Zeta violence intensifies
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The drug war is back in this border city, dashing hopes that several years of relative peace had become the new normal.
While the violence has not reached the levels of the cartel wars in the early 2000s and 2010 — when shootings in broad daylight, brazen assassinations of government officials and gruesome public displays of bodies were common — gunfights between security forces and armed gangsters have become weekly occurrences.
The latest round of violence, observers say, is the result of infighting between former members of the once-mighty Zetas drug cartel who have created their own criminal organizations.
In June, one of the factions released a video that showed the former head of the Nuevo Laredo police homicide unit held at gunpoint and later released a photo that appeared to show his corpse.
State police report they’ve been involved in shootouts with gunmen in pickups, including a July 31 confrontation that left a soldier dead.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 7, gunmen shot up two bars in the city, killing one person.
On Aug. 8, a Nuevo Laredo resident crossed the bridge to Laredo and told police that seven of his U.S. citizen family members, including a 2-year-old boy and 20-month-old twins who were living in Mexico, had been kidnapped.
The man acknowledged some of his family members were involved in drug trafficking and said their house had been ransacked, a police report states.
That same day, a joint task force of the Mexican military and state police raided a house and rescued 17 Nuevo Laredo residents who’d been kidnapped.
Among those rescued were the family members reported missing to Laredo police, according to the Webb County Sheriff’s Office.
More than 10,000 trucks a day rumble through the region on their way to and from Laredo, the biggest commercial port on the Texas-Mexico border.
That makes Nuevo Laredo, which is on the highway connecting northern Mexico’s industrial hub of Monterrey with Interstate 35 in Texas, a crucial transit point for drug traffickers.
Nuevo Laredo, a city of about 375,000 people, has experienced regular clashes between drug groups over the past 15 years.
The outbreak of new violence disrupts the relative peace of the past three years, even when other border cities like Reynosa and Matamoros have suffered unchecked cartel violence.
On Wednesday morning, the city-under-siege feel that characterized Nuevo Laredo in the the thick of the cartel wars wasn’t evident on the streets near the international bridges to Texas.
Gone is the armored personnel carrier that once pointed its cannon down the main drag of Avenida Guerrero, and the cartel lookouts who once slouched on street corners were nowhere to be seen.
Municipal police forces across the state of Tamaulipas were disbanded in 2011, but the neighborhoods near the international crossings are heavily patrolled by state police and Mexican military personnel, residents said.
The real danger is on the outskirts, where criminals still hold sway.
Christian Evangelicals from the U.S. proselytized in Plaza Hidalgo, and in Plaza Juárez, closest to the pedestrian bridge, vendors and shoe-shiners were more concerned about the recent closing of the H-E-B in downtown Laredo, which they said has slowed foot traffic to the United States.
“During the day, it’s quiet, but at night it changes. You know, shootings, that type of thing,” said Miguell Villarreal, 33, a resident of San Antonio who said he was on one of the several trips he makes each year to visit family in Nuevo Laredo.
Law enforcement officials in the U.S. are nervously watching the situation in Nuevo Laredo.
Officials across the border in Texas remember when in the early 2000s, when the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels were fighting for control of Nuevo Laredo, the number of homicides across the border in Laredo, a city of 250,000 that usually has about 10 murders a year, spiked to more than 20.
In 2011, Laredo police arrested a group of cartel operatives that they say tailed three victims, then brought in hired guns from U.S. criminal organizations to execute them.
“I think there was a period of quiet,” said Fred Garza, chief deputy for the Webb County Sheriff’s Office. The cartels “were just waiting to see what was going to be the next step.”
Garza and the Sheriff’s Office today are pitching a multicounty collaboration to combat drug traffickers. They’re asking the the sheriff’s offices along 300 miles of border, from Starr to Val Verde counties, to join them in asking for $42 million in grants for a five-year program to install cameras and sensors along the border, in addition to sensors and cameras already used by Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Another aspect of the collaboration, which Garza said would help the counties combat potential spillover from cartel fighting in Mexico, would be an intelligence-sharing initiative.
One criminal organization can control hundreds of miles of border, so law enforcement agencies in distant counties might be investigating the same gang, he said.
It’s particularly important that intelligence gathered from the county jails, which he called “a gold mine of information,” be shared between the various border law enforcement agencies, Garza said.
The groups battling for control in Nuevo Laredo are former members of the Zetas who have started their own criminal organizations, said Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent and a consultant to the Sheriff’s Office.
The Zetas began as a group of former Mexican special forces soldiers working for the Gulf Cartel. Since its inception in the late 1990s, the gang grew from a special cartel commando unit to one of the largest criminal organizations in Mexico, involved in drug smuggling, human trafficking, selling counterfeit goods, protection rackets and public works fraud.
In 2012, for the first time in the Zetas’ history, someone without military training assumed command of the cartel. Nuevo Laredo native Miguel Treviño Morales, known by his radio call sign “El 40” or “Cuarenta,” became the Zetas boss after its leader, founding member Heriberto Lazcano, was killed by Mexican marines near the Texas border.
Treviño’s known as a ruthless killer — in 2010, according to an informant’s statement to federal agents, Treviño’s younger brother boasted that the future Zetas boss had killed more than 2,000 people — and after his arrest in 2013 territory controlled by the Zetas fell onto a period of relative peace.
Last year, Treviño‘s family members based in Nuevo Laredo and in Texas began calling themselves the Cartel de Noreste, Fontes said. Around the same time, several of the Zetas founding members finished serving their prison time in Mexico and were released.
Treviño has been seen as a usurper by some members of the Zetas. He rose through the ranks as the gang’s founding members either were killed or arrested. In a 2013 trial in Austin, Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar, a former Mexican special forces corporal and Zetas member known as Mamito, testified that he suspected Treviño was behind his 2011 arrest in Mexico.
The recently released original Zetas chafed at the rule of the upstart Cartel de Noreste, Fontes said, and formed their own group, calling themselves Zetas Vieja Guardia, or the Old Guard Zetas; Zetas Vieja Escuela, Old School Zetas; and Comandante Bravo.
They’ve joined with other Zetas splinter groups and factions of the Gulf Cartel to take on the Treviño family, he said. It was the old guard Zetas who took responsibility for the killing of the Nuevo Laredo homicide commander.
The fighting started earlier this year in Ciudad Victora, the capital city in the center of Tamaulipas, and since has spread to the border.
“A lot of these people got out and they want their piece of the pie,” Fontes said.
Return to heyday?
The recent flareup in fighting has discouraged those who thought several years of peace might bring Nuevo Laredo’s central district back to its heyday when visitors from the U.S. packed the open-air bars and shops in the mercado, many of which have been closed for years, said Angel Abram Chavez, 28, who worked as a tourist guide in the early 2000s.
When Mayor Carlos Canturosas won election in 2013, breaking a stranglehold on local politics by the Institutional Revolutionary Party that is widely accused of being corrupt, residents here were excited about the future, Chavez said.
The relative peace of Canturosa’s term, which ends in January, had reinforced that. Then, this summer, the shootouts returned.
“There was hope for the tourism to return,” Chavez said. “But in reality, as long as the organized crime is so strong, nothing is going to change.”
Canturosas’s office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Maria Elena Martinez, 54, moved back to Nuevo Laredo last year after 11 years of living in the U.S. illegally. She recently opened a hole-in-the wall selling tacos and snacks. She’s disheartened about the return of the violence and is worried about her 13-year-old grandson, who she’s raising.
On Tuesday, Martinez said, soldiers searched her neighborhood door-to-door.
“I thought it was calm, but of course we’re all in danger,” she said. “But what are we going to do?”