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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Tamaulipas: Mexico's Playa Bagdad mixes sun, sand and drug trafficking

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat TY "Tu Fren" from AP News

One man who was fishing with friends at the mouth of the Rio Grande, recalled seeing a would-be border crosser who cartel gunmen brought back from the river between the two countries at gunpoint.They pointed guns at him and brought him back,” he said.  “If you want to cross, it is with them.”

LAYA BAGDAD, Mexico (AP) — At the very eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border there’s a long strip of sand where the Rio Grande meets the sea. It is called Playa Bagdad — or ‘Bagdad Beach.’

Unlike the Tijuana-Imperial Beach border on the western end, here there are no steel pilings marching out to sea to stop migrants from swimming, wading or paddling across to the United States.

In Playa Bagdad, which is spelled ‘Playa Baghdad’ by the Drug Enforcement Agency, it’s apparently unnecessary: This is a beach for drugs and crime, not migrants.

Here, there are no walls or border guards, just miles of dunes and Gulf coast beaches marked only by simple wooden huts or awnings held up by sticks.

The only highway ends abruptly in a handful of structures populated by beachgoers looking for alcohol and fishermen who might catch sharks one day and unload cocaine the next.

On the U.S. side, there is not much more besides a single Customs and Border Protection checkpoint, a gun store complete with a shooting range, and a SpaceX hangar where some rockets that might reach Mars are being tested. The nearest city of Brownsville, Texas is 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.

Where the two countries meet lies an expanse of water perhaps 25 yards (23 meters) wide, so shallow that you could walk across at low tide, but few people do.

The reason it’s kept under wraps is simple: Cartels tend to use these coastal plains for purposes like transporting drugs — or as the DEA notes, dumping bodies clandestinely. And they put a premium at keeping migrants away.

“They want to keep the heat off this spot,” said Marco Antonio Álvarez, a rail-thin old man with a greying beard and leather-like skin toughened by the sun.

Álvarez, who spent time in U.S. jails for migrant smuggling, says he still gets paid $300 per month — he won’t say by whom — to watch the expanse of water and two boats.
“If people start crossing the river, you start seeing (CBP) patrol vehicles show up on the other side,” said Álvarez, who usually sits sheltered from the sun in the shade of an old plywood camper that once served as a seafood stand.

Playa Bagdad appeared on maps in 1848, when the border was drawn during the Mexico-American War. Later, it became the seaport for cotton produced in Texas during the Civil War.

The origin of the settlement’s name is lost to the annals of history. A ship might have run aground and been looted there, a scene that might have reminded some of the “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.” Or the person who named it might have been a fan of “The 1,001 and Nights.”

Mike Vigil, a former DEA operation chief, remembered one story which maintains that the U.S. Army might have stationed some camels at Playa Bagdad during its experiments with those animals in the 19th century.

But contraband has always been here in one form or another. Centuries back, silver was trafficked through. During Prohibition, alcohol could be procured. And in the 1980s and 1990s, it was marijuana and Colombian cocaine that made its way across.

DEA Special Agent Sammy Parks said Playa Bagdad is now a center for loading and unloading drugs bound for the U.S. market.

“It is a short, easy route without much law enforcement,” added Vigil.

Of the 1,215 members of the National Guard that Mexico has deployed to Tamaulipas, none are seen in Playa Bagdad. They are mainly in the conflictive border cities further west along the Rio Grande Valley.

Three decades ago, people like Álvarez combined fishing with small-scale migrant smuggling, guiding people across to Brownsville for $20 per head. That all ended in the 1980s and 1990s.

“When they started to sell crack, you couldn’t do business anymore because everything was controlled by the mafia,” Álvarez said.

The city of Matamoros, whose territory covers Playa Bagdad, touts the beach as a great tourist destination.

But Álvarez said that drug cartels completely control it.

“You have to pay them a quota and get their permission,” he notes.

For years, the violent state of Tamaulipas, where Playa Bagdad is located, has been ruled by silence and fear, and the state government itself is suspected of having been infiltrated by drug gangs, with two former governors currently on trial on corruption charges.

One of the key drug-cartels operating in the area is the now-splintered Gulf Cartel.

In 2000, the Gulf Cartel’s armed enforcement wing, The Zetas, split and began an all-out offensive. The Zetas later split themselves again, but still control the westernmost part of the state, while the Gulf Cartel has also splintered and controls the east.

The federal government did not respond to requests for comment, although the current state government headed by an opposition-party governor says it is actively collaborating with U.S. and Mexican federal authorities to combat cartels, often by sharing information.

These days though, the only law enforcement The Associated Press saw were four state police officers who rode through quickly on two ATVS and just as quickly left.

According to the DEA, small fishing boats load drugs in Playa Bagdad and run it up the coast to Padre Island, in Texas. Other boats are known to drop off goods which are then loaded onto vehicles and taken into the U.S. by highway.

Some of the border crossings themselves are under de facto cartel control on the Mexican side.

One man who was fishing with friends at the mouth of the Rio Grande, recalled seeing a would-be border crosser who cartel gunmen brought back from the river between the two countries at gunpoint.

“They pointed guns at him and brought him back,” he said. “If you want to cross, it is with them.”

He was one of the few who were willing to talk, and even then, the conversation died down every time a boat passed. “You never know who is listening,” said the man, declining to give his name.

There are more than 6,000 disappeared persons in Tamaulipas alone.

“Mass graves have been discovered in the Playa Baghdad area, and there’s a local threat about being ‘taken to the beach,’ which implies someone will disappear,” said Parks, the DEA agent.

The only official presence is a sandbag guard post on the highway between Playa Bagdad and Matamoros, although locals protested at the post this month, saying it was only used to demand bribes.

For Álvarez, “the Guard” doesn’t mean President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s National Guard either. Instead it means “former soldiers, marines and police who report to the gangs.”

Further down the coast in the hamlet of Playa Bagdad, there is a lively scene. Small seafood restaurants stand on stilts and the sound of mariachi music mixes with the shouts of vendors selling oysters. A marine guard post offered some semblance of protection to tourists.

Then, a big man with close-cropped hair descended from a truck selling roast chickens to ask what journalists were doing in the area.

“As tourists you can film whatever you want,” the man said, emphasizing the word tourists and suggesting anybody else should get out.

“Here there is freedom of expression.”


  1. Very lucrative route for whomever controls it. If you go to south padre island you can find pot and kilos floating around once in a while. If you go to boca chica beach and head towards the border you will see cdg men on the other side.

  2. There is not much in terms of controls on the US side either. I mean those really in charge in the US administration dont REALLY want to stop the flow of drugs.

    I mean, things are going reasonably well as they are and the implications of too few drugs at home would just be too significant to want to contemplate.

    1. Contraband equals job security for all involved.

  3. Sure there is freedom of expression as long as you are not stupid enough to try to excercise it!

  4. Poor Mr. Alvarez. He is in deep shit for talking candidly about the area he us keeping his eye on including exactly what he gets paid. Whoever interviewed him wrote this article betrayed his trust. Surely he didn't think whatever he said would be published.


  6. Its a great place to party, i was there drinkin, ridin quads on the beach, and even bought some bomb ass blow from some fisherman. Rocket fuel and cheap..

    1. Be glad you made it back home that time, but you are playing Russian Roulette by buying drugs down there.

  7. Earlier today, truck of CDN sicarios got lit tf up by ministeriales (I think)

  8. That is a creepy place. You know there are many people there up to no good. The river mouth there is tiny, looks like 10' across but it gets deep. No fence, no signs, people hanging out there like it's normal - but it's really like a standoff, waiting for the sun to go down. Border patrol cruising the U.S. side every once in a while. In the evening, the night vision googles go on, but the real activity are the small fishing boats. They cruise out at sea like there is no border.

  9. Great post and article fellas, lastima que mi mexico lindo y mi frontera tamaulipeca sea llegado asi. Yo se como hombre uno no se deja de otro pero tambien si no fueramos asi de tantos huevos estubieramos viviendo mas felizes todos.

  10. I wouldn't trust those meth out Zetas

  11. There is always some comedy in these stories. I chuckled when I read "the state government itself is suspected of having been infiltrated by drug gangs". Really? Oh man, I am so disappointed. Dude, it's a given that the entire state apparatus is controlled by various cartels depending on the area.


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