family reunions, weddings, quinceañeras and such —have ceased in Mier. Without an adequate police presence, residents have lived under a 7 p.m. curfew.
Medical services in the town have mostly ceased, with clinics shutting their doors during firefights and no emergency services available after the nightly curfew. Anyone with an emergency in Mier must drive 25 minutes to Miguel Alemán and face the risk of getting caught in the crossfire along the way, the report states.
Local officials have documented least 110 kidnappings since February, the report states. No statistics are readily available from Mexican authorities on the number of fatalities in Mier and the other Frontera Chica communities, but hundreds are believed to have been killed in the fighting there.
What remains unclear is the effect the erratic battles may have on ordinary residents caught amid the crossfire.
Gonzalez’s 12-year-old nephew, Jorge, recounted one afternoon when gunfire and grenade blasts erupted on his street in Mier.
Jorge said he hid under a bed. His brother stayed in a closet during the two-hour battle.
"I thought I was going to die," Jorge said.
Photos from Ciudad Mier show homes, downtown structures and other buildings whose façades have been pockmarked as if by a bad case of acne. Even the town’s centerpiece, a sandstone church whose construction dates to 1784, has been scarred by the gunfire. Other photos show bodies or severed limbs in the streets. In one, the bloody torso of a man hangs from a tree in the city square, his arms and legs cut off.
The town’s police station and three vehicles were reportedly burned during an Oct. 15 attack, leaving only charred remains behind.
Widespread kidnappings, auto thefts and assaults have been reported along Mexico Highway 2, which runs along the border with the U.S., and Mexico Highway 54, which leads to Monterrey.
"During more than eight months, there are days in which it is impossible to travel to Monterrey because of narcobloqueos (roadblocks set up by drug traffickers), massive robberies, and shootouts between armed groups," the report states. "These two most important arteries for our city have been greatly affected."
Much of Mier’s significance in the drug cartels’ fight for territory across northeast Mexico comes from its strategic location along Mexico’s highway system.
At the apartment building in Roma, Gonzalez, the former Mier taxi driver, scrawled a map on a sheet of paper, with lines leading to Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Reynosa. Mier sits at the middle, at the crossroads along the Tamaulipas border.
In Mier’s downtown, at least 70 percent of businesses have been "seriously affected" by the months of gunfire and grenade blasts on the area, the report states.
Local retail shops, restaurants, hotels, money changers, grocers, pharmacies — virtually all areas of service — have shut down. As is the case in neighboring Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, no gas stations remain open.
"This chaos has closed the majority share of businesses," the report states. "They have gone in the necessity to migrate to find work and peace."
A 24-year-old woman and Mier native, who declined to be named, said her parents are living with an uncle in Miguel Alemán. Her family’s convenience store was ransacked earlier this month.
"They took everything — the sodas, bread, the sweets, even the bars of soap," she said in Spanish. "They stole it all."
The livestock ranches that surround Mier have ceased to operate, with ranchers fearful of tending to their land.
"Rural roads are full of armed men, who have kidnapped a number of people making a living off the land," the report states. "Most of the ranches have been taken and are destroyed in the hands of the armed people."
Besides livestock, the region’s natural gas exploration industry "is of the utmost importance" to Mier’s economy, the report states, and has all but ceased.
In May, several Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) workers were kidnapped and local offices in Mier were moved to Miguel Alemán. City officials said losing Pemex’s offices in the city further damaged local support businesses that depended on gas company employees to spend money in their shops.
Local officials say there has been little cooperation from state or federal authorities to provide security in the eight months Mier has been under the control of criminals.
"Always, the authorities show up two or three times per month, but they never listen to our pleas for help," the report states.
The report closes with a cry for help and a plea not to let Mier permanently fall into the hands of criminals.
"The will of the citizens of this Tamaulipan city still standing on its feet will not leave our people to die in our town, the land of our birth, our town where we grow and raise a family," the report states. "Therefore, we stand up and hope to live, to live in a town that claims justice and peace for its habitants."
A NEW START
Roma and the nearby towns across the Rio Grande have maintained a close relationship since the area was settled in the 18th century.
Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, Roma and the other towns were part of the municipality of Mier. The town occupies such an important place in the country’s history that Mexico’s tourism secretary declared it a Pueblo Magico, or "Magical Town," in 2007.
Despite the international divide between Roma and Mier, the communities still worked closely together until recent months.
"Before, we had a pretty good relationship with Mier," Salinas said. "But since this happened, the lines of communication have broken. You call the presidencia (administration) and there’s no one there.
"There’s no knowing what’s going to happen next."
Students from Miguel Alemán continue to cross the border to attend Roma’s schools every day, said Perez, the school district spokesman.
Such is the way of life here, where families straddle a river that divides two nations but not the communities that line it.
"We’re right on the river and some of our campuses are walking distance from the bridge," Perez said. "Families are looking for a safe environment for their children and their families. It’s very difficult to blame them for wanting to come over and establish residency."
That seems the case for many natives of Mier, where fighting to reclaim their town appears all but lost, for now.
Back at the apartment building in Roma, Gonzalez examined a small, empty bedroom as his sister-in-law scrubbed cabinets in the kitchen last week.
The modest dwelling rents for $380 a month, Gonzalez said. He does not have enough money to cover the rent by himself, so two other families from Mier plan on moving in with him and sharing the cost.
Salinas said virtually all the city’s rental properties are occupied. And while it has added only about 10 new water accounts per month, most of the city’s new full-time residents already owned second homes in Roma.
"It's going to take some time for things to settle down and get back to normal," Salinas said. "I don't see it anytime soon."
Even with upwards of 18 people sharing the tight quarters, Gonzalez said, living here is better than his hometown.
"With three families, we will pay for it," he said. "But we confide in God that everything will get better, with a little bit of faith."