The Most Dangerous Mexican State You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Tras el hallazgo de fosas con centenares de cadáveres en San Fernando, la Marina se sumó al combate contra “Los Zetas”, que ya realizaba el Ejército.

EL UNIVERSAL (GDA via AP Images)

The Mexican government is expected to unveil its plan today to send Marines and federal forces into the northern state of Tamaulipas to curtail a rising wave of violence that has claimed 2,699 lives so far this year, according to the newspaper Milenio.

Unless you live in Texas, which borders with Tamaulipas, you might have never heard of the state. Tamaulipas has stayed out of the spotlight due to both citizens’ fears -- often residents are reluctant to talk to reporters -- and media self-censorship. For the last decade or so, it’s been the battleground for a bloody conflict between two of the most powerful, vicious drug cartels in Mexico.

A key transit route

Tamaulipas, often referred to as “Tierra De Encanto” or “Land Of Charm,” had long been anything but. Known for being one of Mexico’s bread baskets, with exportable vegetable crops and delicious beef, it’s reputation changed in the last decade or so. Today it’s synonymous with drug-related violence and brutality.

Both a port state and a border state, Tamaulipas is part of a key drug route into the United States. Drugs go from Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela to the Yucatan Peninsula. From there, they cross the Gulf of Mexico to Tamaulipas and then into Texas.

While it’s impossible to know the exact quantity of illegal drugs being smuggled into the U.S., via Tamaulipas on any given day, the Mexican army and U.S. officials confiscate large amounts. A partial tally from last week in Tamaulipas: on Monday of last week a man was stopped in Cruillas with 26 pounds of crystal meth; last Saturday, three men carrying fake military uniforms were busted with 22 pounds of marijuana in the city of Victoria; and on Sunday, U.S. Border Patrol confiscated one ton of marijuana being smuggled into Texas through a vegetable truck.

Disputed territory

Tamaulipas’s position in key drug transit routes has made it important — and valuable — land to hold for drug cartels. It has also made it into a battleground, as rival factions constantly compete for territory.

The state was the birthplace of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest and most powerful crime syndicates. The cartel has its roots in the Prohibition Era, when one its founders, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, smuggled whiskey across the Rio Grande. He would later apply that same expertise to a new product: cocaine.

The roots of the current conflict go back to the late 1990s, when a leader of the Gulf Cartel began to recruit former members of the Mexican military. The campaign was brazen — one famous street sign mocked the Mexican army by saying, “We’ll give you more than just ramen noodle soup for meals” — and successful. The ex-military members became enforcers for the Gulf Cartel and formed their own unit, “Los Zetas.” Aided by the military training and sophistication of its founders, the Zetas eventually became as powerful as the Gulf Cartel itself. The alliance between the Zetas and the Gulf cartel ended in early 2010, allegedly over a leadership dispute. They’ve been fighting over who controls the region ever since.

The violence is widespread across the state of three million inhabitants, although armed fighting has caused distress among citizens of major cities like: Victoria, Reynosa and Tampico. The fighting is speculated to not just be between the warring cartels, but also within different factions of the Gulf Cartel itself. April has been a particularly bloody month for the state: about 70 people died in armed confrontations.

Mass graves

The Zetas quickly expanded beyond drug trafficking. Now, they reportedly draw much of their profit comes from kidnapping, extortion and sex trafficking. In the last few years, Tamaulipas has been the site of various mass killings. In 2010, 72 bodies were found in a hidden mass grave in the town of San Fernando, in what is known as the Massacre Of Tamaulipas. The victims were mostly Central and South Americans attempting to cross into the U.S. The killings were attributed to the Zetas, and many have interpreted it as a warning to coyotes who don’t won’t pay bribes. The next year, another mass grave, this time with 193 bodies in it, was discovered in the same area. Again, the Zetas were the suspects, and various police officers were arrested for their complicity.

Media blackout

The news in Mexico has recently been dominated by the violence and self-defense militia uprisings in the western state of Michoacan, but the situation in Tamaulipas is in many ways worse. Between January and March of this year, Michoacan had 72 kidnappings, while Tamaulipas had 103. Milenio reports that this is a 76 percent increase since 2010.

The conflict in Tamaulipas has received less coverage in part because local media has been censored by the cartels.

Journalist Diego Osorno, who has published a book about the Zetas called “La Guerra de los Zetas,” writes, “In Michoacan the situation is serious, but they’ve always had minimal civil liberties which allow them to at least talk about what is happening there. That is why the self-defense militias have been able to have ample media coverage in the last few months. Tamaulipas, on the other hand, does not get to enjoy those minimal protections Michoacan gets, and their situation is even more serious.”

Twitter has been pivotal in poking holes in that blanket of silence. While Michoacan’s self defense groups took up in arms, the outraged citizens of Tamaulipas took up in social media- reporting on issues local media do not dare to, through the twitter hastag #Reynosafollow. One well known account, @ValorxTamaulipas, has provided a provided live coverage of shootouts. “#SDRTampico here’s a close up shot of Avenida Uni, loud explosions, an explosive has been thrown into this restaurant” he warns readers in one tweet. “#SDRTampico In the Pescadores burrough they were chasing a white truck and shooting at each other” he tweets in another.

But even twitter users have been threatened. Recently flyers were posted throughout Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, posting a reward for the man behind @ValorxTamaulipas.

“600 thousand pesos in exchange for precise information about the owner of ValorxTamaulipas, or his family: mother, father, wife or children...we will give you good money to shut up pendejos who think they are superheroes. Abstain from doing dumb shit, show some appreciation for your own life.”

In a recent interview with the online Mexican magazine Emeequis, @ValorxTamaulipas, responded “I am not a superhero, I am a coward, because I do this from an anonymous account. But what more can I do? Submit to them [the cartel]? No.”

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