REYNOSA — Abandoned homes and “for sale” signs are all that’s left.
But the La Fuentes neighborhood used to be one of the nicest places to raise a family, said Marta Ramos, the daughter of an industrial engineer who fled to Edinburg after daytime shootouts became the norm in Reynosa.
“Before all this, Reynosa was a nice place to live,” Ramos said in Spanish.
“You could go out with your friends and didn’t have to worry about getting shot at, getting kidnapped, or getting stopped by malosos,” she said, using a common term for members of organized crime.
After suffering through firefights, threats and extortion attempts, Ramos and her family had enough, and like many others in Reynosa, they fled north. They moved out of their large, two-story luxury home and into a duplex in Edinburg where they are beginning a new life — even as Marta Ramos’ father continues his daily commute to Reynosa.
THE DISTANT DRUG WAR
While drug-related crime has long been a part of life along the border, residents of northern Tamaulipas were not prepared for the dramatic uptick in violence in February 2010, when the dominant criminal organization in the area, the Gulf Cartel, went to war with its former enforcers, the Zetas.
Mexico’s war on drugs was escalated dramatically by Felipe Calderón shortly after he took office as president in 2006, but northern Tamaulipas was initially spared the worst of the violence.
“We would hear about Juárez and Michoacán, but that was something so far away that you couldn’t relate to it,” Ramos said.
“But then when you drive into a firefight on your way home … ” she said, trailing off as she recalled the fear she felt when she saw a convoy of gunmen firing away as they barreled down Boulevard Del Maestro, one of the city’s main avenues.
Convoys of gunmen became the norm in February 2010 when after months of planning, the Gulf Cartel joined forces with its former rivals from the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana cartel and began a three-pronged war against the Zetas for control of the main drug trafficking routes into South Texas.
A year later — with Mexico split between turf belonging to the Zetas and turf controlled by its troika of rivals, the “Carteles Unidos” — ICE agent and Brownsville native Jaime J. Zapata was killed and fellow agent Victor Avila was wounded in the central Mexico state of San Luis Potosí by a group of Zetas who mistook their armored truck for that of a rival cartel.
The ongoing drug war has led to the death of several bystanders in various cities and to the U.S. State Department’s issuing of travel alerts warning about travel in Mexico.
BEFORE THE WAR
Rumors about an impending split between the Gulf and the Zetas began to circulate in late 2009 after Zetas bosses Heriberto Lazcano and Miguel Angel Treviño called a meeting in Matamoros in which they voted to split from the Gulf Cartel after their parent organization had begun to negotiate a truce with its former rival, the Sinaloa Cartel.
The rumors were later confirmed after the plaza boss for the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros, Abel Alfredo “El Trigre” Flores Treviño, was arrested after a lengthy shootout with the Mexican military.
According to a source outside law enforcement but with direct knowledge of criminal activity in Tamaulipas, Flores Treviño was double-crossed by the Zetas, who had set up a meeting between the heads of their organization and the Gulf Cartel to iron out a few differences in “The Company” — the name that had referred to the Zetas and Gulf Cartel when the two organizations had worked as one.
“The Zetas never showed, but the soldiers did,” the source said of the February 2010 shootout.
Later that month, under the guise of avenging the death of one of their own at the hands of a Gulf Cartel commander, the Zetas issued an ultimatum to the Gulf Cartel, the source said: Turn over Samuel “Metro 3” Flores Borrego or face the consequences. The Gulf Cartel replied by running the Zetas out of Reynosa and other cities.
As both sides battled it out, Mexican media outlets stayed mum for the most part, largely ignoring the shootouts in their cities. Tamaulipas officials angered local residents by further claiming that the streets were calm and that the reports of shootouts were in fact cases of “psychosis.”
Since the Zetas sought to set themselves apart as the most brutal organization out there, the other cartels had to step up their tactics to outdo them, said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary and co-author of The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created.
The Zetas have been blamed for mass killings massacres including the death of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamps., and later the discovery of mass graves there holding more than 180 bodies.
As the war and the crackdown by Calderón’s forces weakened both the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, they have begun to supplement their income through other means, such as the theft of gasoline from pipelines belonging to Mexico’s state-run oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, Grayson said.
The Zetas have also set up a safe haven in Guatemala where they are free to regroup if needed.
While the new President Enrique Peña Nieto promised to reduce violence, according to Grayson’s research, the murder rate has not slowed down and several parts of Mexico that had previously been spared drug violence are now starting to feel it.
The author doesn’t foresee any drastic changes in the drug war this year while the new administration seeks to reorganize its security forces.
Ildefonso Ortiz covers courts, law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4437.