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Citizens Fear the Mexican State of Tamaulipas Is Plunging Back Into Chaos

Dozens have been killed in Mexico’s northeastern border state in recent weeks, a brutal wave of violence that resembles what occurred in 2010 during the peak of the drug war.

by Shannon Young
Feb 19 2015, 9:53am

Photo via YouTube

Dozens have been killed in Mexico's northeastern border state of Tamaulipas in recent weeks in clashes that resemble the brutal wave of violence that hit the state in February 2010, when inter-cartel fighting erupted into urban warfare.

Residents fear the state may once again be falling into chaos, repeatedly telling VICE News they feel abandoned by their government.

Last week, Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong traveled to the border city of Matamoros and publicly pledged to bring back a sense calm and security to the violence-afflicted region. Locals reacted on social media with a collective "meh." Tamaulipas residents have heard those promises before, yet they are still continually subjected to life in the crossfire of Mexico's militarized drug war.

It's been five years since the Gulf cartel began to wage war in Tamaulipas against its former paramilitary wing, the Zetas. Just as the public's shock at record levels of violence has started to subside, so too has the citizens' faith in the central government's ability to fix the rampant cartel conflict.

Tamaulipas state authorities told VICE News that security forces have had more than 20 violent encounters with organized crime groups in the first two weeks of February alone, resulting in the deaths of at least 31 alleged cartel members.

"When a shootout happens near my house, we do what we need to do," a Matamoros resident said under the condition of anonymity. "We go to the spots that are farthest away from the doors and windows, and try to take cover behind walls or difficult to penetrate objects, in case there's a stray bullet."

The latest flare-ups of violence began in the border region south of Texas, between the cities of Reynosa, Valle Hermoso, and Matamoros.

On February 3, an estimated 30 members of organized crime groups used hijacked 18-wheelers and buses to set up a highway blockade, sparking a battle with federal forces that involved grenades and machine guns. Nine people were killed during the confrontation, state authorities reported.

The next day, officials reported that an explosive was planted at the Matamoros city hall. Authorities successfully removed the bomb without incident.

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Much to the horror of Tamaulipas residents, these are not isolated incidents. Locals said they see a lack of political willpower or interest in guaranteeing the basic rights of the state's citizenry.

"The authorities could do much more than what they have done," one Matamoros resident said, claiming that members of organized crime groups are easily identifiable within the community, "sometimes even by their first and last names."

"We see them around every day — know what they do, where they move, where they live. So we think the authorities would have even more reason to know about them, yet they do nothing," the resident said. "They're all still out there, free and making life harder for us than it already is."

Security analysts and state authorities attributed the current round of fighting to a power struggle between warring factions of the Gulf cartel. They said two sides are the Reynosa-based Los Metros, and Los Ciclones of Matamoros.

"But they change names so often, we can't even tell who's who anymore," a state spokesman told VICE News.

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The spike in threats and violence has come with unexpected consequences. Earlier this month, the Universidad del Valle de Mexico (UVM) announced it will shut down its Nuevo Laredo campus immediately after receiving threats against its facilities and staff. Many students expressed discontent with the university's decision.

"As a resident of Nuevo Laredo, I've personally been forced to face moments of high risk due to the insecurity caused by organized crime. It is not something that is new to us," Jose Luis Villa, a young communication major at the university posted on social media. "We shouldn't allow the lack of security to limit our ambitions for a better life."

The university board's trepidation, however, does not seem unjustified. In December, Jose Guadalupe Rivera, the head of the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, a public university in Reynosa, was abducted in front of his home. He has not been heard from since.

According to Rivera's wife, the university was negligent by not taking action when members of organized crime groups began requesting the institution pay extortion fees in exchange for a guarantee of "protection."

Tamaulipas is the state with the highest number of disappearances in Mexico, with more than 5,300 missing persons cases currently on file — more than double those registered in Jalisco, Mexico's second-most afflicted state. It is common for these abductions to occur in Tamaulipas along stretches of state highway, despite numerous official checkpoints.

Even freedom of movement has been severely affected in the state, especially for those who live in disputed territory, or who must travel between the strongholds of rival criminal organizations.

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Further aggravating the situation, Mexican journalists often refer to Tamaulipas as a "silence zone" — a place where local officials ignore the glaring reality of cartel violence and members of the press practice self-censorship because of the threats they routinely receive.

On February 4, Enrique Juarez Torres, the managing editor of El Mañana, the largest newspaper in Matamoros, was taken by force from his office by a group of armed men. He was reportedly beaten up, threatened, and questioned about the authorship of several recent articles about the highway roadblocks and violent confrontations.

A manager at El Mañana told the Mexican online publication Periodistas en Riesgo (Journalists at Risk) that the newspaper was threatened and told "to not publish anything about crime in Matamoros or they would kill the director." Local staffers resigned en masse the next day, and Juarez reportedly fled to the US with his family.

Two days later, unidentified assailants hurled a grenade at the Matamoros offices of Mexican broadcast giant Televisa, wounding two night watchmen.

Neither news outlet is particularly known for their coverage of drug war violence or for acting as public interest watchdogs, but the attacks have only served to reinforce the longstanding gag order against publishing reports that could attract backlash.

In response to the most recent attacks, press freedom organization Article 19 issued a statement declaring that Tamaulipas "lacks conditions for exercising journalism."

"Article 19 considers the attack against the Televisa Matamoros facilities to be evidence of the inaction of local authorities to guarantee the open exercise of freedom of expression," the statement read

"I think there is a fear of making what we think, and what we want to do — with or without the authorities — known publicly," a Matamoros resident said. "With friends and coworkers we usually speak without fear when talking about the situation, but if a journalist asks for the same opinions, it is highly likely that no one will want to say anything."

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Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chair of the government department at the University of Texas at Brownsville, told VICE News that the current conflict in Tamaulipas is more complex than criminal factions fighting each other for control of a fractured cartel.

"The economy, society, and politics in Tamaulipas have, as an umbrella, organized crime," Correa-Cabrera said. She referred to the Tamaulipas as a "narco-state." According to Correa-Cabrera, "narco-politicians fighting for power" are also a factor in the state's ongoing conflict.

In 2013, former Tamaulipas governor Tomás Yarrington was charged in Texas with racketeering. He allegedly allowed criminal organizations to operate within the state in exchange for large bribes, coordinated a vast money laundering operation, and conspired to smuggle drugs. Yarrington has denied the charges.

If convicted, Yarrington, who served as the mayor of Matamoros before he was elected governor in 1999, faces up to 65 years in prison. In March, the US government requested the former politician's extradition, although his current whereabouts remain unknown.

Some Tamaulipas citizens seem to take the violence in stride, alerting social media users to "risk situations." But even the relative anonymity offered by the internet does not guarantee safety.

In October, a citizen reporter in Reynosa, Maria del Rosario Fuentes, who tweeted anonymously under the pseudonym Felina, was kidnapped by a group of armed men outside the hospital where she worked. Two photographs of her apparently lifeless body were later uploaded to her Twitter account. Her body was never found.

"Every day we live in fear of going out in the street," the student Jose Luis Villa said. "But our goals, hopes, and dreams makes us go on and move forward."

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Andrea Noel contributed to this report from Mexico City.

Follow Shannon Young on Twitter@SYoungReports.