The residents of San Fernando have become used to seeing soldiers patrolling the Mexican city, but they say they do not feel at ease because they believe drug traffickers have only withdrawn and could return once the military presence is reduced.
San Fernando, a city in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas and some 130 kilometers (about 80 miles) from the U.S. border, has been the scene of some of the worst massacres in the wave of drug-related violence that has claimed the lives of nearly 50,000 people in Mexico.
The Los Zetas and Gulf cartels fought a turf war in this city of 30,000 in 2010 whose scars are still visible.
Gunmen massacred 72 migrants, the majority of them from Central America, a mass grave containing more than 230 bodies was found and several residents remain missing.
“The situation is much calmer now,” a farmer who drives his pick-up every day down a dirt road to reach the Mendez-San Fernando highway said.
Burned and abandoned SUVs, many of them with bullet holes, are scattered around the area, the detritus of battles fought by the rival cartels.
A burned car dealership, which was hit by large-caliber rounds and shredded by grenades, sits at the city’s entrance.
Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel fought for San Fernando, whose size belies its importance as a strategic stop on the smuggling route from Central America.
“San Fernando is a highway node,” Gen. Miguel Angel Gonzalez, who commands the 8th Military Zone in Tamaulipas, said.
One of the most important smuggling routes from the south passes through the city, from which drugs are shipped to various points along the border with the United States via dozens of highways and dirt roads.
During the turf war, the cartels were kidnapping “between seven and eight people a week” because many young men were involved in the drug trade, a woman told Efe on condition of anonymity.
“If the army wasn’t here, organized crime would return,” the woman said, adding that drug traffickers had withdrawn to nearby towns.
More than 1,500 army troops were deployed in San Fernando following the August 2010 migrant massacre, with 100 soldiers now performing traffic control and other law enforcement duties because the city’s police officers were arrested for aiding Los Zetas.
Residents say they “do not feel 100 percent safe” despite the constant army patrols around the city.
“We cannot be at ease because there are still women here who report everything they see and hear to the narcos,” a university student said.
After Los Zetas took control of San Fernando, Martin Omar Estrada, known as “El Kilo,” ran the police, bought officials and threatened others to become the city’s “absolute owner,” residents said.
Estrada was behind the massacre of the 72 migrants and the kidnap-murders of 236 people traveling on buses that passed through San Fernando.
Gunmen watched the buses that arrived from the south and searched them to make sure that hired guns from rival gangs did not enter San Fernando, Edgar Huerta, a former Zetas member, told the Federal Police.
Los Zetas founder Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as “El Lazca,” ordered the searches of the buses, Huerta told investigators.
“‘El Lazca,’ the top boss of Los Zetas, ordered us to investigate them and if there was something, to murder them,” Huerta said during questioning by federal investigators.
The suspect told investigators that Zetas gunmen checked where travelers came from and the messages on their cell phones to see if they were involved in the drug trade.
“Those who weren’t, no, El Kilo let them go and the other ones he killed,” the suspect said.
Suspected gunmen were taken to an abandoned warehouse about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from San Fernando and executed with assault rifles.
The bodies of dozens of people who disappeared during the turf war have not yet been found, San Fernando residents said.