REYNOSA — Two SUVs rolled up to a house Tuesday in the Quintas gated community and nearly a dozen men climbed out, sporting assault rifles and body armor.
They kicked open the door and raided the property, while some of the men maintained a perimeter around the block.
It may have looked like just another day at the office for a SWAT team, but this wasn’t the police. The lettering on the commandos’ vests read “CDG” for “Cartel Del Golfo.”
Despite its stature, the Gulf Cartel has faced a series of debilitating internal power struggles in recent years, one of which resulted in a bloody split with its former enforcers, the Zetas. Other conflicts have seen various lieutenants clash, hoping to wrest power from each other.
The most recent internal rift mired the city of Reynosa in a three-hour firefight on the night of March 10 — as factions loyal to Gulf Cartel boss Mario “Pelón” Ramirez fought with factions loyal to Michael “Gringo” Villarreal — and produced Tuesday’s scene in the Quintas neighborhood.
“An order was given to erase everything and everyone that had ties to El Gringo,” said a source outside law enforcement with direct knowledge of criminal activity in Tamaulipas. “The estacas (foot soldiers) have been told to kill them and keep the loot — cars, guns, money, whatever.”
The March 10 firefights paralyzed the border city as gunmen set up blockades in all of the main avenues and littered road spikes throughout the city. The Mexican army confirmed the seizure of 10 armored trucks and 23 other vehicles from the clashes that day, and 22 more vehicles were seized by the Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office. But by press time Sunday — a week after the gunbattle — the Tamaulipas authorities still had confirmed only the deaths of two bystanders during the March 10 fighting, publicly ignoring the death toll of at least three dozen gunmen who were slain, according to Monitor sources.
The ongoing rift has led to near-daily clashes throughout the city:
>> On Thursday, one gunman was killed during a clash with authorities, according to the Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office.
>> The state confirmed five more gunmen — three male, two female — were killed in a firefight Saturday.
>> And on Sunday, the state announced three more gunmen were killed — one in the city and two along the highway between Reynosa and San Fernando, Tamps.
Ramirez, looking to establish a single command structure for the Gulf Cartel, has rallied regional commanders to join forces with him, and he has been aided by his allies in the Sinaloa Cartel, said another source outside law enforcement also with direct knowledge of criminal activity in Mexico.
Once Villarreal and his forces are moved out of the way, the order is to restore peace and keep things quiet along the border so the trafficking activities are not disturbed, the source said.
Keeping quiet is exactly what Villarreal didn’t do on March 9, when his gunmen stormed six car dealerships in Reynosa and stole 18 trucks. Just one day after the battle lines were drawn, both sides began an all-out battle.
Though Mexican authorities have not officially confirmed his death, Villarreal ally Jesus “El Puma” Garcia Roman was gunned down during the three-hour firefight March 10 in Reynosa, which once again featured large convoys of more than 20 trucks with gunmen, said a Tamaulipas law enforcement official who asked not to be named for security reasons.
The power struggle that has split the cartel also has split at least one family as legendary Gulf Cartel enforcer Sergio “Comandante Cortez” Ortegón Silva leads his group, the Ceros, in an attempt to eradicate Villarreal’s forces, which include Ortegón Silva’s own son, Sergio “Cortez Hijo” Ortegón Jr., the Tamaulipas lawman said.
“El Gringo is the most bloodthirsty of the leaders out there,” the Tamaulipas lawman said, “and while he had been working with Pelón, Pelón didn’t trust him because of his ties to” Juan “R1” Reyes Mejia, a Gulf Cartel lieutenant who helped spark an earlier wave of infighting by killing rival capo Samuel “Metro 3” Flores Borrego.
TRUST NO ONE
During the time of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the Gulf Cartel operated with a certain structure that allowed for rivalries among lieutenants to exist without affecting the organization as a whole, said George W. 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.
Since the fall of Cárdenas Guillén a decade ago, Grayson said various commanders have fought for control, resulting in the death of some of them and a permanent split with the Zetas.
Today, distrust within the Gulf Cartel as well as the Zetas is at an all-time high, with both groups breaking into factions — but more so in the Gulf Cartel, Grayson said.
The internal feuding continues to exacerbate violence in Tamaulipas with some effects also being felt in South Texas, Grayson said. Villarreal was the mastermind behind a team of kidnappers that operated in South Texas in 2011 and is believed to be behind a rash of kidnappings in 2012, court records show. And the Gulf Cartel also has been linked to various executions in the Rio Grande Valley as well as one botched kidnapping that resulted in the shooting of an Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputy in late 2011.