Betrayal on the Mexican Border
In 2002, Zeta leader Arturo Guzman Decena, known as "Zeta 1," was killed by Mexican soldiers after he was spotted at a fast-food restaurant in Matamoros. Afterward, flowers appeared on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. According to photos published in a local newspapers, the note accompanying the flowers read: "You will always be in our hearts. From your family, The Zetas."
The army has been particularly motivated to stop the Zetas. "For the army they represent a group of traitors who must be caught and punished," Vasconcelos said. While there have been published reports that the Zetas, like some anti-narcotics agents, received training in the United States, Vasconcelos denied that.
Matamoros and the border cities of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo constitute the home base of the Zetas, who until January were considered strictly a border security problem. Then they orchestrated a daring jailbreak in the state of Michoacan, in southwestern Mexico. Guerrero, the former soldier found dead with a grenade around his neck, and others stormed a jail in the town of Apatzingan. Wearing uniforms that resembled those of the army and federal agents, the Zetas jumped out of trucks and freed 29 prisoners, including members of the Cardenas cartel, according to the state attorney general's office.
"The jail is almost in the downtown, so it was alarming, especially for people who live around there," said Sorayda Tapia, a city employee in Apatzingan, known for its melons and mangoes. "It is usually very quiet and then to have something so surprising happen, that this big group of men shows up with high-caliber weapons, no one knew who they were or where they were from. People were really alarmed."
Guerrero, called "The Warrior," was also involved in a Matamoros jailbreak in 2001. In that incident, federal prosecutors said, he and his men outmaneuvered and outgunned 46 prison guards and freed three members of the Cardenas cartel.
The three teenage girls killed at the Wild West dance hall had been befriended by Guerrero and taken to the hall, according to interviews. Their killers have not been caught.
Francisca Morada, whose stepdaughter, Perla Lourdes Garcia, 17, was among those killed, cried as she spoke in her modest house on the outskirts of Matamoros. Morada, a former policewoman, said local authorities, who carry small-caliber weapons, were no match for the Zetas and their rivals. "It's like throwing rocks compared to what they have," she said.
Morada sobbed as she held the Mother's Day present Perla gave her the day before she died, a cheerful basket tied with a ribbon and filled with a teddy bear, flowers and balloons. "Living in this atmosphere, it's like you can't even breathe," she said. "You go out and God only knows if you'll come back."
Asked why Guerrero had not been captured even though several people interviewed in Matamoros described him as a regular at strip bars and dance clubs, Vasconcelos said federal agents get little help from local authorities as they track the Zetas.
"There is a lot of complicity on the part of the local police, and they regularly warn them, or practically help them, when we arrive to fight them," he said. "So we have two enemies there -- these guys and the local police."
Jordan reported from Mexico City. Researcher Bart Beeson contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Francisca Morada holds a Mother's Day basket given to her by her stepdaughter the day before the teenager was killed in a shootout.
(Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)