The northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas is preparing for the country’s Holy Week amid shoot outs and executions in the streets, as an intensifying battle between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas — two of the most powerful and violent cartels in the country — has turned the joined cities of Tampico and Madero into killing zones.
The Zetas and Gulf cartel have been fighting for the control of the territory for years, mostly in the Eastern regions of the country. As residents across the area hide in their homes, the quiet streets are punctuated by automatic rifle fire and AK-47 shots. Residents have recorded short videos on cell phones and uploaded them to YouTube, as the internet and social media have now become crucial to find out where it is safe to walk outside.
The official tally of cartel war casualties since Saturday has climbed to 28, as declared by Interior Secretary of the State Herminio Garza Palacios — though higher tallies are circulating across social media, and reports of deaths are rising daily. Some figures say as many as 60 or 120 have been killed in Tamaulipas since April 5. The relevant state and federal security agencies are suffering from such disparate coordination that it’s become impossible to verify which figure is correct.
After a relatively quiet period, violence ignited again between the rival cartels. The recrudescence of violence started last week after the detention of over 30 gunmen, including Jesús Leal Flores, aka “El Simple,” the local leader of the Gulf cartel in Reynosa. This came only a month after the capture of Gulf cartel leader Javier Garza Medrano.
A total of 14 people were killed on Sunday afternoon alone. At 3:10 p.m. two men killed one woman, shooting her, according to government reports. Ten minutes later, the body of a man was found inside a parking garage, with a bullet wound in the head. At 4:30 p.m., on the outskirts of the city near the Chipuz Lake, two gunmen shot and killed a man from a moving vehicle. Ten minutes later, on the other side of the city, near the Papaloapan River, another dead man was found.
Police know nothing about the reasons behind the killings, and are considering them just the result of a war betwen cartels.
Mayor of Tampico Gustavo Torres Salinas declared that the violence is stemming from “a settling of scores between rivals, criminal groups, but in no instance have we had civilian casualties.” Salinas was firm in his statements, but authorities have not proven that all of the victims so far are drug cartel foot soldiers.
“Let’s take the necessary precautions, let’s be alert, but let’s also keep calm,” Salinas said, “Ignore the anonymous messages put out on social media.”
But this advice is incongruent with the reality on the streets, as people in conflict zones in Mexico heavily rely on social media to learn about confrontations.
Interior Secretary Garza Palacios said that the incidents that have happened since this weekend are “internal disputes” that authorities are tackling. The mantra of Tamaulipas state representatives is that the “conflict is between criminal, not against society.”
Alejandro Hope, chief of security of Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad, Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, said that “what is happening in Tamaulipas is everyday news in that state. Between January and February there have been more than 150 homicides. And the authorities can not leave the population without defense.”
According to Palacios, the situation is now under control, and there is no need to become alarmed. “The authorities are working together to fight these bad days and bad times, so that the Tamaulipas public can visit us, so that we can all enjoy Holy Week,” he said.
“There’s only one page on Facebook that’s useful, Valor For Tamaulipas,” Sam, a 33-year-old civil engineer who has lived all his life in Tampico, told VICE News. “[I have] no idea whose account it is. That’s the real problem, there is no trustworthy source of information.”
For him, the “situation” in Tamaulipas has become normal in the last seven years, since the conflict started.
“I keep my normal life, but I still want to go out, have fun, because my friends stay home. They believe everything they read on social media,” he said.
During these days of extreme violence local news outlets like El Sol de Tampico or La Razón are reporting more about the preparations for the Holy Week than about the gunfights.
Since the explosion of violence erupted, classes have been suspended at many local schools and colleges, including the state university, the University of the Northeast, and the Madero Technical Institute. Federal employees with the national geographical data agency INEGI were also forced to suspend a current census economic survey in the state, citing the lack of minimal security to work in the zone.