Is Miguel Alemán the next to fall to drug violence?
May 01, 2011 3:10 PM
The Texas Tribune
MIGUEL ALEMÁN, Tamps., Mexico — The bullet holes on the truck tell
the story, the man in this border town said on Easter Sunday. The
shootouts are no longer relegated to the outskirts of town.
The pickup with Texas plates sits parked; bullet holes have pierced
the sides of the body panels. "That happened just right here, the
other day," he says, in Spanish, of the shootout. The man, who asked
not to be identified out of fear for his safety, lives less than a
dozen blocks from the border that Miguel Alemán shares with the South
Texas town of Roma.
"It's not fear anymore. It's terrorism. They are against each other,
they are against the police, they are against the residents, the
businesses," he says. A convoy of masked Mexican military units parks
close by and establishes a perimeter surrounding the town plaza.
Egidio Torre Cantú, governor of Tamaulipas, is in town, briefly, to
speak with area mayors and address safety issues after the Gulf
Cartel and Zetas clashed here last Thursday, the latter purportedly
torching a furniture store and car dealerships.
Just five months ago, many residents of nearby Ciudad Mier fled
following a pre-dawn attack by Los Zetas, who rolled into town
setting fire to the police station, shooting out power transformers
and leaving bullet-riddled buildings and vehicles in their wake. A
Lion's Club here was the temporary home to hundreds of Ciudad Mier
residents, and the people of Miguel Alemán and Roma rallied around
the scared refugees, offering help and supplies.
Miguel Alemán, a town of about 27,000, is no stranger to nearby
violence. But last week's shootout has many here wondering if it will
be the latest border city to fall to Mexico's ongoing violence. "I
don't go out as much. Someone could catch a stray bullet," says the
man. "Or they could catch a bullet that's not so stray."
While some residents say they think twice about going out after dark,
the city isn't completely empty after sunset. On Easter Saturday the
plaza played host to a modest carnival; women gossiped, food vendors
pedaled local fare and children kicked up dust as they played. The
next morning a woman stood two blocks away from the international
bridge, where scaffolding serves as a makeshift tower from which
soldiers keep watch on the city. She was selling cascarones, confetti-
filled eggshells, which are an Easter tradition. She says the
violence is exaggerated and that she is frustrated with the media
coverage, though she admits there are shootouts. She says they are
confined to the outskirts of the city, however, and her family still
travels on local highways. Still, she advises a reporter against
walking around the city to ask questions or take pictures.
"They'll approach you and ask what you are doing and why you are
doing it," she says. Asked who "they" is — law enforcement or the
narcos — she says it could be either. Using her name is also out of
the question, she adds.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD
It's not a typical battle for the hearts and minds in the region, but
that's what the townspeople say is happening.
"There are the good ones and the bad ones," says a hotel manager in
Roma, who also asked not to be identified. "The Gulf protects
people," she says. The "bad ones" — those who kidnap, extort and kill
indiscriminately — are Los Zetas, she says.
Others say that there is no difference but concede the two labels are
the de facto terms commonly used to differentiate between the groups.
"They say the Gulf members drive around in their trucks with their
windows down and are friendly. The 'bad ones' you can't see them.
They drive around with their dark windows up," the woman says.
An urban legend, impossible to verify but widely repeated, has also
emerged: An elderly man is pulled over, beaten and his truck stolen.
Approached later as he's walking home, another group confronts him
and he explains to them what happens. They force him into a truck and
drive him home. Hours later the group returns his truck to him and
he's escorted outside and asked to identify the head of a man
displayed in the truck's bed.
"Is this one of the men who stole your truck?" they ask.
The man confirms it is, and the group, purported to be members of the
Gulf cartel, is satisfied and leaves the man with his truck — and the
Ciudad Miguel Alemán sits at the northern tip of an area where the
highways that radiate toward the rest of the state are considered
some of the most dangerous in the country. A block from the plaza a
fork divides the main road into two highways: southwest to Monterrey,
Nuevo Leon, and slightly south and east toward Reynosa, across the
border from McAllen. In its most recent travel warning issued last
week, the U.S. State Department says it has banned government
employees from traveling parts of those highways due to the danger.
People in the town talk of family members being carjacked or
kidnapped on the routes.
Analysts say the situation will only continue and in some cases,
worsen. In its latest report Global intelligence outfit STRATFOR
explains various pockets of Tamaulipas are still Zeta strongholds,
including Nuevo Laredo, across the Texas border from Laredo, and
farther away, Monterrey. The Gulf controls what STRATFOR says is a
lucrative section of territory that extends from Matamoros, an
important port that borders Brownsville, and appears to be in control
of Reynosa. As they look to consolidate power and move into Gulf
territory, the Zetas could also be their own worst enemy. The attack
against two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents in
February that led to the death of Agent Jaime Zapata only served to
put more focus on the criminal gang. It indicated to some experts
that the Zeta leadership could be losing control over younger,
inexperienced and undisciplined soldiers — a byproduct of the group's
recruitment efforts to replenish its ranks following the arrests and
deaths of members.
"A planned and sanctioned attack against U.S. officials would be
certain to bring the full weight of the U.S. government onto the
perpetrators, and this is not something the top Zeta leadership would
want to invite," the report says. "This suggests the possibility that
lower-level regional leaders either lost control of their operational
cells or actually condoned and/or ordered the attack."
There are also rumors of a possible split between two top Zeta
leaders, Miguel Treviño-Morales, known by his call sign "Zeta-40,"
and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano "El Lazca." Webb County Sheriff Martin
Cuellar says he's heard the same rumors, and says it could be due to
Treviño, the second in command, attempting to go "above Lazcano's head."
"It's a controlling issue. Miguel Trevino is a wild man; that guy is
not stable, and he's got to go over his head and Lazcano doesn't like
it," Cuellar says. He's careful to clarify that to this point, his
sources say the split is only a rumor.
Phil Jordan, who served as the director of the El Paso Intelligence
Center during his role as a special agent in charge for the DEA's
Dallas division, says the dangerous security situation in Ciudad
Juárez will only escalate. He credits the assessment to Sinaloa
Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's stranglehold on the Vicente
Carrillo Fuentes organization, commonly referred to as the Juárez
"In my wildest expectations, I never imagined it would get this bad,
in my 30-plus years, but it has," he says. Jordan calls Guzman the
"Michael Corleone of Mexico," a testament to his ability to
consolidate his power and use tactics as brutal as any other cartel
"It's like what [former Juárez cartel leader] Amado Carrillo Fuentes
used to do. If he suspected one out of 10 in a group, he would kill
all 10, that way there would be no doubt," says Jordan.
STRATFOR posits that Guzman has taken control of Chihuahua City and
the outskirts of Juárez, though Carrillo Fuentes still maintains
control over the city's downtown and its border crossings into El
Paso. He is losing ground, however, and the intelligence firm credits
the prevalence of extortions and kidnappings in the city to that. It
is a means for the cartel to replenish its coffers, which is
necessary due to choked off supply lines that limit the amount of
contraband the group can import.
"As hard as it is to imagine, the violence in Juárez may actually get
worse," the report states.
Jordan credits Guzman's stability and power to the control he has
over the government. While he calls Mexican President Felipe Calderón
one of the most honest presidents in the republic's history, he says
the leader can only control so much.
"[Guzman] is as powerful as he is and could be the Pablo Escobar of
Mexico because of his connections," says Jordan. "This is not putting
any blame on Calderón or any of his upper echelon people, but it's
very hard to control a systematic corruption that has been in place
for a long time."
STRATFOR analysts do not allege corruption within the administration,
but do say Guzman and the Sinaloa seemed to have fared better since
Calderón's crackdown on the cartels that began in 2006.
"With the possible exception of Los Zetas, the fragmentation and
power vacuums have weakened or destroyed cartels while Sinaloa has
either been unaffected or strengthened at the primary beneficiary."
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