Thursday, May 12, 2011

Border region lives in fear amid Mexico cartel war

Border region lives in fear amid Mexico cartel war

By Michael Deibert

Thu May 12 2011, 1:12 am ET

MATAMOROS, Mexico (AFP) – Plastered to the front of the morgue in this border city, where only hours before a battle raged between Mexican security forces and gunmen believed to belong to a local drug cartel, the faces stare back, haunting in their silence and mystery.

Carlos Alberto Sanchez, 17 years old. Fernando Tejeda Loya, 39 years old. Kelvin Alvin Palomo Nava, 22 years old. Dozens of photos and names belonging to people who have disappeared in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas over the last year.

From inside the squat, gray structure, a sickly whiff of human decay is unmistakable.

Since Mexican authorities exhumed a total of 183 bodies from 40 separate pits in the state over the last month, the families of hundreds of missing people have offered DNA samples to Mexican authorities.

At this point, only three of the bodies have been identified.

This part of Mexico was once a booming hub for cross-border trade between the country and the United States -- which operates hundreds of low-wage factories on the Mexican side.

Today, it finds itself in the midst of a terrifying war of attrition between the city's indigenous Gulf Cartel, their former partners known as Los Zetas and the elements of government power that have not been bought or bullied into the drug traffickers' service.

Near the morgue, black-clad policemen, their identities hidden under ski masks, set up check points, their assault rifles at the ready, while convoys of Mexican marines speed down broad boulevards.

"There is practically an anarchy here," says a businessman from the nearby city of Reynosa. "Many people have abandoned their homes."

The Gulf Cartel, which came into force under the wing of a Matamoros crime boss who had made his money bootlegging, by the late 1990s was being led by former mechanic Osiel Cardenas Guillen.

It was Cardenas Guillen who recruited the group of 30 Mexican special forces soldiers that would become Los Zetas to act as the cartel's military shock troops.

The group has since changed and expanded through the killing or arrest of most of its founding members and the addition of elements such as rogue soldiers from the Kabiles, a feared special forces branch of the Guatemalan military with an abysmal human rights record.

With Cardenas Guillen in jail in the United States and the leadership of the Gulf Cartel having shifted to his two brothers and a former Matamoros police officer, tensions between the two organizations grew until they exploded into open conflict in early 2010, each seeking to control lucrative drug shipment routes heading north.

Though a substantial portion of the the Zetas membership appears to be drawn from around the state of Veracruz, the group as a whole lacks the deep regional roots connect to many Mexican drug trafficking organizations whose very names -- Cartel de Sinaloa, Cartel de Tijuana, La Familia Michoacana -- speak of their histories in the regions that gave birth to them.

"The introduction of the Zetas changed the whole panorama of drug trafficking in Mexico," says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville who has studied the region extensively.

"Because of these new paramilitary practices, other groups have been made to raise their standards of violence, as well."

In August 2010, the Zetas were blamed for the slaying of 72 Central American migrants whose bodies were found at a ranch in Tamaulipas.

In June of that year, the leading candidate for the governorship of the state -- brother of the its current governor -- was slain along with four others.

This past February, a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was shot to death while driving in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi and a known member of Los Zetas was subsequently arrested for his killing.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon militarized his country's battle against Mexico's drug traffickers in December 2006, more than 34,600 have died in drug-related violence.

Along with the violence has grown a pervasive culture of corruption and fear. After the discovery of the most recent mass graves, 16 police officers were detained under suspicion of involvement.

Many newspapers on the Tamaulipas side of the border have almost stopped covering drug-related violence entirely.

Now, with one of Cardenas Guillen's brothers having perished in a wild firefight with Mexican security forces in Matamoros last year and the command of the Zetas having passed to Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (known as El Verdugo, or The Executioner), Tamaulipas remains hotly contested and divided.

The Gulf Cartel controls the northeastern part of the state that encompasses the cities of Reynosa and Matamoros itself, while the Zetas maintain power bases in the state capital Ciudad Victoria and Nuevo Laredo.

Despite the government's promises of security and increased aid, many local residents remain unconvinced, and say that governmental control in the region is visible little, if at all.

"The president says that here are many federal forces between here and Ciudad Victoria," says a cab driver in Matamoros who frequents the road. "But it's just not true."

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