Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Caught behind enemy lines

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

It starts at the airport. A burly guy in a hoodie drapes himself over the barrier that leads out of the parking lot. Watching. Just watching.

Most taxi drivers are on the drug cartels' payroll, ordered to spy on visitors and monitor the movements of the military and state investigators. Their license plates brazenly shed, they cruise streets dotted with paper-flower shrines marking the dead. Watching.

In the main downtown plaza, in front of City Hall and the cathedral, about a dozen guys in baggy pants with sunglasses on their heads hang out alongside the shoeshine men. They eye passersby, without speaking.
This is a city under siege.

It's a city where you avert your eyes when men clean their guns in the middle of the plazas.

Where schoolchildren are put through the paces of pecho a tierra drills, literally, "chest to the ground" — a duck-and-dive move for when the shooting starts.

Where you try to remain invisible; you never know who is standing next in line at the grocery store or the 7-Eleven.

Where a middle-aged man muses that it's turned out to be a good thing, after all, that he and his wife never had children.

The Times spent a week recently in Reynosa, passing time with and talking to a dozen residents, to learn how they cope under cartel rule. All were terrified to speak of their experiences and agreed to do so only under the strictest anonymity. Most did not want to be seen in public with a foreign reporter and would meet only in secret. One insisted on meeting across the nearby border in the United States.

"You go around with Jesus in the mouth," one man says.

Meaning, you pray.

Reynosa is the largest city in Tamaulipas, a harrowing state bordering Texas that is all but lost to federal government rule.

The Burger Kings and California-style shopping malls give the city a sense — a false sense — of normalcy. Cars circulate down wide streets. Evangelical churches and donut shops and beauty parlors are open for business.

But Reynosa, with a population of about 700,000, may be the single largest city in Mexico under the thumb of the cartels.

Drug traffickers with the powerful Gulf cartel have long dominated Tamaulipas. In Reynosa, residents more or less coexisted with the traffickers, sometimes joining them, sometimes skirting them. No authority dared challenge them.

The arrangement was shattered early this year when the paramilitary wing of the cartel, the Zetas, split furiously from their patrons, and the two ruthless groups declared war on each other. It was when, as people here put it, the devil jumped.

Battles raged in the spring and early summer, with uncounted scores of people killed. The Gulf cartel fought the Zetas, and the Mexican army fought them both. Bombs and grenades exploded at nightclubs, television stations and city offices. The man who was likely to be the state's next governor was assassinated in broad daylight, along with most of his entourage.

Combat still erupts regularly. But Reynosa is as much a prison camp as a war zone. Army patrols periodically pass through — listening to the bad guys listening to them on radio frequencies — and on the outskirts man roadblocks and hand out leaflets pleading for citizens' cooperation.

The Gulf cartel has control of the city, but Zetas lurk for about 60 miles in any direction. Highways between major Tamaulipas cities are extremely dangerous, stalked by one gang or the other. People speak using terms of war, like "refugees" and "displaced." Even the mayor is displaced. (He fled to Texas.)

The cartels have infiltrated everything: from city hall and the police department, through border customs agencies and all the way down to taco vendors and pirated CD stands.

"There is a great sense of uneasiness in the city," said Armando Javier Zertuche, a psychologist who also serves as secretary of economic development for Reynosa. "It used to be that if someone got kidnapped or killed, you knew they had something to do with [drug trafficking]. Now, with this war, everyone is at risk. It has fallen on top of regular citizens."

The Commuter

Her stomach clenched when she saw the big white cars ahead in the road, blocking the way. Maybe it's the army, her husband suggested, noting the gunmen were wearing camouflage. But she knew.

She had already been grabbed by the traffickers twice in the last few months. How she survived the third time, she doesn't really know. But survival now is the goal of every day.

She commutes regularly between Reynosa and her home city, a couple of hours away: The work is better in Reynosa. She uses all sorts of tactics to try to be safe, keeping in constant radio contact with loved ones, hiding her money in her underwear, even using U.S. roads to commute between Mexican cities.

"My life has changed totally," she says, speaking in a hotel room with a television on to cloak the conversation. "To drive on the highways is to tempt death."

She and her husband had not driven far out of Reynosa that morning in September, westward along the "Riberena" riverside highway that occasionally glimpses Texas, when they were confronted by the armed men.

The men, gruff, cursing, communicating with their comandante by radio, reeked of marijuana. One was branded, like a head of cattle, with the letter Z, for Zetas.

They threw her husband against the hood of the car, rifled through her purse and packages, demanded to know who they were and where they were going and gestured wildly with their AK-47s. They demanded to see her husband's papers, as though they were the authority. She felt herself beginning to pass out.

"You know who we are?" growled one of the men.

They stole the couple's cellphones and toiletries and CDs but, for some reason, let them go. She and her husband climbed back into their car and drove for nearly 10 miles in utter silence.

"This is out of the government's hands," says the commuter, 46 and wound tightly. "Mexico has been sacrificed and sold to the narcos. It is the narcos who have the power."

In their quiet moments, the commuter and her husband don't chat about work or movies or family. They talk about how to behave when confronted by gunmen. Remain calm and passive. Don't show defiance. Assume no help will arrive.

"The narcos rule our lives," she says. "They order. We must obey."

The Dentist

Every morning when the dentist leaves for work, her mother says a prayer: "Dear God, let my children remain invisible to the eyes of the bad men."

She rushes to finish all her tasks in the daytime, to avoid going out at night. Friends have been kidnapped, and everyone has a story of being caught in a gun battle. Her family frequently receives telephoned threats.

"The saddest part is that our authorities have washed their hands of this. If you have a problem, you have nowhere to go," says the dentist, who is 41, tall, with long, dark hair. "We are abandoned and alone."

She is seated in the back section of an empty coffee shop at a nearly deserted shopping mall. She lowers her voice when the kid mopping up comes close. She stops talking until he moves on.

She would like to open up her own dental office instead of working for the state, where she tends to those who can't afford private healthcare. But then she'd have to pay piso — extortion money to the traffickers. Her uncles, a family of bakers, pay weekly sums to the gangsters to avoid having their bakeries torched, or worse. One uncle refused, and they kidnapped and held his son until he forked over the cash.

That means the dentist's plans are on hold. That spares her one dilemma: whether to fill the cavities in the mouths of narcos.

For all the fear, intimidation and what she calls psychosis, life must go on. And so it does in fits and starts. She has ventured out at night a few times lately, always in the company of friends and usually meeting at someone's house. And always super-vigilant, watching the cars sharing the streets, casting an eye into the distance to avoid roadblocks, erected either by the military or the gangs.

Nothing is done in a casual or spontaneous way.

"You even have to be careful of your friends and workmates," she says. "You don't know who they might be related to."

The Journalist

There are other parts of Mexico where cartels also hold sway, like blood-soaked Ciudad Juarez, or drug-trafficking central Culiacan, and where journalism remains strong and active. Not Reynosa.

Throughout the state of Tamaulipas, in fact, journalists practice a profound form of self-censorship, or censorship imposed by the narcos. The gun battles and grenade attacks that raged for months were rarely, if ever, covered in the largest local newspapers.

It is also the only place in Mexico where reporters with international news media have been confronted by gunmen and ordered to leave.

"I spend all day tweeting," says a young Reynosa journalist who, like most here, is on the payroll of both his television station and the city government.

Social media networks such as Twitter have taken the place of newspapers and radio reports, with everyone from city officials to regular people tweeting alerts about a gun battle here, a blockade there. It is a kind of ad hoc warning system, but it is not journalism.

The reporter says everyone knows what can be written about and what must be ignored. Asked if his life in Reynosa is scary, he pauses for a long while, puts his head in his hands and rubs his brow.

"Not scary. Not comfortable."

Four local journalists disappeared from Reynosa in March. Only one was heard from again; the others are presumed dead. (One of those purportedly ran a news website for the Gulf cartel.)

Mexico's major television network, Televisa, has given security training to all of its employees in Tamaulipas. On-air broadcasters are told to change their clothes before leaving the building so they can't be easily identified. Everyone is told to drive nondescript cars.

Journalists know their newsrooms have been infiltrated and their publications are watched. They routinely receive telephoned warnings when they publish something the traffickers don't like; more often, they avoid anything questionable. In Ciudad Victoria, the state capital, the Zetas now have a "public information" branch that regularly sends news releases to the local papers. The papers know they have to publish the releases: editors were rounded up a while back by the Zetas who used wide planks to beat them into submission.

It is a kind of instinct, knowing at a gut level what the cartel wants divulged, the young journalist says.

"Everyone knows the limits."

The Mother

The store with the copy machines is just three blocks away, but the mother doesn't let her 13-year-old son go alone. Recruiters for the drug traffickers cruise the neighborhoods in their SUVs, armed to the teeth, "fishing" for youngsters.

A 12-year-old in her son's class was recently kidnapped. He eventually reappeared, a few cities over, but is so traumatized that he remains under psychiatric care.

Outdoor recesses have frequently been canceled; school itself is often called off or interrupted when battles break out. And in their free time, kids collect spent shells as souvenirs.

When life is so tenuous, the mother says, you seek value in agony. Her son has gotten a lot closer to her, not bothered by and in fact welcoming her frequent calls to check on him.

"That youthful rebelliousness that you would expect at his age is gone," she says.

She's a native of Tamaulipas, her 14 brothers and sisters scattered all over the state. Holidays always meant the family got together. No more.

We lost Easter week, she says, because the fighting was so heavy.

"Now we are worried about Christmas," she says. "The narcos have appropriated family activities. Even that they have taken away from us."

The Businessman

The shootout at the baseball stadium was the last straw.

The businessman was there with his wife and young children, sitting a few rows from the mayor. The wife began to sob. The 9-year-old said, "Let's move."

And so they left Mexico.

The businessman, his wife and three children moved about a mile from their home in Reynosa, across the border to Hidalgo, Texas. "How long have we been here?" he asks his son inside their new home. "Four weeks, Papi."

The only furniture in the living room is a couch, a flat-screen television and a bookcase. On top of the bookcase is a large, gold-trimmed black sombrero, a memento of home, the businessman says.

"I don't want my kids to forget Mexico."

He is a senior executive in his company, a good job with good pay and status. But it is a company with a certain public face, and he can no longer put his family at risk. He will continue to commute back to Reynosa daily, at least for the time being.

"Reynosa is a minefield," he says. "You can be threatened by a soldier or by a criminal, or just stumble upon a gunfight. Anyone who can, escapes."

No one is formally counting how many people have fled, but one city official said it could be about 10% of Reynosa's population.

"One block over, there's another family from Reynosa. And a couple blocks farther, there are four more," the businessman says. "You run into people you know at stoplights."

One time, a visitor from Mexico City came to his office. It didn't take long for the phone to ring. It was the drug traffickers, asking who the visitor was. They ordered him to stop talking to the visitor.

He has changed his cellphone number four times in the last eight months to elude threatening calls.

The businessman and his family aren't sure how many people were killed at the baseball stadium that day. No one ever knows these things with certainty. But the shooting forced the businessman into exile, a huge decision to leave his home of a lifetime.

The adjustment is clearly difficult. The children mope about, friendless, unsure of what to do. The wife is despondent, nervous. "You have to learn to start your life over," she says.

He says exile will last just two years, because after the Mexican presidential elections in 2012, the next government will make a deal with the narcos and "this war we did not ask for" will be over.

It will be back to the norm: the narcos, peacefully, in charge.


  1. Seriously??? Its pretty sad that when a mexican president tries to clean things up, he gets heat for it, and I ask the rest of you idiots how would you handle the problem? By praying to God to get rid of them? No you start a war and start hunting them and killing them, would anyone think they would go down peacefully no, which brings violence. And second the war in between the Gulf/Zetas wasn't started by Calderon. A Gulf Cartel member killed a top Zeta lieutenant named Victor Mendoza. The Zetas demanded that the Gulf cartel turn over the killer. However the Gulf Cartel refused and an all-out war has broken out between the two criminal organizations, so even if Calderon did leave office the two organizations would keep fighting even if the new government tried to reach an agreement to much blood has been spilled.

  2. yeah sure, maybe Captain America will come in and save us all, or maybe the Justice League is in on the Racket!

  3. When Mexico wants to win the war, they will. Until then the people suffer. Roadblocks like this are easy to handle from a chopper with a machine gun. It is not a police action anymore.

  4. Historically, Mexicans in general have been cowardly used to being mistreated and abused. The government of Mr. Calderon on its own cannot fix the problem because half of government officials are corrupt. If Mexicans were really that "MACHO" they would start organizing and taking matters into their own hands. These criminals are just a coward. Is it not obvious that they only get their manliness in numbers? You never see one of these thugs acting so MACHITO on their own. Only the citizenry can fix this problem if they can gather the strength and guts. Only if they would stop being cowards. Where is that inflated pride of being a Mexicano de Corazon?! They lost Texas, they lost California, they lost la revolucion and they are losing their dignity and their country.

  5. Its karma. Mexico has been living off of the United States for decades by illegally crossing the border in disrespect of the law. Now- they are crying because all that lawlessness has caught up to them. The U.S. has seen mexicans live up to the stereotype that they are lawless people who just want to come to steal and deal drugs and join gangs. That is why the U.S. really doesent care what happens down there. I
    The drug users in the U.S. are scumbags too. Thats why we put them in jail. By the way prisons in the U.S. are full of Mexican nationals- further eroding American confidence that mexicans respect any kind of legal activity.

  6. See how well gun control worked for the citizens of Mexico? The government disarmed them all for the good of the country, Just like Hitler did.. Worked for him too. I'm not saying that everyone should run rampid in the streets with firearms, but everyone should have a form of self protection for their family, home and neighborhood. The cartels, cowards, would definately think differently and less brazenly if they thought or knew that the citizens they are tourmenting had the means to defend themselves. EVERYONE in the world has the right and duty to defend self, family and those in need. Cops and government cannot be everywhere all the time, people must take some responsibility to defend themselves...throw stones, arrows, togather against the street thugs and make it demoralizing to the trashy human scavengers. Another reason to close off the borders and declair war against the human aggressors, not just in paper words, but in actions.. Get er done, done now!

  7. There is too much corruption and money is the golden rule! Soldiers and Federals turn for an extra $500 a week...and the Narcos will always be in control. Mexico needs to pay these people better and maybe there wouldn't be so much corruption. Can you imagine feeding your family with $100 a week? No way!!

  8. Wow! Tracy, the LA Times reporter spent a whole week in Reynosa 'researching'!

    'The Times spent a week recently in Reynosa, passing time with and talking to a dozen residents, to learn how they cope under cartel rule.'

    She talked to a whole dozen people in that time! Wow! What did she supposedly learn?

    'Battles raged in the spring and early summer, with uncounted scores of people killed. The Gulf cartel fought the Zetas, and the Mexican army fought them both.'

    Really now? Most evidence I have heard seems to show that the Mexican military largely has surrendered from fighting too very much... bad for the government's health. Their tactic has been more to try to let the 2 cartels occupy and control whole towns and small cities in Tamaulipas relatively unmolested by the Mexican government and military so that they can, I guess, try to kill themselves off? Where did they get this 'strategy' from?

    Of course, they got it from the US military that does the exact same thing in its various wars and occupations, where they try to sic one group against another back and forth trying to exhaust resistance to the US military's troops. The Mexican government has its military trained a lot in the US, and uses the same strategy. Meanwhile, the Mexican people themselves suffer from it while the rich Mexican rateros just keep on a stealing.


  9. White Racists are out in force today, blaming American and American-caused problems on Mexico and Mexicans! The North American, Canada accounts for 10%, drug consumption is out of control. The production and delivery of armaments by US traffickers selling to MX Narco cash buyers is rampantly out of control. But the Gringo racists only want to beat up on Latinos, not face their own problems which are the source of the near panic conditions in MX. Situations moving toward catastrophe that can't go on indefinitely DON'T!

  10. Just in case you have not noticed, some of the arms in Mexico are from the US, but we do not and have never produced and sold Soviet Block military weaponry. Nor have we made custom built south of the Mexican border hand grenades and sold them for $6.50. We don’t sell rocket launchers and anti-tank items armament at the gun shows. We also don’t decapitate out neighbors and leave signed gang signs near the bodies. Gringos (dirty white person) bashing mexicanos?
    Do you wear sports wear made in other countries manufactured via child labor? Did you bash “gringos” also when they spoke against the resale and purchase of those slavery items? Let me state it simply so there is no misunderstanding… stop being so friggin’ politically correct and state it like it is, if the same atrocities were in Africa, Ireland, Spain, China, Chile, or even Alabama, by whatever ethnicity, then the attention should be spoken and pointed honestly and openly towards those involved.
    Bashing? We haven’t seen the Arians or the IRA in Mexico causing this problem now have we? Call it what it is and to hell with political correct racisms and slurs. Point the finger at who is doing it and call it and them what they are, human trash and puke eating vile cancers to society.
    Gringo racists? Guess you told us what you really think of us all in your own raciest manner. Gringo racists? Racists come in every color and creed, don’t believe me, jump in your tennis shoes and walk through various neighborhoods and find out for yourself. If no one used drugs then the problem would jus go away, right? Wrong bud, they would just find some other crippling device, oh, lets say, pirated music, imitation name brand cell phones, denim jeans, shoes, gaming devices…. Get it?
    Gringo racists? Guess that makes us American Indians raciest too, ya’ know, if, General Custard had just stayed out of our neighborhood…. Get the picture. I have been an American Indian and Law Enforcement Officer for over 32 years now, want to see some real racism? Try telling someone that they violated the law and human rights no matter what their moral upbringing and home government has told them is ok to do, as long as you don’t get caught at it. Now throw the same people in a free society with true due process and watch the cancer grow. Racism?
    Solve the problem simply by telling Mexico to stand up for itself and put their hands back into their pockets, no more freebies and checks. Close the border, punish the guilty in ALL countries, everyone is accountable for their actions. It’s their government, stand up or fall down…Oops, too late! Got bad guys in your neighborhood? Going to call a cop or man up and do something about it? Truth is, if reporters actually reported the truth and not politically correct hatred and one sided lies, then the devil would not get so much free press now would he! And why do I post anonymous? So raciest can't get to the innocent, our families, I stand on the streets every day in harms way, but I won't make my loved ones suffer by my choice of doing my part for others. But at least we few do take action daily, not just armchair whining and crying wolf to scare small children and old folks. Wanna’ real solution that’s anit-politically correct? Enable the unarmed victims to fight against their aggressors. Problem solved in real time.

  11. "But the Gringo racists only want to beat up on Latinos, not face their own problems which are the source of the near panic conditions in MX."

    WE are the source of the near panic conditions in Mexico? You've got to be kidding me. The narcos have been infesting Mexico for years, Claderon declared war on them, and then the violence increased. You think if America didnt sell guns the cartels would magically stop fighting? Stupid...

  12. @November 8, 2010 3:31 PM
    No but if ya'll stop doing drugs it sure would. Demand and supply buddy. Learn it. Stupid........

  13. @ the American Indian and Law Enforcement Officer for over 32 years, I would invite you to come down here and actually fight some real crime, not pick up some fuckin alcoholics which are raving your communities, which Indians communities are known for. I bet you by the end of the day, you would be shitting your pants. So don't come talk to us about picking up arms and this and that when you don't know alright. You have to live here to get a better understanding and unless you don't live here, I suggest you STFU!! IDIOTS!!

  14. Been overseas in the sand box, served my country many years for crap pay.. so, my little friend, been there, done that and lived to tell. Earned my right to say, not just hide behind the line like most. As for drunk indians, yep, thats a problem they have to deal with themselves. Shit my pants? Had many occassions to do so, but I didn't. Watched my friends spatter like water baloons to free trash from their own country and aggression. What have you done... type... as for coming down there..been there too but a lot further south than you little problem area, and then spent 20 years keeping the trash out along the border with the USBP... what did you do?...type and gripe..been shot three times in the line of duty, had 1/2 of my right leg and hip relaced, been stabbed, cut and beat with numerous scars that still hurt, seen the faces of the innocent and the not so as the life left them for greater places. I still work the places you wouldn't even drive with your boyfriend.. I have earned the right...what have you done? What have you done? type, type, type, By the way, I do know whats going on, why don't you?

  15. I ve been saying this for months.... Calderon should make a truce... give cartels they re territories and tax them.... if one invades the other.. take them out!!!! its easier one that all of them at once!!! more tourism, better economy, more money, less deaths. why would you go and kill Tormenta, if the town of Matamoros was peaceful and he just dedicated himself to drug traffiking only!!!!! dumbass Calderon... now guess whos gonna try to come in??? the child killers, rapists, extortionist, called the Zetacuaches.....RIP TT


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