photo illustration by: Todd Wiseman
by Julian Aguilar
The Texas Tribune
The bullet holes on the truck tell the story, the man in this border town said on Easter Sunday. The shootouts are no longer relegated to the outskirts of town.
The pickup with Texas plates sits parked; bullet holes have pierced the sides of the body panels. “That happened just right here, the other day,” he says, in Spanish, of the shootout. The man, who asked not to be identified out of fear for his safety, lives less than a dozen blocks from the border that Miguel Alemán shares with the South Texas town of Roma.
“It’s not fear anymore. It’s terrorism. They are against each other, they are against the police, they are against the residents, the businesses,” he says. A convoy of masked Mexican military units parks close by and establishes a perimeter surrounding the town plaza. Egidio Torre Cantú, governor of Tamaulipas, is in town, briefly, to speak with area mayors and address safety issues after the Gulf Cartel and Zetas clashed here last Thursday, the latter purportedly torching a furniture store and car dealerships.
Just five months ago, many residents of nearby Ciudad Mier fled following a pre-dawn attack by Los Zetas, who rolled into town setting fire to the police station, shooting out power transformers and leaving bullet-riddled buildings and vehicles in their wake. A Lion’s Club here was the temporary home to hundreds of Ciudad Mier residents, and the people of Miguel Alemán and Roma rallied around the scared refugees, offering help and supplies.
Miguel Alemán, a town of about 27,000, is no stranger to nearby violence. But last week’s shootout has many here wondering if it will be the latest border city to fall to Mexico’s ongoing violence. “I don’t go out as much. Someone could catch a stray bullet,” says the man. “Or they could catch a bullet that’s not so stray.”
While some residents say they think twice about going out after dark, the city isn’t completely empty after sunset. On Easter Saturday the plaza played host to a modest carnival; women gossiped, food vendors pedaled local fare and children kicked up dust as they played. The next morning a woman stood two blocks away from the international bridge, where scaffolding serves as a makeshift tower from which soldiers keep watch on the city. She was selling cascarones, confetti-filled eggshells, which are an Easter tradition. She says the violence is exaggerated and is frustrated with the media coverage, though she admits there are shootouts. She says they are confined to the outskirts of the city, however, and her family still travels on local highways. Still, she advises a reporter against walking around the city to ask questions or take pictures.
“They’ll approach you and ask what you are doing and why you are doing it,” she says. Asked who “they” is — law enforcement or the narcos — she says it could be either. Using her name is also out of the question, she adds.
The Good and the Bad
It’s not a typical battle for the hearts and minds in the region, but that’s what the townspeople say is happening.
“There are the good ones and the bad ones,” says a hotel manager in Roma, Ms. Diaz, who asked to be identified by her last name only. “The Gulf protects people,” she says. The “bad ones” — those who kidnap, extort and kill indiscriminately — are Los Zetas, she says.
Others say that there is no difference but concede the two labels are the de facto terms commonly used to differentiate between the groups. “They say the Gulf members drive around in their trucks with their windows down and are friendly. The ‘bad ones’ you can’t see them. They drive around with their dark windows up,” says Diaz.
An urban legend, impossible to verify but widely repeated, has also emerged: An elderly man is pulled over, beaten and his truck stolen. Approached later as he’s walking home, another group confronts him and he explains to them what happens. They force him into a truck and drive him home. Hours later the group returns his truck to him and he’s escorted outside and asked to identify the head of a man displayed in the truck’s bed.
“Is this one of the men who stole you truck?” they ask.
The man confirms it is and the group, purported to be members of the Gulf cartel, is satisfied and leaves the man with his truck — and the severed head.
Ciudad Miguel Alemán sits at the northern tip of an area where the highways that radiate toward the rest of the state are considered some of the most dangerous in the country. A block from the plaza a fork divides the main road into two highways: southwest to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, and slightly south and east toward Reynosa, across the border from McAllen. In its most recent travel warning issued last week, the U.S. State Department says it has banned government employees from traveling parts of those highways due to the danger. People in the town talk of family members being carjacked or kidnapped on the routes.
Analysts say the situation will only continue and in some cases, worsen. In its latest report Global intelligence outfit STRATFOR explains various pockets of Tamaulipas are still Zeta strongholds, including Nuevo Laredo, across the Texas border from Laredo, and farther away, Monterrey. The Gulf controls what STRATFOR says is a lucrative section of territory that extends from Matamoros, an important port that borders Brownsville, and appears to be in control of Reynosa. As they look to consolidate power and move into Gulf territory, the Zetas could also be their own worst enemy. The attack against two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents in February that led to the death of Agent Jaime Zapata only served to put more focus on the criminal gang. It indicated to some experts that the Zeta leadership could be losing control over younger, inexperienced and undisciplined soldiers — a byproduct of the group’s recruitment efforts to replenish its ranks following the arrests and deaths of members.
“A planned and sanctioned attack against U.S. officials would be certain to bring the full weight of the U.S. government onto the perpetrators, and this is not something the top Zeta leadership would want to invite,” the report says. “This suggests the possibility that lower-level regional leaders either lost control of their operational cells or actually condoned and/or ordered the attack.”
There are also rumors of a possible split between two top-Zeta leaders, Miguel Treviño-Morales, known by his call sign “Zeta-40”and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano “El Lazca.” Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar says he’s heard the same rumors, and says it could be due to Treviño, the second in command, attempting to go “above Lazcano’s head.”
“It’s a controlling issue. Miguel Trevino is a wild man, that guy is not stable and he’s got to go over his head and Lazcano doesn’t like it,” Cuellar says. He’s careful to clarify that to this point, his sources say the split is only a rumor.
Phil Jordan, who served as the director of the El Paso Intelligence Center during his role as a special agent in charge for the DEA’s Dallas division, says the dangerous security situation in Ciudad Juárez will only escalate. He credits the assessment to Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s stranglehold on the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization, commonly referred to as the Juárez cartel.
“In my wildest expectations I never imagined it would get this bad, in my 30-plus years, but it has,” he says. Jordan calls Guzman the “Michael Corleone of Mexico”, a testament to his ability to consolidate his power and use tactics as brutal as any other cartel leader.
“It’s like what [former Juárez cartel leader] Amado Carrillo Fuentes used to do. If he suspected one out of ten in a group, he would kill all ten, that way there would be no doubt,” says Jordan.
STRATFOR posits that Guzman has taken control of Chihuahua City and the outskirts of Juárez, though Carrillo Fuentes still maintains control over the city’s downtown and its border crossings into El Paso. He is losing ground, however, and the intelligence firm credits the prevalence of extortions and kidnappings in the city to that. It is a means for the cartel to replenish its coffers, which is necessary due to choked off supply lines that limit the amount of contraband the group can import.
“As hard as it is to imagine, the violence in Juárez may actually get worse,” the report states.
Jordan credits Guzman’s stability and power to the control he has over the government. While he calls Mexican President Felipe Calderón one of the most honest presidents in the republic’s history, he says the leader can only control so much.
“He [Guzman] is as powerful as he is and could be the Pablo Escobar of Mexico because of his connections,” says Jordan. “This is not putting any blame on Calderón or any of his upper echelon people, but it’s very hard to control a systematic corruption that has been in place for a long time.”
STRATFOR analysts do not allege corruption within the administration, but do say Guzman and the Sinaloa seemed to have fared better since Calderón’s crackdown on the cartels that began in 2006.
“With the possible exception of Los Zetas, the fragmentation and power vacuums have weakened or destroyed cartels while Sinaloa has either been unaffected or strengthened at the primary beneficiary.”