Posted on May 16, 2011
MATAMOROS, Mexico—Of all the iconography that one encounters when traversing the border regions between the United States and Mexico—a land informed by the exploits of Mexican and American bandits and smugglers and which was part of a single country until 1836—two images stand out to a visitor.
Gazing out at passersby from clothing shops and discount stores on both sides of the border, the first is a visage of dapper, mustachioed solemnity: The face of Jesús Malverde. Often depicted today on T-shirts and baseball caps with marijuana leafs wreathing his face, Malverde was said to have been an outlaw from the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa. The main shrine dedicated to Malverde—allegedly executed by authorities in about 1909 and revered as a quasi-saint by many in Mexico’s criminal underworld—is in the Sinaloan city of Culiacan, birthplace of the eponymous Cartel de Sinaloa, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, perhaps Mexico’s most famous drug trafficker.
The other image is that of a hooded, scythe-wielding skeleton, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Like Jesús Malverde, Santa Muerte—whose main shrine in the rough-and-ready Mexican city barrio of Tepito sees visitors greeted by the skeletal lady in a white wedding dress—has become an object of veneration among Mexico’s criminals.
Here in Matamoros, a community of about 500,000 that gave birth to the criminal organization known as the Cartel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel) and which sits just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, these figures, culled from the rich imagery of religion and crime, have now been joined by new depictions of transgression and loss.
At the Matamoros morgue, plastered to its glass doors amid a stench of human decay, the faces of dozens of people who have disappeared in this Mexican state of Tamaulipas over the last year gaze out onto the world. Relatives believe that they may be among the 183 bodies exhumed from 40 separate pits by Mexican authorities over the last month or so, likely victims of the Gulf Cartel’s erstwhile allies-turned-enemies, Los Zetas.
Square, Site wide
Cartel Recruited Elite Army Unit’s Members
What would grow into the present-day Cartel del Golfo had its genesis in Matamoros and the enterprising diversification of a Mexican smuggler and bootlegger named Juan Nepomuceno Guerra. Born in 1915, Guerra and his nephew, Juan Garcia Abrego, had decided by the 1970s to expand the criminal band’s connections with Colombia’s Cali Cartel, and had developed an extensive web of corruption of local, state and federal government officials in Tamaulipas.
Garcia Abrego was arrested at a ranch in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon in January 1996 and subsequently sentenced to 11 life terms in the United States for drug trafficking. Guerra died in 2001 of natural causes. Control of the cartel fell into the hands of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, a former mechanic who promptly earned the sobriquet El Mata Amigos (Friend Killer) by dispatching a potential rival, a close personal acquaintance.
When Cardenas recruited as his lieutenants his two brothers—Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen (aka Tony Tormenta, or Tony the Storm) and Mario Cardenas Guillen—as well as Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez, a former Matamoros police officer, the modern-day Gulf Cartel was born.
Feeling under pressure from his rivals after his ascension to the head of the cartel, in the late 1990s Cardenas began to recruit active members of an elite Mexican army unit, the Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), to become the organization’s military wing. Trained originally in counterinsurgency and counternarcotics tactics, the GAFE deserters were also skilled in such tactics as rapid deployment, intelligence collection, countersurveillance and ambush.
Initially led by Arturo Guzman Decena, known as Z1 (“Zeta” in Spanish) after a Mexican radio code for high-ranking officers. Guzman Decena was killed in November 2002, and his successor, Rogelio Gonzalez Pizaña (Z2), was scooped up by authorities less than two years later. The leadership of Los Zetas then coalesced around Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Z3), a man whose violence caused him to become known as El Verdugo (The Executioner).
For a time, the arrangement worked. Los Zetas proved themselves to be so adept at killing and terrorizing the cartel’s enemies that they were even recruited to train members of La Familia, Gulf Cartel allies based in the western state of Michoacan and at the time led by Nazario Moreno Gonzalez. Known as El Mas Loco (The Craziest One), Moreno invested La Familia with quasi-religious overtones, even giving the group’s foot soldiers a book of his aphorisms to carry along as they committed such acts as hurling five decapitated heads across the floor of the Sol y Sombra (Sun and Shadow) nightclub in September 2006. Moreno would be killed in a gun battle with Mexican security forces in December 2010.
La Familia was outrageous and bizarre, but it proved to be only the smallest foreshadowing of what was to come. Shortly after the Sol y Sombra incident, Felipe Calderon was elected Mexico’s president and declared war on the country’s drug trade. In an equally significant corollary, although hardly commented upon at the time, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who had been running the Gulf Cartel from a Mexican prison cell since his arrest in March 2003, was extradited to the United States.
The glue that had held together one of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking operations for a decade was becoming unstuck. The center would not hold.
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