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Cartel Wars

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Posted on May 16, 2011
AP / Miguel Tovar

In Mexico City last February, soldiers show crime suspects to the press. Third from the left is Julian Zapata Espinosa, aka “El Piolin,” an alleged member of the Los Zetas drug cartel and the main suspect in the killing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata.

By Michael Deibert

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.

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In the annals of a conflict that has killed more than 34,600 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon militarized his country’s battle against drug traffickers in December 2006, the conflict in Tamaulipas is writing a new and bloody chapter.

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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By ComputerJA, December 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The situation in Matamoros truly saddens me. This city has a lot of history behind
it, but it has been stained and forgotten by the drug war. When you would ask
someone what they thought about Matamoros back in the 70s to the early 2000s,
they would’ve probably said that it was an amazing city, filled with restaurants,
bars, discos, historical sites, and great people; Matamoros was a huge destination
spot for tourist who wanted to get a small touch of Mexico. Now, if you ask
someone about it, they’ll probably answer negatively.

I still have high hopes for Mexico, and especially for Matamoros. If the right
people get behind this project, Matamoros can come back again. It won’t be easy,
and it will probably not bring the expected results so quickly. However, I trust this
place. It has the potential to be the city it was—and even better. I think that the
plan PEMEX is trying to implement in the port of Matamoros in the next 5 years
will be the correct time to start this revival. The city will probably grow 3 or 4
times its size, and foreign investment will turn and look at Matamoros.

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By Judy chu, June 16, 2011 at 11:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

good articles

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By Alfred Torres, May 25, 2011 at 4:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Beautifully done. I lived in Brownsville most of my life before moving to Louisiana a year and a half ago and this article gets it just right. Its a shame what has happened to Matamoros.

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By Pamela de Maigret, May 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm Link to this comment

The following is a comment on the article from a good friend who is exhaustively researching a book with a background on today’s Mexican - US border:

Mexico’s “drug war” may be the single worst-reported “war” in history.  After reading hundreds of articles, dozens of books, the narcos’ own blogs (they are very media savvy, as their battle is as much psychological as physical), I have seen the patterns emerge.

Given the role that the U.S plays in this war, as the world’s wealthiest drug users and the world’s largest weapons supplier, and given the role that the war plays in “illegal” immigration (we have all but declared it illegal to be Mexican in the U.S.), we cannot afford to remain oblivious to the realities of the violence.  Even conservative estimates by the U.N would indicate that we supply $40 billion to the drug cartels, and nearly all of the weaponry, including some of the advance weapons systems used by Los Zetas and Los Negros. Some of their leadership was even trained by the U.S. at Fort Bragg and the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia while they were members of the Mexican Army’s Airborne Special Forces.

My first complaint is that this article is typical of reporting on the situation in Mexico.  Some “event” like the mass graves is used as an instigation for so called “reporting” on the violence, usually sending a reporter scurrying to somewhere in Mexico for a couple of days as though actually reporting from the scene.  Then a pile of previous “reporting” is rehashed, with virtually nothing new added.  After that, a handful of the cartels’ “famous,” along with their nicknames for a bit of authenticity, are thrown into the mix. It’s usually the same 6 or 8 names; most often names released by Mexican Government PR departments after they kill or capture someone in order to publicize their “progress” in the “war.”  In fact, there is a nearly endless supply of leaders that step in when the Government kills or captures someone. One of my lists has over 40 names, including some very powerful women in the cartels, and very few of these show up in our “reporting.” 

  The next step is to recycle a number of already well-known atrocities. Then for local color, throw in the fearsome popular saints Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte and present them as being worshipped by the drug gangs. Santa Muerte in particular has virtually nothing to do with drug gang worship - “she” is a phenomenon of the people, mostly the poor and maquilla worker’s mothers who are seeking protection from the violence. 

  Somehow, out of a handful of spectator-worthy atrocities, endlessly recycled, we’re expected to understand how nearly 40,000 people have died and continue to die at an accelerating rate.  The Mexican Government, involved not only in trafficking, but thoroughly corrupt, and awash in drug profit payoffs, continues to insist that most of the dead are combatants or ordinary criminals. One Government report estimated that the dead were 97% combatants.  If you step off a street corner in Ciudad Juarez and are caught in the crossfire, you are only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

  This sort of reporting is tabloid journalism - minimal actual reporting, maximal rehashing of old news, spectacular atrocities and PR put out by the Government, and virtually no recognition of the underlying economic causes, including millions of farm workers displaced from their lands by NAFTA, driven north to the border towns to seek work in the maquiladoras, and if they are male, finding zero possibility of being employed, but desperate to feed their families. 

  To be clear, actual reporting on the drug wars is extraordinarily dangerous, as dozens of reporters who have died attempting it would attest.  I don’t blame anyone for avoiding reporting on the violence; I blame them for presenting it as reporting.

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By rico, suave, May 19, 2011 at 4:44 am Link to this comment

Ok students. For your assignment today in our “Psychology for Propagandists” class, please choose the most correct response:

“In the annals of a conflict that has killed more than 34,600 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon militarized his country’s battle against drug traffickers…”

A. The American puppet Calderon has killed 34,600 women and children with US supplied weapons!

B. Author Deibert artfully conflates the death count with Calderon’s military intervention, thereby leading a gullible reader (read most truthdiggers) to believe the deaths were caused by the military intervention.

C. The article is excellent. Forgive Deibert’s Tourette’s outburst.

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By frecklefever, May 18, 2011 at 8:56 am Link to this comment

AMERICA POSITIONS ITSELF AS MEXICOS WISE AND COMPASSIONATE
BENEFACTOR…AND THE MEXICAN GOVERNMENT PLAYS THE ROLE OF THE
STRIDENT NEPHEW NEEDING UNCLES AID… AND BEHIND UNCLES BACK
THEY GLOAT AT HIS ARROGANT NAIVETE…..

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, May 17, 2011 at 3:47 pm Link to this comment

Pretty much look like American crimminals.

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By TDoff, May 16, 2011 at 4:25 pm Link to this comment

Wow! When they make the movie of Los Carteles, the Zetas, and the narcopoliticos, they should type-cast the whole cast, by having the US Bush clan play all the parts, with ‘W’ featured as ‘El Pollo Loco’.

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