Drug war violence appears in Mexico's northeast, near Texas border

Forensic personnel collect bullet shells at a crime scene where three men were killed in Monterrey.
Forensic personnel collect bullet shells at a crime scene where three men were killed in Monterrey. (Reuters)
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

LOS ALDAMAS, MEXICO -- Javier Martinez Gonzalez may have thought himself a lucky man as he arrived in pressed khakis for his first day of work as a police officer in this little country town.

Half an hour later, masked men dragged him from the station. His body was later found in a patch of weeds alongside those of two fellow officers. Their killings early this month marked a dangerous new front in Mexico's battle against drug gangs in the borderlands south of Texas.

More than 22,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón unleashed his war on traffickers in December 2006, according to a confidential government report circulated last week, a toll that far exceeds previous media estimates. The northeastern states along the Gulf of Mexico had been mostly quiet as drug cartels and the Mexican military fought farther west. But powerful and warring crime syndicates have now launched a campaign of terror here, abducting journalists, beheading police officers and assaulting military garrisons.

After assailants lobbed a fragmentation grenade at the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo this month, the State Department temporarily shuttered offices in the region. The Mexican interior minister, Fernando Gómez Mont, said gangsters are attacking U.S. interests to provoke both countries, aiming to bring more Mexican troops into the area and possibly weaken rival cartels, a tactic known as "heating up the plaza." "Plaza" is slang for a trafficking route to the United States.

The cartels' tactics are growing in sophistication. Crime bosses have used stolen vehicles as barricades, blocking major highways, busy downtowns and international bridges for hours. In Reynosa and Matamoros, commando raids on two state prisons, probably aided by corrupt guards, allowed dozens of inmates to escape.

In the days before Easter, as Mexicans celebrated Holy Week, attackers threw up roadblocks and sprayed automatic-weapons fire on government checkpoints in apparently coordinated confrontations with the military.

But the assailants were overwhelmed, with 18 attackers left dead in a single day. Army officials called the attacks a "reaction of desperation" against civil government and military forces, which are pouring into the region.

At least four journalists from Reynosa have gone missing. Local authorities are terrorized and systematically assassinated, especially in rural villages. In Los Aldamas, attackers not only killed the rookie cop Martinez and his cousin on the force, who got him the job, but also dragged the police chief from his home in his boxer shorts. They fired repeatedly into the bodies, leaving more than 30 casings at the scene.

"He was an innocent," Mayor Alberto Lopez said of the chief, Oliver García Peña, who had spent his life in Los Aldamas. Peña had been left to defend the town with just a pair of pistols after Mexican federal authorities stripped municipal police of their official weapons because they did not trust them.

After the killings, the rest of the police force -- all six officers -- quit and fled. A lock and a chain now hang from the door of the abandoned station. Almost no one is on the streets at noon. Kidnappings are rampant. Nine people have been taken from Los Aldamas.

"We are being crushed between forces," said the mayor, sitting in his empty city hall, awaiting the arrival of promised troops.

Warnings via Twitter

The spasm of killing, kidnapping and extortion in the northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon -- vital trade, energy and manufacturing centers on the Texas border -- marks a serious escalation in the U.S.-backed drug war and comes with a 21st-century twist: Mexican officials struggle to calm what they call a mass psychosis of fear, stoked by social-media chatter and grisly YouTube videos, by using Twitter to post warnings about "situations of risk."

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