Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

Tamaulipas, Mexico’s Black Hole

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - Tamaulipas state has become the black hole of organised crime in Mexico. But there are few accounts of the rapid social breakdown that the northeastern border state has experienced since the start of the year, because the local press is silenced.

“We have no option, we simply have no option,” the local correspondent for one Mexican newspaper told IPS by phone, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Like so many other journalists, he refused to send his newspaper information on the assassination of the murder of the mayor of Hidalgo, a small town near Ciudad Victoria, the capital of the state of Tamaulipas.

On Sunday Aug. 29, the mayor, Marco Antonio Leal, was shot by gunmen in SUV’s as he was driving through Hidalgo. His 10-year-old daughter was shot in the leg. His predecessor, Cesáreo Rocha, had been shot and killed just two weeks earlier, on Aug. 13.

On Monday Aug. 30, the newspapers of Ciudad Victoria published funeral notices for Leal, but not articles on his murder, as they had all received threats, apparently from organised crime groups.

Tamaulipas, which has an extensive border with the U.S. state of Texas, as well as one of the main Gulf of Mexico ports, Tampico, is the site of a vicious turf war between the Gulf Cartel, which controls the border cities, and Los Zetas.


Los Zetas is a crime syndicate made up of former elite Mexican army commandos who reportedly received training in the U.S. at the School of the Americas but deserted to become the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel in the late 1990s. They then turned against their former employers or partners.

“The original Los Zetas started out carrying out targeted killings with military-style precision and efficiency,” Jorge Luis Sierra, a reporter who specialises in security and military issues, told IPS.

“But then the excesses started, and now Los Zetas are no longer the old army deserters, but are units made up of a mix of civilians, police, former soldiers, and ‘sicarios’ (hired killers) from other syndicates, who follow three strategies: they are narcos, terrorists and guerrillas, all at the same time,” Sierra said.

The murder of Mayor Leal occurred on an exceptionally violent weekend, after explosions in the cities of Reynosa and Tampico and a car bomb that went off outside the Televisa Victoria TV station, which had no broadcasting signal on Friday Aug. 27.

On Sunday, at least eight people were killed in a 12-hour gun battle between gunmen and the military in the town of Panuco, Veracruz state, just south of the Tamaulipas border. Several local residents reported on the firefight as it was occurring, on the Twitter microblogging site.

But these were neither the only nor the worst cases. The front-runner candidate for governor of Tamaulipas, Rodolfo Torre of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was gunned down — along with his campaign manager and three other supporters — only six days before the regional elections in July.

And just last week, the bodies of 72 migrants were found by the Mexican military, blindfolded and bound, on a ranch in San Fernando near the Texas border, allegedly massacred after they refused to work for Los Zetas.

Sierra said there are several possible interpretations of the killings, reported as the biggest massacre to date in Mexico’s bloody drug war:

“One is that Los Zetas are the most brutal and violent group we have known yet; two, that maybe they had been discovered there, and they killed (all the migrants) before leaving the place; and three, that another group did it and blamed Los Zetas, to get them wiped out of the area,” he said.

Los Zetas, he said, never claim responsibility for their actions. Their “communication policy” is simply to let their actions speak for themselves, he added.

Their enemies, on the other hand, use psychological warfare tactics, like car bombs. Seen from that point of view, “killing 72 migrants and blaming Los Zetas could be an act of propaganda and could form part of a psychological warfare strategy,” he speculated.

Years ago, Los Zetas found a gold mine: kidnapping undocumented migrants.

According to estimates based on official statistics and figures from non-governmental organisations, some 500,000 undocumented migrants from Central and South America cross Mexico from south to north every year in their attempt to reach the United States.

And more than 10,000 were kidnapped in the six months between September 2009 and February 2010, according to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), a government body.

They are kidnapped for ransom or obligated by groups like Los Zetas to serve as forced labour.

At the opening of a conference in Mexico City on human trafficking, Congresswoman Rosi Orozco said this criminal activity was one of the three main sources of income for organised crime, and that it “has grown in most states, to the point that it is now a national security issue.”

But while the phenomenon is seen nationwide, there has been a huge upsurge in an area of Tamaulipas known as the “frontera chica” or “little border”, made up of cities in the northwest of the state.

This strategic drug trafficking corridor is hotly disputed by the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, and, more recently — according to local residents — the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

“There is a shocking shortage of intelligence” in the entire security apparatus, “especially if we consider that this was not the first case of mass kidnapping of undocumented migrants,” Sierra said. “How can organised crime have kidnapped and killed 72 migrants without having been detected by military intelligence?”

The bodies were found because the only survivor, an 18-year-old Ecuadorean migrant, walked 22 kilometres with a bullet wound to the neck until reaching a military checkpoint, where he reported the killings.

The worst case scenario, Sierra said, is that these lawless areas will expand even further, until they encompass “strategic points like oil installations, financial areas, government offices, or urban areas with large concentrations of population.”

 
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