Situations of risk, caravans, blockades, banners.
Those terms became common refrains in the drug-war lexicon after two of the top criminal organizations in Northern Mexico went to war a year ago.
In late February 2010, the Gulf Cartel and its former ally, the Zetas, began a bloody struggle in northern Tamaulipas for the main drug trafficking routes into South Texas.
A year later, ICE agent Jaime Zapata was killed and fellow agent Victor Avila injured when they were fired upon — allegedly by Zetas — while traveling in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. The death of Zapata, a Brownsville native, triggered a crackdown on organized crime on both sides of the border.
It was a bloody exclamation point on the anniversary of the Zetas-Gulf split, which, according to various sources, was a powder keg waiting to explode.
According to a source with firsthand knowledge of criminal activity in Tamaulipas, the Zetas cartel — which began as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel — broke away from its parent organization after Gulf leaders looked to form a truce with a former enemy: the Sinaloa Cartel.
The source said that by that time, the Zetas gang had strayed from its original objective of enforcement for the Gulf Cartel and had diversified into several criminal enterprises, including kidnapping, extortion and robbery.
In late 2009, Zeta bosses Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano and Miguel Angel “El40” Treviño called a meeting of top Zetas in Matamoros, where they voted to split from the Gulf Cartel, the source said. After the two organizations split, they both began to secretly arm themselves in anticipation of conflict.
The fuse on the powder keg was sparked in February 2010, after Zeta lieutenant Sergio “Concord 3” Peña was killed in Reynosa by Samuel “Metro 3” Flores Borrego.
The Zetas issued an ultimatum to the Gulf Cartel: Give us Metro 3’s head, or we’re coming for you.
“Concord 3 was a close ally of El40, so he asked (the Gulf Cartel) for the head of Metro 3,” the source said. “The Gulf simply said, ‘Come and get it.’”
In response to the fighting, Zeta foes joined the Gulf Cartel and sent their armies to help “exterminate the Zetas.” Those allies included members of the Sinaloa Cartel, La Familia Michoacana and later Cartel del Milenio. The Zetas briefly received help from the Tijuana Cartel, which was also at odds with Sinaloa.
Soon after the fighting broke out in Reynosa, one of the Gulf leaders — Antonio Ezekiel “Tony Tormenta” Cárdenas Guillén — and his personal guard, Los Escorpiones, rolled into Valle Hermoso, taking the city from the Zetas by force and stringing up several municipal police and transit police — who were on the Zetas’ payroll — from light posts as a warning.
The fighting spread throughout the state of Tamaulipas and later throughout Mexico as both organizations fought for control of the main highway that connected the border area with the rest of the state. Those roads pass by cities — including Valle Hermoso, San Fernando, Matamoros, Reynosa, Ciudad Mier, Miguel Alemán and Camargo — that now have gained notoriety for firefights.
Residents of those cities reported seeing convoys of 20 to 50 — and even up to 100 — SUVs carrying gunmen. The trucks soon became notorious for showing markers of gang allegiance, with each side placing decals or paint on vehicles to keep track of them. According to the source, the Gulf Cartel used decals spelling out CDG — for Cartel del Golfo — and also used XXX making reference to the alliance among the cartels. The Zetas simply painted large Zs on their trucks.
THE WAR THAT NEVER HAPPENED
Much to the chagrin of the people, both the press and the local authorities throughout the state turned a blind eye to the violence and pretended it wasn’t there, said a refugee from San Fernando who now lives in McAllen. The Brownsville Herald is referring to the refugee as Miguel Dominguez to protect his identity and safety.
“The local media never reported the firefights,” Dominguez said. “At first the state had a website that reported firefights, but that went away after a while. They just denied everything and said it was psychosis.”
A leaked communiqué published by WikiLeaks — written by the U.S. Embassy in Monterrey and dated Feb. 26, 2010 — details how the violence spread.
It also notes how one of Northern Mexico’s leading newspapers, El Norte, “had been surprisingly muted in its coverage of the recent violence characterizing (residents’ fears) as ‘psychosis’ resulting from living under constant narco threats.”
Former Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez Flores repeatedly made public statements claiming that the reports of firefights were false, saying that they were the products of “psychosis.”
In Reynosa, city officials set up Twitter and Facebook accounts where they reported “situations of risk,” warning the public to stay away from certain locations. The messages never confirmed actual firefights or gave details, but Dominguez said they were helpful. Similar steps were taken by civilians like him in order to keep safe.
“We all became twitteros in order know if the roads were clear or if we were going to get shot while buying groceries,” he said.
Former Matamoros Mayor Erick Silva told The Brownsville Herald in a previous interview that stories of fighting in his city were all lies and yellow journalism. Days before that interview, Brownsville Mayor Pat M. Ahumada Jr. had warned residents not to go into Matamoros after receiving intelligence that several police officers had been executed in their headquarters.
When asked about that firefight, Silva simply said, “All lies.”
On Nov. 5, 2010, various firefights broke out throughout the day in and around Matamoros. The three-way battle among cartels and Mexican troops continued through the night and into the next day, spreading to Reynosa.
The Zetas’ Cárdenas Guillén was killed amid the fighting Nov. 5. Mexican federal officials reported about 10 dead, while The Brownsville Herald reported more than 100 dead in eight firefights over two days.
In the end, the Zetas’ push was repelled by the unaligned forces of the Gulf Cartel and the military.
Dominguez remembers growing up as the son of a wealthy rancher from San Fernando who would travel freely throughout the state for business and pleasure. That leisurely lifestyle ended when the violence started.
About six months ago, Dominguez and his family packed up and left their properties after growing tired of living in fear and paying extortion money to alleged members of organized crime.
Their relocation was a scenario repeated throughout the region, with those who could move their families to the United States doing so, and those of lesser means moving south to calmer areas like Queretaro, said George W. Grayson a professor at the College of William and Mary. Grayson wrote the book, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?
The exodus Grayson describes was never more apparent than when about 300 residents of Ciudad Mier — whose population numbered fewer than 400 — fled their “Pueblo Mágico” after repeated death threats by the Zetas.