Mexico border city rocked as weekend of gang violence leaves 14 dead
Fear has invaded the Mexican border city of Reynosa after gunmen in vehicles killed 14 people, including taxis drivers, workers and a nursing student, and security forces responded with operations that left four suspects dead.
This city across the border from McAllen, Texas, is a key trafficking point, and has long been accustomed to cartel violence. But the 14 victims in Saturday’s attacks appeared to be what the Tamaulipas governor, Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, called “innocent citizens”.
Local businessman Misael Chavarría Garza said: “the people were quiet as if nothing had happened, but with a feeling of anger because now crime has happened to innocent people.”
“It’s not fair,” said taxi driver Rene Guevara, adding that among the dead were two of his fellow taxi drivers whom he said were not involved in crime.
The attacks took place in several neighborhoods in eastern Reynosa, according to the Tamaulipas state agency that coordinates security forces, and prompted a deployment of the military, national guard and state police across the city. Images posted on social media showed bodies in the streets.
Authorities have not provided a motive or explanation for the attacks.
The area’s criminal activity has long been dominated by the Gulf cartel which since 2017 has been riven by internal conflicts over territories for drug and human trafficking.
Olga Ruiz, whose 19-year-old brother Fernando was killed by the gunmen, said her sibling was working as a plumber and bricklayer to pay for his studies.
“They killed him in cold blood, he and two of his companions,” said Olga Ruiz, adding that the gunmen arrived where her brother was fixing a drain.
“They heard the gunshots from afar and my stepfather told him: ‘Son, you have to take shelter.’ So he asked permission to enter a house but my brother and his companions were only about to enter when the vehicles arrived,” Ruiz said. “They stopped in front of them and started to shoot.”
On Saturday, authorities detained a person who was transporting two apparently kidnapped women in the trunk of a car.
Security is one of the great challenges facing the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He has assured Mexicans that he is fighting the root causes of the violence and since the beginning of his administration in December 2018, he has advocated “hugs, not bullets” in dealing with criminals. He also says he is fighting corruption to stop the infiltration of organized crime among authorities. But the violence continues.
Mexico’s evolving war on drugs
Calderón sends in the army
Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.
Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.
Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.
That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.
Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.
But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.
“Hugs not bullets”
The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.
“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.
Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.
Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.
“Criminal organizations must receive a clear, explicit and forceful signal from the federal government that there will be no room for impunity, nor tolerance for their reprehensible criminal behavior,” said García Cabeza de Vaca of the rival National Action party. “In my government there will be no truce for the violent.”
But García Cabeza de Vaca himself is being investigated by the federal prosecutor’s office for organized crime and money laundering – accusations he says are politically motivated.
Tamaulipas – the state where the Zetas cartel arose and where the Gulf cartel continues to operate – has seen several of its past governors from the Institutional Revolutionary party accused of corruption and links to organized crime. One former governor, Tomas Yarrington, was extradited to the United States from Italy in 2018 on drug trafficking charges.