Gaze Not on the Face of Evil: Massacre by Assembly Line

by Gary Moore

AAA Before dawn on May 13, at a lonely road shoulder in northeast Mexico, only 75 miles south of the U.S. border, a reported total of 49 severely mutilated bodies were dumped in a single event, by a shadowy truck or trucks. The number 49 thus became another marker in Mexico’s mysterious descent into violence: 72 dead in a 2010 massacre, 52 in a 2011 event, 24 in a body dump barely even remembered from 2008, and on into the mists.

But be clear: To travel the Mexican countryside today is not to be automatically swarmed by bandidos or thugs. You typically meet the age-old quiet and hospitality of the legends. Even as massacres and firefights trace out a national crisis on some fronts (in the “drug war” that began officially in late 2006), foreign tourists are not targeted as such. The talking heads on TV are right about one thing: the big Mexican resorts remain overwhelmingly safe for the adventurous vacationer.

But beyond that, Mexico-boosters have to fall discreetly silent–because the beast, too, is horribly real. Something is loose in this nation of 112 million, and there are only puzzled guesses as to what that something really is. If you happen to stray into one of the secluded hot zones–and the confrontation can be random or unwarned–the mysteries of sociology may leave scant time for taking notes.

On May 13, the sheer number of corpses piled defiantly beside Mexican Highway 40 confirmed a years-long trend, involving desensitization to atrocity. Likewise the condition of the corpses: many (or all, in most reports) had been ploddingly beheaded, as if on a tireless assembly line. There was also amputation of hands and feet. The shadowy dumptruck was performing a work of horror-art: creating a monumental pyramid of cropped torsos, atop a sheen of clotting russet that oozed toward early-bird motorists. The details make the point: the very urgency of this thing is what blocks it from urgent discussion. It is too horrid for discourse–like trying to debate policy with a thundering jackhammer.

The assembly line of amputation that was functioning somewhere behind the scenes can only be guessed from its roadside effects. Publicly it is a blank. Even after arrests on May 18–amid the customary official snakedance of changing accusations–there was no glimpse of the slaughterhouse where the amputations were actually performed. If all 49 victims lost all the reported appendages (heads, hands and feet), that means 245 amputations. This wasn’t quick work.

We don’t even know who the 49 corpses were (the amputations over-killed most of their identifying marks, and no mass disappearances seem to have been registered). From the rushed parade of white forensic vans taking the body parts off to an adobe compound at an over-stressed morgue, news emerged that six of the bodies were female. Rumors hissed that two were pregnant. Calculated guesses pegged the women as girlfriends, hangers-on or even Ma-Barker operatives in one of Mexico’s warring drug cartels, killed in retaliation by a rival cartel. But there were also more shocking guesses. They could have been completely innocent kidnap victims, for all anyone could say.

The jackhammer of intolerable images is not kind to the news process. For a few days there was little more than a curt announcement that this enormity had happened at all. Then came a cloud of wrong guesses. And then a few puzzle pieces relating to the May 18 arrestee–which contradicted earlier puzzle pieces. The thinness of the news could always be papered over with boilerplate cliches about the cartel wars in general–plus the requisite disclaimer: rejoice, the resort beaches are still safe. Eerily missing is background investigation of the cobra-deadly gangster world that spawned the atrocity–as if in the American Civil War our intrepid horseback correspondent were to chirp knowingly that some of the mysterious combatants seem, by golly, to be wearing uniforms that are gray.

Journalism has always had its flaws, and these can multiply in today’s Mexico. As techno-change reduces news organizations to impoverished remnants, the Mexican atrocities refuse to be cheaply studied. Stateside audiences do the eye-glaze at the mere mention of unmanageable Mexico, and Mexico itself almost seems to reciprocate–by supplying urgencies too horrible for the talking heads to talk about.

AAAThe 49 corpses even cast doubt as to which Mexican crime cartel (or bandido horde, if you prefer the historical view) was the artist in this performance art–and which other cartel, haplessly, might have supplied the truncated raw material. The immediate presumption, fed by superficial clues, was that the killers were in the Zetas Group, the most egregiously brutal of the cartels, now emerging as one of the top two titans in the battle for underworld profits.

But almost as soon as authorities announced the surface indications fingering the Zetas, analysts and nervous residents began pointing to a deeper level: this torso-dump could easily have been a disinformation operation by the Zetas’ mammoth rival, the even larger Sinaloa Cartel, or its Gulf Cartel allies–making the rapacious Zetas the savaged victims this time, with their lower-level gunmen (and perhaps their girlfriends) donating the torsos.

But then the official winds shifted again, putting the blame back onto the Zetas–with a new official explanation: the Zetas were trying to make the body dump look like a rival false-flag op–a pretense within a pretense. In this fog, an air of looney, coked-out dream-logic is almost all that’s left.

On a stunning human rights landmark, we are allowed no clear focus for our outrage.
No wonder eyes glaze.

The one solid fact–49 deaths–does fit into a historical frame. Mexican drug smuggling goes back for decades, but at the end of the twentieth century giant profits turned old corruption into crisis. In a new millennium, cartel firefights had been raging long before President Felipe Calderon declared official war on the cartels in late 2006. Then under attack the cartels splintered. Epidemic feuds consumed the splinter groups. The voracious new cycle had its first apparent beheading in January 2006, well before Calderon’s crusade (as far back as 1989, capo “Whitey” Palma was sent his wife’s head in a box). In September 2006, five heads were tossed onto a disco’s dance floor–still before Calderon’s official anti-cartel war. At about the same time a grenade in a public plaza (in Morelia, more than a thousand miles south of the U.S.) marked the first high-profile targeting of bystanders for sheer terrorism.

As multi-sided gunfights pulled in troops, police and rival mobs, mob massacres of unarmed targets initially struck at rival support networks. But they began toying with the easy use of bystanders to send a message. Nightspots became cash cows for cartel extortion or money laundering, so rivals could burst in and machine-gun random patrons. Family groups of pot growers or robber barons might be butchered. From 2008 into 2010 a hunger seemed to grow, until the next great leap–which dwarfed everything before it, making news worldwide. Previously, Mexican massacres had stayed under 25 fatalities and usually were much smaller. Not even two-sided firefights or hideous prison riots reached 30 dead. But then came the San Fernando immigrant massacre of August 22-23, 2010. Suddenly the seemingly insatiable Zetas had executed 72 immobilized captives, all at once. The herded-together targets were linked to organized crime only because they were illegal migrants, seeking to cross dangerous turf.

AAAIt was unclear at first whether 2010’s San Fernando immigrant massacre might be a fluke, but this was only because the Mexican government was keeping large secrets, well knowing that other massacres of innocents were apparent, but failing to step in and pursue the clues–until April 2011, when new revelations became too large to ignore. Then broad areas of mass graves were revealed, holding some 200 or more acknowledged bodies each, on separate sides of the country. The secretive body disposal made it hard to gauge the size of any one massacre involved, but the targets were just as dead. Meanwhile, even the concealment of bodies in mass graves turned out to be a passing phase. A new phase was foreshadowed in July 2010 by two public body dumps for shock effect, of 15 and 12 corpses. By September 2011 the state of Veracruz was seeing a public-display body dump of 35 corpses, and many smaller incidents ran the surrounding total toward 100. Beheadings and mass hangings from bridges were multiplying–while something else was growing smaller and smaller: the reassuring belief, once seen everywhere, that these killings were just gangster-on-gangster hits, and ordinary Mexican citizens, if they kept their noses clean, weren’t in any danger. Today the undertone is the opposite. Rumors try to guess just how many of the anonymously dumped bodies might be disguised bystander kidnappees, thrown in by unknown cartel killers to run up the body count and goose the shock. A gunman’s confession on May 8 purported to give the details of just such a tactic, aimed at non-criminal passersby. Escaped kidnappees provided verification.

But the fog is still thick. Modern Mexico’s eruption has no Pancho Villa inviting Model-T newsreel cameras into his bandoliered cavalry, as in the last big blast, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. The dates have sparked comparison, pairing 1910 with 2010. Some say Mexico may convulse in grand cycles, once a century, like Old Faithful or a volcano in a cornfield, releasing the angst of the ages. In that view, the August 2010 immigrant massacre came somewhat on schedule, catapulting the chaos into world-class atrocity, and opening the massacre floodgates, on the centennial of 1910–while, symmetrically, 1910 itself came on the centennial of a still earlier burst, the 1810 War of Independence, with its own decade of destruction, 1810 to 1821. You could take this back to the Aztecs and their Cortez apocalypse of 1521. Hocus-pocus numerology looms large when chaos burns other bridges. Few anthropologists are seeking to politey interview the drug lords.

The 49 corpses almost demand mystical speculation (Are we to explain them by logic? Was this done out of some kind of rational self-interest?). The day after they appeared, Youtube aired an apt reprise, a Mexican narco-video so wildly horrific that it was immediately yanked by scandalized censors. This video’s relationship to the 49 (and to yet another video involving them) remains obscure. But its presence would become known, through an alternative window. An English-language digest Web site called Borderland Beat forms a lonely watchtower on the Mexico battlements, manned by a small cadre of Mexican-Americans (my work has appeared there as well), who set themselves the vital mission of archiving any available news on Mexico’s meltdown. Borderland Beat decided to run the horrific video, entering the moral minefield that surrounds great evil. The video is unspeakably toxic, easily classed as something that should never be viewed–and yet to avoid this dragon’s lair is to avoid taking the real measure of the dragon. If we gaze on its face our imaginations are irrevocably scarred; and yet if we tightly shut our eyes, so Medusa can’t turn us to stone, our imaginations are left to run wild. Me, I didn’t watch the damned thing. I’ve been there before. But the descriptions by people who did watch it, sent as email replies to the displaying site, cast deep reflections. Even those accustomed to such viewings seemed stunned.

The video came with a title, tacked on by its unknown originators: “Comandante Diablo y Rey de Reyes Acabando con los Zetas” (“Commander Devil and King of Kings finishing off the Zetas”). It’s not shy about apocalyptic theology–but, gloatingly, the title leaves the paralyzed viewer to guess which contemporary players might be meant by the nicknames. Leaving aside guesses that the King of Kings means not only Jesus but El Chapo (the fugitive billionaire head of the Sinaloa Cartel), the core is really elsewhere, in that essential element of insatiable evil, The Nemesis: El Diablo. The best guess on who Comandante Diablo is (and the chatter is all over the scale) points to a super-shadowy figure in the Sinaloa-allied Gulf Cartel, a berserk manager of hitmen, vaguely accused of a reign of terror going back to the first shock-theater body dumps of July 2010. The video never directly says whether its title means that “Comandante Diablo” was the supervisor of the particular obscenities it shows–much less whether megalomania might have him actually believing he’s the devil (there was another ghost from 1989, on Diablo’s same Gulf Coast turf, who did take such a satanic leap of faith: sorcerer-cannibal-capo Jesus Constanza, the fiend of the Matamoros border). Down on this rung of hell, the roads to evil seem to come slouching together, whether called satanic or sociopathic.

The video shows a multiple beheading, of two different men, one while still alive. In that one the knife is held by a woman, and she has to keep hacking. Could this be a ghastly glimpse of the 49? In reply, there is only the taunting silence of El Diablo.

But in one way his evil is defeated. Certain after-effects of the video manage to do the seemingly impossible. They take the measure of the beast at the heart of the Mexican meltdown–by means of a simple tool. There are the email replies sent back to Borderland Beat from the people who watched the video. Each sender, shocked into frankness by the intensity of what was seen, provides a separate glimpse of the Shadow in the Cave–here a scale of the hulking dragon, there a flicking tongue, or a smoldering eye, or a twitching tail in musty gloom. Each writer is a lens. And there are very many such writers. Maybe nobody wants to be alone in such a pit.

Replies to Borderland Beat from viewers of the video, May 15, 2012:

A. mexican people
you are dead to the core
no longer human beings
what the hell are you doing?
the funniest thing is I’m writing from Poland, thousands of miles from your sick country
and I’m shocked

B. Nothing new, the Aztecs were doing this more than 500 years ago to their prisoners of war. Nothing new under the sun.

C. What a rough way to go out and what a pathetic way of life for these people. Esta de la chingada

D. Que desmadre… :/ So fucked up man
These dudes are the biggest cowards

E. I agree, Mexico=FAIL
Mexican people=FAIL

F. I understand revenge but I don’t understand beheading. These people enjoy the act. Something very wrong with Mexico at the moment.

G. It takes a very special person to do this, a very demonic person. Life has lost it’s way with some people caught up in the drug war.

H. Wow!! What is wrong with these individuals they are no longer human. But Zetas are evil monster. its amazing (in a bad way) how someone can reach to this level where killing a human is just as easy as killing a bug.

I. Man that is unbelievable, that’s one of the worst ones i seen. You actually hoping someone would just chop his head off for some mercy to the poor guy. You cannot justify shit like this,they trying to top one another for horror and how bad-ass my crew is. How the fuck did it come to this? What are they doing that shit for? It is not even for money that they are doing this. The beheading videos online aint got nothing on this. Pure brutality, with no sense or purpose whatsoever.

J. If you never watch things like this, or are curious. DON’T WATCH IT. This is more barbaric, more disgusting than any you will see from Taliban and Iraq. They behead a poor old guy who just lies there screaming, i wonder what he did to deserve this. MEXICO,WHAT IS HAPPENING TO YOUR PEOPLE?

K. omg how could people do that!!!!so disgust at how they just kill.

L. Wow This is one of the sickest things i have ever seen in my life. Yes I know this is a “daily” occurence in mexico, and have been following it for some time. But MAN this was gruesom and totally just a joke. I mean, killing someone is one thing, shot to the head, etc. But to show on video a MAN having his head cut off while he is alive, is just atrocious. I mean the guy was grimmacing, and without sound on, it didnt look like he fought his fate. I mean to sit there and know you are going to die, and that your HEAD is being fucking cut off! This is at its worse. Even having a female sit there and hack away with a knive, i mean, INSANE!!! Somehow this shit has to stop. I will NEVER go down to Mexico ever again, period.

M. It send a message of accessibility to those how have become no more than D.E.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.V.E. INHUMANE R.O.B.O.T.S who use weapons on other human beings.

N. I don’t understand the complacency of the captives? How they sit there kneeling obediently. Why are they not running around, screaming, kicking, biting, cursing, crying, praying to God for forgiveness, spitting in the face of the executioner, cursing their executioner’s souls to hell. I don’t actually ever watch the videos, but from the still shots and the descriptions I read, everyone seems to willingly submit to their fate. I don’t get it? Also, they always say, never let anyone take you to crime scene B. It’s always going to be worse than crime scene A. Make them kill you there on the spot rather than letting them take you away. Do the hope that somehow they will be freed if they comply? Someone please explain.

O. See Mexico you’ve destroyed your respect in the world.

P. just because a couple of sick bastards are running around recording themselfes desmebering people doesnt mean this reflects to all of us mexicans in genral , when you have a corrupt goverment currupt laws there is nothing the good people can do but stay quite and look the other way. you people on here commenting saying we as mexicans are sick and lost cause need to stop with that that bs and maybe think its the elite oligarchs runing and letting this shit happen.

Q. For your information, the majority of Mexico is safer than our very own country. Yes, there are beyond-horrific events occurring in Mexico, but it is limited to a few states. Even worse is that you include all Mexicans in your ignorant statements about “mexican people being dead to the core” and such. Do me a favor, don’t ever let me confront you in my community, I will beat the living shit out of you-in my AMERICAN military uniform.

R. Stupid idiots from poland and other places calling mexico a sick country dont they know its only cartels doing this. Mexico has a population of 112 million people out of those less then 3 million are cartel members. That leaves clearly over 100 million people in mexico that would never decapitate a human shame on anyone thinking all of mexico is sick like the fools on the video chopping heads. Once again get it in your head stupid idiots theres waaayyyyyy more good people in mexico then bad people just like in the u.s theres more people that aren’t racist then those that are racist pricks believing in kkk ideas. All in all dont judge a barrel of apples just because of some bad apples.

S. Dont really get why people keep saying the cartel members are cowards it takes balls the size of basketballs to cut some ones head off while there alive. Also takes balls to get into a gun fight with the army or other cartel hit men armed with ak 47’s. Thats why the cartel have gained so much power they aint scared of nothing even the real devil saids dam them cartels are hardcore. One thing i agree with is that the cartel sicarios may do some crazy gangster shit and overkill which is just plain hard to see but there not soft cowards there the opposite stone cold killers that will fuk u up and put u in a bodybag. Its funny though the ones commenting here saying the cartels are punks cowards are really cowards themselfs yeh cuz talking big shit about cartel members behind a computer screen and not in person yeh thats real tuff lol your all just failed internet tuff guys.

T. wuuut this shit is thiss first time they cut a head off dont they know you gotta break the spine off not whak at it anmurtures

U. wow that was coolest shit i have ever seen 🙂 but i dont want to see any mexican in my country turkey. cuz i think i am going to kill these little red shits ! but i want to watch more of these videos.

V. The end is near, Satan will rule the Earth 1 thousand years….Jesus Saves its not too late

W. i am from Morocco but this is the sickest footage ever seen so far, no joke, the devil live in Mex

Mexico’s wall of mystery has many sides. Some replies above point to the ghosts of conquest half a millennium past. The theme was captured by Mexico’s poetic giant Octavio Paz in his Labyrinth of Solitude, the great disquisition on a people’s collective wound–a wound seen every day in the strangely ordinary evidence of everyday street slang.

The words “la chingada” and “desmadre” in the replies echo Paz’s labyrinth, as does the reference to Aztec sacrifice. The shadow has many faces in the dark, and those who look must bear the knowledge.


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San Fernando: Peace or Pretense?

by Inside the Border/Gary Moore

AAAThe town of San Fernando, only ninety miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, reminds us that the Information Age is flawed.

Though San Fernando has been the site of the largest massacre series in modern North America, it is one of the continent’s least known spots in terms of methodical first-hand observation by examiners such as journalists.

Through the thick of its massacre celebrity, August 2010 to April 2011, San Fernando has generally been considered too dangerous for journalists to visit (and after its peak was over, there was the added deterrent that it was no longer breaking news). A few brave souls went anyway, but seemed to follow the frenetic in-and-out rule imposed by the violence of modern Mexico: rush surreptitiously into a conflict area, get the quotes in a couple of hours or so, and then get out before dark, so the cartel lookouts can’t pinpoint a target.

This means that the landmark massacres at San Fernando, conducted by Mexico’s most feared drug cartel, the Zetas, have been left in a haze of riddles. The Mexican government holds many answers to the riddles but has kept them secret, for reasons also secret.

The landmarks were these: the Zeta massacre of August 22-23, 2010, killed 72 non-Mexican immigrants (58 men and 14 women), with a sequel of related violence pushing the meta-incident death toll past 80. Then in a period whose exact length was also covered in secrecy, but arguably stretched at least from fall 2010 into April 2011, San Fernando was the site of the “bus massacres,” a series of macabre killings of unlucky bus passengers, whose total number is publicly unknown, though the government eventually acknowledged finding 193 bodies in 47 clandestine graves, apparently from the bus massacres but with other victims mixed in.

This seems a rather large landmark–or series of landmarks–to leave draped in riddles. So in February I went to San Fernando and stayed more than a week. It had become less dangerous by that point. The Mexican army had set up a base outside town, with more than 500 troops stationed there. Patrols through the streets were constant. But I discovered that one of the secrets of San Fernando is that it is still much less secure than the Mexican government might have us believe.

As background, a long period of gang rule by the Zetas had left the townspeople trapped in a kind of communal hell. When news reports nodded toward the locals they were typically portrayed as being too scared to talk to outsiders. However, once I stayed for awhile, letting the town respond at its own pace, I found many brave, honest and impressively intelligent people who wanted to let the outside world know what they had been through.

To relay their impressions is an eerie exercise in one way. No names or even details of their appearance can be used; the continuing threat they face is that pressing. Isolated killings were continuing while I was there. I know that anonymous attributions are not as credible as naming the sources, but within the constraints of the danger, I wanted to let San Fernando speak for itself as much as possible.

I had a prior history in the town from long ago, so there were a few door-openers that helped me get behind what had become the accustomed journalistic curtain, woven of long-distance assumptions and cliches about the “town of death.” As people opened up to me, and I matched their assertions against other evidence, the larger history of San Fernando’s descent into captivity by the Zetas emerged. Media accounts had ignored or sometimes greatly distorted this slide. In some ways the real process had been almost reversed. Not even the largest massacre series in modern North America seemed to get the Information Age to look much beyond Web rumors and coy government communiques.

But the view behind the curtain also left me with a secondary dilemma. Because of the size of what I found, writing down the impressions has demanded a format a bit larger than a small scrolling window. As I began to write about the whole of it–in a developing version a good deal longer than what you see here–I’ve made no effort either to churn it out rapidly or keep it short and punchy for a gnat’s attention span. Gnats, with due apologies, might not be interested anyway.

Or in other words: I’m not finished with the writing. The story of San Fernando, though I think I’ve got it well begun, has a ways to go before the whole thing is in readable form. The note you’re seeing here is only a preliminary, composed largely because I owe the fine people of San Fernando some kind of update, and an assurance that I haven’t forgotten about their life behind the curtain–while I also want to show the outside world, and perhaps you, dear reader, at least a glimpse of what the curtain hides.

Hence, I’ll jump ahead here to what should logically come last in telling San Fernando’s larger story. I’m going to jump past the growth of Mexican organized crime that led up to unthinkable massacre enormities, and the flashes of insight that might help explain how somebody could pull a trigger 72 times, and instead will focus on another message that people in San Fernando stressed repeatedly, involving their predicament right now, after the peak time of the worst massacres has hopefully been left behind.

This message appeared in so many conversations that it became like the town’s stalwart old church bell clanking beside the town plaza. If the message were to have a title it might be “The Imperfections of Military Occupation.”

In April 2011, as one Zeta massacre spree had followed another, the Mexican government was finally embarrassed into admitting that more than a fig leaf of action was required. Troops were surged in. They arrested 17 members of the town’s badly corrupted police force, while the remaining officers “retired” or fled.

So how did this approach pan out? In September 2011, I, too, made one of the classic journalistic in-and-outs at San Fernando, not staying overnight but getting what I could in a day-trip rush. At that time it seemed the military surge had worked well. The Zeta presence had faded into the woodwork. Townspeople were very grateful that the troops had come.

However the passage of more time, combined with the wrenchingly different view I got this past February by taking a larger risk and staying night after night, suggest that The Imperfections of Military Occupation may be a global constant, even if the occupying army is from one’s own country.

It’s poignant to see the real results of massive military presence in San Fernando. The Mexican government has made extensive–though extensively ham-handed–attempts to prove that it has restored order.

As much as San Fernando is terrified that the Zetas might return in force, it has by now become hostile toward and fearful of the rescuers who chased out the Zetas: the Mexican military and federal law enforcement establishment. To walk the streets of the forbidden city now, day after day, is to learn what can’t be seen from a distance: all the ways, large and small, in which a ponderous, valiant and hidebound military culture has managed to alienate hearts and minds.

As a small example, San Fernando’s municipio police force, pegged in pre-crisis days at about 60 officers in two shifts, was replaced under the military occupation by 100 military police–who quickly set about giving a blizzard of traffic tickets–for speeding and even seatbelt violations. Somebody at the top seemed to have concluded that this was the way to sternly impose the rule of law. A town traumatized by massacres didn’t understand the priority.

Meanwhile, the forlorn new police chief, a military transplant, said he had gone six months without even receiving his uniform–but he was boasting about going out and giving schoolchildren safety talks on how to survive an earthquake–in a Gulf Coast area where tremors are unknown.

There were worse horror stories about military abuses, but even so, I found no general outcry, even among bitter critics, that the military was forming death squads or becoming like the Zetas. The Mexican military really did remain the good guys on San Fernando’s long-suffering ground–and this is the depressing thing. As irritation at the gaffes increased, nobody was running out to the armored vehicles with sweets and flowers. The patrols took on a menacing appearance, especially in the rain, when the ponchos hunched on armored convoys had the look of Darth Vader. All patrolling troops wear ski-mask-like balaclavas covering every detail of the face but the eyes. The insidiousness of the Zetas makes such anonymity necessary, but the symbolism remains: The good guy looks like a mailed fist that expects everybody to love the show of power.

While hearing the stories and watching the patrols (whom one didn’t dare offend), I had the sense of glimpsing the future of Mexico, like Scrooge haunted by the ghost–seeing how hard the Mexican government will probably keep trying, and how unfairly the flames may only grow. Maybe nobody’s found a better way, but armies of occupation all over the world have often wondered at the ingratitude.

San Fernando residents said they now feel trapped between three forces: the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel (an old local mafia bitterly at war with the Zetas) and, now, the military. Even children expressed cynicism about how much good the military was really doing there–because clandestine executions by the Zetas are continuing. Gunfire from the patrols can be heard in the night, and soldiers fall, but the townspeople see the military as largely impotent.

Again the unfairness: Before the occupation the fear and violence was so much greater that these same people might not have felt free to talk to me at all. The military presence has definitely changed San Fernando’s atmosphere for the better.

But is it enough? Has the military found the secret formula that will stop the spreading virus of Mexico’s unease? Maybe so. But it’s hard to find anybody behind the curtain who thinks so.

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More Buses, More Darkness

by Inside the Border/Gary Moore


The riddle is as big as Mexico:

What really happened to the Hartsells?

Sure, this was just one more doomed passenger bus, hit by one more explosion of horror. But it’s also an emblem–because it’s one more time when the real nature of the violence raging through Mexico has remained a baffling mystery.

Consider the sheer range of the unanswered questions:

Was this family savaged because cartel terrorists were sending a national-scale message?
……….Or were ordinary local robbers simply wild on alcohol or drugs?
Was this a conspiracy, reaching out to a whole nation of 113 million people?
……….Or was it simply a small, grisly accident of fate?

AAAThe Hartsell case appears as a pastiche of missing puzzle pieces–the usual mix in Mexico’s time of troubles. But there are a few more clues this time, because, unlike local victims of such violence, the Hartsells were U.S. citizens. They were visiting family in Mexico from their home in Cleburne, Texas, near Ft. Worth. They didn’t seem to be targeted because they were Americans, but their status has allowed some pivotal witness input to emerge in relative safety, north of the border.

When the resulting clues are pieced together, they don’t point to the most reasonable-sounding explanation, the one saying that ordinary thugs on a Mexican backroad must have gone a little crazy. They point instead toward the crazy conspiracy theory, the great shadow: organized terrorism.

AAAThe first puzzle piece was the typical Mexican government announcement–cryptic as a mumble in the dark. On December 22 itself, almost as soon as the crime had gone down, the Mexican Army proudly announced catching a mysterious band of five men, said to be the attackers of that particular Transportes Frontera bus, which was stopped around dawn some 300 miles south of the U.S. border, three days prior to Christmas 2011.

But, the government added solemnly, the five suspects had resisted arrest. They had fired at arriving troops. And so naturally the troops fired back. And the suspects were all killed. And that, said the government, left no way to learn just who these mysterious marauders might possibly have been–or WHY they had gone into a frenzy of killing.

Case closed. By January 3, the Mexican daily El Universal was parsing it like this: “Chief state prosecutor Amadeo Flores Espinosa said it had been determined that the five dead criminals committed the attack on December 22. Therefore, he said, the investigation has been closed and concluded”–though the five suspects were never publicly identified.

Whoever the attackers were, they had required only a few hours to strike not only three separate passenger buses but two cargo vehicles, all on or near Mexican Highway 105, where it backtrails the northern fringe of the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz. The almost frenetic pace of multiple attacks left a trail of carnage stretching well beyond the Hartsell encounter. But like the Hartsells on the Frontera bus, all the victims seemed to share one trait. They were chance bystanders, not drug-war combatants. And–crucially–the scant evidence that has been allowed to surface seems to demonstrate that the central reason for the attacks was not robbery. Any fragmentary statements about robbery in the press seem to have reflected media assumptions, not investigations. But if so, what WAS the motive? Why this merciless rampage?

This part of northern Veracruz lies in a beautiful but notorious region of green foothills called the Huasteca. AAAAnd the Huasteca, especially in the vicinity of the attacks, is Zeta country. The Zetas Cartel could be called Mexico’s most openly terroristic drug trafficking group. Their massacre patterns remind of their origins among miltary deserters. But were the five mystery men Zetas? The lack of firm answers to this question was essentially buried.

A Zeta trademark is the commission of general acts of terror without overt explanation. Few subtitles say things like: “This is a message to the public at large, showing what will happen if you don’t knuckle under,” or “This is a message to the government, showing what will happen to your citizens if you anger us.” Instead, gloating silence may alternate with the occasional explicit taunt, adding to public anxiety. But did it happen in this particular case? The Zetas themselves took the trouble to deny it.AAA In a town called Tantoyuca, 30 miles south of the attacks, a public banner appeared on December 27–the kind of “narco-message” often seen in the drug war. Neatly signed, “Sincerely, Zetas Unit,” it said primly of the bus attacks: We didn’t do it. Even in a labyrinth of liar’s poker, this did mean something. But what?

The Zetas aren’t the only thugs in those hills. Smaller groups of ordinary highwaymen have appeared. In 2010, another government announcement told of another band of mysterious bus hijackers–also five in number–but arrested alive, named, photographed and sent to prison, after the murder of a bus driver and three rapes. And apparently those bus bandits weren’t Zetas. The government said they were escaped convicts. Nor does this exhaust the possibilities. At times, cartel enemies of the Zetas have been known to stage black-bag jobs to make the Zetas look bad. Did it happen here?

In the festive air of December 21, 2011, the big bus terminal at Reynosa, the metropolis of Mexico’s eastern border, was thronged with ticket buyers. Reynosa’s populous border strip lies some 300 miles north of greener Veracruz, in a different region of Mexico–with different safety dynamics at the end of 2011.

AAAIn 2010 and early 2011, the environs of Reynosa had seen so many cartel-war massacres that by mid-year thousands of troops were surged in–enforcing a new period of local peace–nervous, but very welcome. Earlier in 2011 that border area had convulsed as more than a dozen long-distance passenger buses were attacked in bizarre killing sprees–undoubtedly the work of the Zetas Cartel, though here, too, the motives were hauntingly obscure.

In April, bus traffic lay paralyzed, but by August the troops had chased the Zetas away, pushing them into other strongholds–one of which lay 300 miles south in Veracruz. AAA
By December, bus company spokesmen in Reynosa were gushing about the Christmas rush, saying enthusiastically that people had found the confidence to travel again. Three million U.S. residents were said to be coming home to Mexico for the holidays.

On December 16, Mexican President Felipe Calderon weighed in with Operation Winter 2011, beefing up holiday highway security across Mexico, assigning 12,000 extra federal police. Calderon was down 20 points in the political polls because of his drug war, fought bravely but disastrously since his inauguration in 2006. His political party, nearing July 2012 elections, badly needed the good news of Christmas peace on the eastern border. Anyone who ruined this silent night would be striking Calderon a personal, Grinch-like blow.

Reynosa ticket lines were spilling out the terminal door. In the crowd were five travelers making border connections, beaming in group photos they snapped. Maria Hartsell and her four children had had a long day’s bus journey from greater Ft. Worth to the border. AAAAnd they were still a long way from the deep hill country of the Huasteca. Maria Hartsell Sanchez, 39, had been born in those storied hills amid lingering traces of old-style pistoleros and robber barons (as opposed to new-style cartels like the Zetas). By 2011 she was a middle-aged mom in working-class Texas, married into a circle of affection and religious devotion in the Hartsell family, and working in a school cafeteria. That road, too, had been long. Her Cleburne husband, Michael Hartsell, suffered from Huntington’s disease and its tragic mental side-effects, which, the family said, lay behind his history of domestic flare-ups, severe enough for prison time. The strains had climaxed in early December. Maria sought a change of scene.

Relatives pleaded. Did she really want to drag four adolescents on a nostalgic holiday trip into Mexico’s drug war? But her own aging mother, nearly a thousand miles south in the Huasteca, had health problems. And the children seemed to relish the adventure: Facebook-posting Karla, a high-school senior, 18; beaming Angie, 15; impish Cristina, an eighth-grade library aide, 13; and bubbly, teasing Mike, 10. Logistics were eased by Maria’s brother, who lived at the border in Reynosa. There, at least two cousins joined the trip for the last leg, down through Veracruz to the flank of the Sierra Madre, into the mountain state of Hidalgo. They were now a hopeful group of at least seven.

AAAThe logistics were not small. Angie suffered from Down syndrome–so severely that she would later be exempt as a witness to the horrors at the end of the road. Any lapse in her daily medication was said to be life-threatening–yet she was riding into an environment that would leave her younger brother, Mike, with infection from the water, a sore throat and a skin rash–aside from the final nightmares.

Two hours south of Reynosa they slid routinely past a northern Mexican town called San Fernando. In March 2011, this “town of death” had hosted “the bus massacres,” becoming world famous. AAABus after bus was stopped by unexplaining cartel gunmen; passengers were picked out, lined up in lonely acacia scrub and many were killed–not with guns but slaughterhouse-style, with a sledgehammer. This almost indescribable enormity made news but not a proportional mark on continental consciousness–not least because the Mexican government hid many of the particulars. In both that spree in March and in a still larger San Fernando atrocity in 2010, when 72 immigrants were massacred, the killers were proved to be Zetas.

AAABut by May 2011, government reaction had placed more than 80 alleged local Zetas behind bars for the San Fernando episodes. Zeta camps outside town were flushed out. Remaining Zetas faded into the population. Sporadic killings continued, but the big flashpoints moved to greener pastures.

In darkness bridging December 21 to 22, the Transportes Frontera bus rumbled south beyond San Fernando, then finally across the Panuco River into Veracruz. A day later and just east, this state-line area would produce ten dumped corpses, said to be Zetas killed by the rival Gulf Cartel. In two more days, 13 more corpses were said to represent Gulf Cartel personnel killed by Zetas. No play-by-play told why, exactly, the Panuco basin was burning. The Zetas had apparently been hijacking vehicles there for a long time, with barely a peep of publicity.

AAA In the port of Veracruz, the big city of Veracruz state, December 21 was fateful. The entire metro police force, more than 800 personnel, was disbanded by Mexico’s exasperated central government, to be replaced by soldiers and federales–in order to root out Zeta influence. Twelve days earlier, state Zeta commander Raul Lucio Hernandez, “El Lucky,” was arrested. Also caught, on November 14, was the Zeta boss of adjoining San Luis Potosi state. If the Zetas wanted to send a back-off message, they had plenty of reasons.

The holidays were pushing a flood of buses down cracked old thoroughfares like Highway 105. The strain showed. Ten minutes after midnight as December 22 arrived, a bus a few hours ahead of the Hartsells, belonging to the Estrella Blanca line, “spectacularly” caught fire, apparently having been rushed out of the shop after repairs.

News items on Estrella Blanca, with its nationwide fleet, suggest the vulnerability of bus traffic. December 7: dispatch rejects a driver because he looks drunk, then he is found dead outside. December 7 on the other side of Mexico: bus stopped by armed men resembling soldiers; two passengers disappear. December 17: bus hijacked, not by cartel gunmen but by student protestors, one of at least 16 buses thus taken. Not as much news dogged the Frontera line, though in February a sleeping driver had hit the back of a semi-trailer, then leaped out and fled, leaving 38 passengers to break out windows for escape. The vast majority of bus trips in Mexico are safe and uneventful, but the sheer size of the traffic can bring the unforeseen–or create a target.

Thirty miles from where the Estrella Blanca bus caught fire and at about the same time, according to local rumors, some mysterious men were on a drinking binge. Their subsequent behavior first manifested outside the town of El Higo around 5:00 a.m. On an entry road from El Higo to Highway 105 they made their AAApresence known by spraying gunfire at three locals loading a vegetable truck–killing all three, for no apparent reason, and leaving them spread-eagled on the pavement. Before getting to the highway they hit a second cargo truck with a tossed grenade, causing another death. They reached the highway at a junction called “the Y,” and didn’t have to wait long for a bus–though the bright green motorcoach they stopped, belonging to the Vencedor line, was not the one carrying the Hartsells.

AAAIt was a logical place to stop buses. “The Y” was an old chokepoint for roadblocks, run not by outlaws but by the Mexican military. Bygone bunkers and sentries there can still be seen in file photos on Google Maps. Where these sentinels were on December 22, 2011, was not announced.

The Vencedor bus was boarded. Some accounts said there were not five attackers but eight. A young couple on the bus was going home to the sierra from job-hunting in the city of Monterrey, carrying a three-month-old baby. Florentino Hernandez and Ericka Cortes were both 19, drawing the gunmen’s attention because their baby was crying, according to vague reports. They were told to shut the baby up. Apparently they couldn’t. Then they were sprayed with automatic weapons fire. Both were killed–at such close range that the baby had powder burns, but somehow survived. The death toll in the strange spree was now six. The number of wounded was not announced.

The gunmen drove up the highway from the Y, soon meeting a white bus with red markings, apparently still in the darkness around dawn. This was the Hartsell bus. Again at least one of the attackers boarded. And again the seeming search for provocation. This time the irritating factor, seized upon by a shooter as an excuse to fire, was an outcry from a child-like 15-year-old, disoriented Angie Hartsell, the sufferer of Down syndrome. A gunman slapped her and said to shut up. Her mother and sisters rushed in. Maria Hartsell tried to explain Angie’s handicap, then reportedly threw herself against the attacker as he kept slapping. All were machine-gunned.

AAAThe ten-year-old, Mike Hartsell, was in another seat, restrained by an older cousin. But a second cousin, Emmanuel Sanchez, 14, of Reynosa, was with Maria. Emmanuel was killed. Beside him, Maria, Karla and Cristina Hartsell also lay lifeless.

Angie and Mike survived. In Texas their grandmother Margaret Schneider heard media suppositions that all this must have been due to a robbery. She was unconvinced. Her voice trembled as she said: ““I just don’t understand why they would kill those girls. I just don’t understand.”

In quick succession a third bus stopped to offer aid. Reportedly the driver’s coming down the steps was provocation enough for the heated shooters, and he was killed. A tightly compressed rush of violence was now complete. Total fatalities: 11. When soldiers, mobilizing on the same day, December 22, reported killing five perpetrators (leaving stories about a total of eight lost in the shuffle), the final reported death toll was 16.

In the media furor back in Texas, grandmother Margaret Schneider insisted on airing a telling clue, pointing out that after it was all over, Maria Hartsell was found to have been carrying nearly a thousand dollars on her person–which the “robbers” didn’t seem to search for or touch. Interviewer Randy McIlwain of DFW5 News said of Schneider: “She rejects reports that this was just a robbery. She says the gunmen were out for blood, the only reason for killing women and children.”

There was a tapestry of clues: the drive-by at the vegetable truck, scarcely a robbery. The grenade tossed almost incidentally but fatally at the other cargo truck–revealing an arsenal a bit heavy for robbers. And then the two bus invasions with their similar themes, as if seeking out incidental provocation to jump-start execution that was really random. If cartel gunmen had been instructed by higher-ups to create a blood trail of a certain size, the face-to-face execution of innocents might not have been entirely effortless. On both boarded buses, remarkably similar small irritants helped to nudge the trigger: the crying of an infant, the outcry of a handicapped girl.

AAAAnd then there was location. Only 50 miles away lay the magnificent Huasteca grotto called El Sotano de las Golondrinas, publicized internationally just four months earlier by a lofty pitchman: President Calderon himself, as he sought to boost violence-eroded tourism in Mexico. Calderon was filmed dashingly rappeling down into the cavern on a spelunker’s hoist, for a Public Broadcasting System travel show in September. If anyone had sought maximum affront to Calderon during his push for a safe Christmas holiday, Highway 105 offered certain attractions.

The Zetas are known in Mexico for extortion perhaps as much as for drug smuggling. The emergent question can only be viewed as a possibility, not a certainty–one more loose end in the shadows: Were orders sent to lower-level, expendable Zeta grunts, saying that a whole nation was to be pressured by sacrificing a few random pawns?

There are always the other possibilities: that another cartel–or other shadowy players–staged a false-flag massacre to pin it on the Zetas. Or that some ordinary thugs had found a drug-alcohol mix that blew their stack. But the evidence doesn’t point that way. Moreover, a history of other atrocities, originally wreathed in such questions but later proved to the Zetas, reinforces the picture.

Did Zeta leaders decide to send a message a little bloodier than their we-didn’t-do-it banner in Tantoyuca?

And did a government then suppress the implications because they might help spread a message of fear?



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Secrets of the 42: #10. OUTLAWS’ ROOST AT SÁRIC

by Inside the Border/Gary MooreAAA
AAAThe tiny municipio of Sáric, with its 27 miles of desert frontage opposite the Arizona border, is a case study in Mexico-The-Invisible.
Sáric brims with secrets, but few observers stumble in to view its exotic mazes.


Like Sáric, some border municipios are tiny. Others are wide, but have few people.

And some are urban giants. More than 1.5 million people crowd into the municipio of Juárez, facing El Paso, Texas. And, hemmed in by California and the Pacific, the municipio of Tijuana has more than two million. So municipio police work both city beats and rural patrols like deputy sheriffs–amid many pressures.

AAAFor one thing, municipios also form basic building blocks of a non-governmental kind. Their boundaries trace out “plazas,” turf areas for organized crime. Many of the 42 border municipios–perhaps all–hide an unlisted celebrity somewhere in the shadows. A plaza boss supervises smuggling–and more violent crimes–for a large trafficking cartel. When two or more warring cartels overlap their plazas in a single municipio, the plaza bosses can get a little testy.

AAAOn July 1, 2010, such tensions at Sáric wiped out at least 21 cartel gunmen in a single Wild-West-style ambush. This was big enough to make nationwide news in the United States. But only for a moment, and with almost no details. The dangers of Sáric’s lonely backroads kept U.S. media from venturing near–or even finding out what the battle was really fought over. Unreported in the background was a classic outlaws’ roost.

AAAThe hideout village of Cerro Prieto nestles in a natural stronghold of majestic desert upland. Secluded at the southern edge of Sáric municipio, it is less than 30 miles south of Arizona. The name “Cerro Prieto” translates as “Dark Hill,” like a page out of Tombstone and Zane Grey, or Butch and Sundance with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. The “hill” is a high, gaunt butte with a flat top and steep sides of dark stone, hugging the back of the village. Off a narrow paved road (blocked at times by rockslides in the gulches), an entry lane trickles toward the brooding butte, crossing the dry riverbed of the Rio Planchas. A derelict rope bridge sags overhead, strung for the occasional weather shift and desert flashflood. The rope skeleton frames a smear of rooftops and yard shrubs farther on. Banana leaves and scrawny fan palms mark a sudden oasis. The Mexican census managed to find this place in 2010, though some maps can’t: official population 353.

AAABy early 2010, Cerro Prieto/Dark Hill formed the violent nucleus of a fifty-mile north-south splinter of no-man’s land leading up to the U.S. border: a “plaza” covering two tormented municipios, Sáric at the border and, just behind it, slightly more populous Tubutama. A renegade trafficking organization had carved out this turf between main pathways controlled by the most powerful of Mexico’s crime syndicates, the Sinaloa Cartel. Rejected, the Sinaloa Cartel was not happy.

Dark Hill was said to have a small army in its craggy hideaway, AAAcaptained by a mysterious local, Arnoldo Del Cid, known as “El Gilo.” To defy the big guns of Sinaloa and pull in drug loads from farther south, Gilo’s band used a counter-alliance. They threw in with a national splinter cartel run by three violent brothers, the Beltran Leyvas. The tent had many names and actors, but one main show: The fabulous profits of drug smuggling led to epidemics of backstabbing, and grabs for the spoils.

In 2010, just after the big battle at Cerro Prieto/Dark Hill, I chased its riddles. Desert residents warned that if I dared approach the village, cartel sentries would come out for a little greeting. And sure enough, right at the dry riverbed guarding the entry lane, a gray double-cab pickup roared up, decked out with a rollbar and smoked windows. The driver’s window slid down, like a dark stage curtain unveiling the holder of my fate: lean face, neatly clipped string goatee–and a baseball cap. The voice demanded: “What is your business in Cerro Prieto?”

AAAThe subtext was sadly standard for cartel lookouts. On the pickup’s dashboard flashed an angry bubble light: red-blue-red-blue. “We are municipales,” announced the questioner, meaning Sáric municipio police, on rural patrol. “We” referred to shadowy silhouettes, secreted behind tinted glass on the back seat.

According to an area military source, a particular Sáric municipio police officer was moonlighting as chief halcon, or lookout, for cartel interests at Dark Hill–an officer known tartly as El Zorro. The pickup driver fit the description, and I didn’t ask. He studied my press card intently–then suddenly relaxed: “Well, welcome,” he said at last, apparently satisfied. “Feel free to look around.”

This, too, is oddly standard. Even in an atmosphere of casual murder–including the murders of many Mexican journalists–a U.S. press card, at least at certain times, can exempt an intruder, under the label: “Not a Threat–And Not Worth the Trouble His Disappearance Might Bring”–which is a fragile cocoon, ready to dissolve in a heartbeat. Later I caught glimpses of the truck preceding me to village houses, as if making sure nobody got so carried away with the welcome as to actually say anything.

They needn’t have bothered. The place was ghostly quiet, like a discarded movie set. Many natives were said to have fled. AAAThe few who came to their doors smiled wanly, repeating the script: We know nothing.
A youth strolled out of desert glare in dusty heat, wearing a military-style beret, shirttail out–and he gave a little wave. After the big battle, most of Gilo’s boys were said to be laying low in the hills.

El Gilo had consolidated his hold here months earlier. The stories about his ravages were seldom verifiable or definitively traceable to him, but they set a tone: The wife and daughter said to have been raped in front of husband and father because the gang wanted their ranch; the horses stolen from an impoverished ranching commune to carry bales of pot; the killings for unknown reasons; the houses burned as intimidation, revenge or turf marking; the flood of carjackings; the demands for protection money.

A thousand miles south, the rise of El Gilo was being watched by an irritated presence. “Shorty” (“El Chapo”) Guzmán, the myth-enfolded top boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, was reportedly barricaded in much higher outlaw mountains, down in Durango. With a billion-dollar revenue stream and outlaw armies of his own, El Chapo surveyed a chessboard the size of Mexico. As 2010 deepened, he had brushfire wars going against varying cartel rivals all along the border’s 2,000-mile length. The simple story of Dark Hill–as simple as backstabbing for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre–was being endlessly warmed over, in an alphabet soup of new names, dates, ever-new faces.

AAABut for Dark Hill, a breakpoint was nearing–in the summer of 2010–with a twist. Finally fed up with the Dark Hill competition, Chapo, along with his contractors in the smuggling corridors on either side of Dark Hill, took action. They launched a Convoy of Death–sometimes known in those days as an X-Command. When the Sinaloa Cartel sent a parade of stolen SUV’s and quad-cab pickups to clean out a rival stronghold, the vehicles might be ceremonially marked, by painting large X-marks on the windows with a handy medium, white shoe polish.

AAAAs Mexico’s largest, most-business-like cartel, El Chapo’s Sinaloa syndicate could publicize itself as being the least violent–the “protector of the people” against massacre-mad loose cannons (while ignoring its own massacres). In February 2010, X-convoys had crossed the whole of Mexico to the Gulf coast, smashing at the Zetas Cartel.

On the night of June 30, a convoy of perhaps 50 or more vehicles moved toward the municipio of Sáric. At the Tubutama crossroads, only ten miles short of the den at the butte, a Mexican Army checkpoint was conveniently discontinued, just in time for the Sinaloa convoy to pour through.

Assault rifles bounced in the darkness against cup-holders and upholstery, as a blitzkrieg army prepared to clean El Gilo’s clock. They seemed not to notice that the desert road was rising into narrow gulches with no road shoulder, between overhanging cliffs: no room to maneuver or even turn around, and perfect lines of fire from the clifftops. They were apparently counting on complete surprise–a stunningly naive hope.

AAASomebody had talked, and the clifftops were crowded. When automatic weapons fire began pouring down from vantage points over the road, ranchers across the flats thought it sounded like a war movie. Before ever reaching Dark Hill, the convoy was cut to pieces. The authorities, military and police, arrived after the rather customary delay, once there was daylight. They found a ghastly graveyard of bullet-riddled X-vehicles abandoned along a long stretch of road, in the vicinity of a settlement called La Reforma. Bodies were strewn about. Sinaloa Cartel gunmen had sought to dive out and take cover under the vehicles, to no effect.

Dark Hill had beaten off what had seemed a certain Sinaloa victory. In a Mexican crime war without coherent annals, almost without a public history, it was not publicly noted that this desert showdown seemed to mark the end of an icon. There would no more X-convoys–at least not with the ostentatious white markings. Apparently never again would Mexico’s largest cartel daub its attack vehicles with convenient bullseyes.

The 21 dead acknowledged by Mexican authorities did not include any bodies carted off by retreating survivors. At dawn the confusion was great enough to let a sprinkle of local reporters get in, from Mexican media in towns nearby, though picture-taking was soon stopped. Customary government secrecy closed in: another milestone in the dark.

AAASoldiers and state police surged to the area–after the fact, establishing a massive government presence once the shooting was done. The victorious occupants of Dark Hill melted away to outlying ranches. Then all was quiet.

A month later, on July 29, the Sinaloa Cartel would strike again, this time more judiciously, burning some Dark Hill vans and smuggling camps on the Planchas riverbed, and killing a few Gilo gunmen (or many, said the rumors).

So then the question: Who, at last, had become the enduring ruler of Dark Hill? Three more bodies would turn up, arranged symbolically at the three different roads leading into Tubutama, the gateway to Dark Hill. Was this a message from El Gilo, saying he was still running things? Or was it the reverse, a little something from the Sinaloa Cartel, saying they had sent Gilo packing? Nobody seemed able to say.

El Gilo, the Khan of high-desert house burnings, was never reported arrested or killed–or even seen or photographed. Under the brow of a dark-rocked butte, at a ragged suspension bridge hanging uselessly above dry sand, the questions go unanswered–and the world seldom asks.

The municipio of Sáric is only one small, beautiful, tormented sister, in the border’s great family of 42 municipios, large and small. Their history is often a wan smile.


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Drop That Dime on a Hot Plaza–It’s Their Loss

by Inside the Border/Gary MooreAAA

Cartel Spanish 101:

Dropping a dime
is like heating up the plaza:
You burn your villages on retreat…

In back-street English, “dropping a dime” on someone means snitching to the cops.
But the drug war in Mexico adds a layer to this, because it’s not just a two-sided fight.

As Mexico’s cartel hit squads shoot at one another, they are also in conflict with the third leg in a war triangle: the not-always-perfect forces of law and order, represented by government troops and police. This means that snitching can be used tactically, as a weapon.

AAAAAAThe result looks like three-dimensional chess. Mexico’s triple-sided combat opens an extra dimension of possible moves for cartel players. Like an aerial dogfight, the action doesn’t just go side-to-side, but can shoot up vertically.

AAAIf Cartel A loses a chunk of turf to Cartel B, then Cartel A can, in effect, scorch the earth it is leaving. There are two ways to do this, both by luring law enforcement into the fray as Side C, and poisoning the spoils won by Side B.

The first way is the dime. You simply tell the cops (sometimes corrupt ally cops) where Cartel A is hiding out, to prompt a raid. But the second way is more subtle. There is a kind of jiu-jitsu called “calentando la plaza”–“heating up the turf”–if that turf is held by a rival.

AAA This takes us back to the cartel dictionary. The ground won or lost is a “plaza”—a term nobody has been able to translate very well. It doesn’t mean a palm-lined village square. In underworld parlance in Mexico, a plaza is a geographical area of influence. Nor is it limited to border staging areas for drug smuggling. A plaza can be deep inside Mexico. It can be the size of an entire Mexican state, or a group of states–or just a city or county-sized area within a state–or only a section of a city. But the core meaning remains: a plaza is where you squeeze out profits. No other gang is supposed to move in (unless they pay “derecho de piso”—a user’s fee, or turf tax—also not translating very well).

Plazas are useful because, even if drug smuggling goes badly, you can turn to the ordinary citizens in your plaza and push some meth or AAAmarijuana onto the vulnerable. Or, more directly, you can extort the populace under threat, pulling in a monthly protection fee from the scared guy in the corner shoe store, maybe even the taco stand on the street. Cartel battles are fought over such captive areas, like medieval spoils. This is one of the open secrets of Mexico’s drug war: an uneven slide toward anarchy, with “taxes” collected by the boys down the block.

If a plaza is lost–if another gang comes in a bigger caravan of SUV’s and newly stolen quad-cab pickups–there is still the wild card: You can lure in “the heat.” Crime news from Mexico is laced with acccusations that one or another sour-grapes gang faction has been “calentando la plaza” (“heating up the turf”) by committing acts of violence. These may look random and pointless, but there is the hidden gain: they may force law enforcement to crack down by hitting the easiest targets, your surprised rivals.

Maybe you massacre a few civilians. This might pressure an embarrassed government to send in the Marines. If it’s a plaza you don’t control anyway, what do you have to lose? AAAThe troop surge will keep your rivals from doing business. The word for this–“calentar” (“to heat up”)–equates law enforcement with a warm reception, like an old Chicago gangster flick with Joey or Louie musing: “We gotta lay low. Da heat’s on.”

But Joey or Louie were seldom so successful at dominating large swaths of society as to need the extra geographical word: “plaza.” The drug war has seen efforts to carve up Mexico like a pie (a Cuernavaca cartel summit in 2007 sounded like the dons in The Godfather carving up 1950s Cuba). There is something timeless in the idea of the plaza. Warlords in the Dark Ages might have called it a fiefdom.

Even the simpler form of 3-D cartel chess, the dropped dime, is an art. The throwaway cell phone rings up the confidential government tip line. The heat is sent directly to the victorious rival’s celebration party. Soon Mexican Marines are swarming the ranch or restaurant, backed by the grim thump-thump-thump of a U.S.-supplied Black Hawk helicopter. The spectacular mass arrest may be followed by a stern government press release, announcing primly: “The Marines acted upon information from a concerned citizen.” But was it really a heroic passerby–or a knife from Joey or Louie?

AAAIt can come thick and fast. At present the remnant Gulf Cartel, cornered in an urban strip of border Mexico just below South Texas, is dismembering itself so rapidly—in a feud between the R’s and the M’s (also not translating very well)—that police and soldiers practically have to use dump trucks to cart off the gunmen getting fingered by vengeful colleagues. Nearly every month—almost every week—some new plaza boss seems to get his birthday party busted—perhaps through shrewd intelligence work by the authorities. But perhaps also through that mysterious phone call.

Of course, such tactics are only a side issue. Dwarfing them are the overall effects of the gang conflicts.

For example, the small border municipio of Miguel Aleman (a municipio is akin to a combined city-county unit) has fewer than 30,000 inhabitants. AAABut it has 12 miles of U.S. border frontage along the Rio Grande. Well positioned for smuggling, this municipio is said to define a “plaza,” or area of influence, for the Gulf Cartel. Their rivals, the Zetas, were also established here, but were largely driven out in the “New Federation” cartel war of 2010. The Zetas sometimes return on disastrous raids, “heating up the (lost) plaza.

AAAAs a Gulf Cartel plaza, Miguel Aleman is watched over by a plaza boss, in charge of illegal profits. But who is this boss? The answer–or lack of an answer–reveals the chaotic nature of Mexico’s drug war. The line-up shifts quickly:

1. Eudoxio Ramos, arrested Oct 27, 2011, was said to have been plaza boss of Miguel Aleman in the past, presumably in early 2011 or before.

2. Gilberto Barragan (“El Tocayo”), arrested May 20, 2011, was called the plaza boss of Miguel Aleman at the time of his arrest.

3. Samuel Flores (“El Metro Tres”), a major regional operative, was found dead on September 2, 2011. At the time, he was called the plaza boss of both Miguel Aleman and much larger Reynosa next door.

4. Ricardo Salazar, arrested Oct 8, 2011, after an hours-long firefight killed ten gunmen, was said to be Miguel Aleman plaza boss at that time.

5. “Pepio” Muñetonez, apparently never apprehended, was reportedly named by Eudoxio Ramos, above, as the current plaza boss of Miguel Aleman at the end of October.

So who runs the Miguel Aleman plaza? The specifics are a blur.
Much of the Mexican violence can be seen only as a chaotic silhouettte.


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Spillover – The Riddles Grow

by Inside the Border/Gary Moore

Is Mexico’s drug war spilling into the United States?
Two recent cases bring new prominence–and new confusion–to this old question.

AAAThe two current cases of spillover violence, on October 30 and November 24, occurred more than 300 miles apart in Texas. Both produced murky and conflicting reports. Each involved a different Mexican crime cartel, on different kinds of missions. These probes by foreign criminals onto U.S. soil were apparently unrelated, and only coincidentally close in time.

But there is still the deeper riddle. Could the incidents be predictors? Do they foreshadow a general willingness to bring violence north across the border?

For decades Mexican drug smugglers have had marketing links inside the United States, but the large cartels have kept most of their fighting in Mexico. There has been the unwritten rule: antagonizing U.S. law enforcement isn’t worth the risk. But this is only a custom, and customs can change. The drug war itself might be defined as a gradual breakdown of norms and inhibitions. The two recent incidents ask once again: How far will the cartels go?

The first case, on October 30 north of Edinburg, Texas, was labeled as a milestone by a convincing skeptic on spillover alarms. Hidalgo County Sheriff AAALupe Treviño has long urged moderation in this tricky debate, reminding that crime in his border county is mostly homegrown, coming from U.S.-side perpetrators, not from a phantom invasion out of Mexico.

But the October 30 case–in which Treviño’s deputy Hugo Rodriguez was wounded–was a milestone, according to the sheriff: a clear case of Mexican organized crime on a violent cross-border mission.

The clash involved three groups: 1) local street-gang operators in Hidalgo County, 2) cartel muscle coming from Mexico to strike at the street gang, and 3) Sheriff’s Department responders reportedly drawn into the fray by a cryptic call for help. Such confusing three-way battles have long been standard in Mexico.

On October 30, a pickup containing at least four hitmen from Mexico was sent across the Rio Grande bridge, then traveled 20 miles into the United States. The truck came from the Gulf Cartel, a badly battered remnant organization, holding onto influence in a 150-mile urbanized strip of borderland in Mexico, facing Texas. As the Gulf Cartel has melted down–in battles with the rival Zetas Cartel, and with the Mexican government, and among its own factions–a load of marijuana reportedly fell into renegade hands, and crept across the border as a freelance operation. The cartel hierarchy wanted the pot back, and, reportedly, they ignored traditional caution to go after it, sending a squad into the U.S. to do battle for the goods.

The hit squad soon targeted a mobile home in rural Hidalgo County, where parts of the disputed load were allegedly being peddled by luminaries in a Texas street gang, the Partido Revolucionario Mexicano (the name only sounds political; it originated in a Texas prison). Three of the mobile home entrepreneurs were taken prisoner, but before the cartel kidnappers could get very far with them, one escaped and called the sheriff’s department. Mysteries multiplied. The kidnappers’ pickup truck was somehow identified by arriving sheriff’s deputies, and there was a traffic stop. Two of the captives reportedly were being held in the cab–which must have been crowded. As a deputy got out and walked up to them, the head gunman, Daniel Gonzalez, 19, was said to open fire, then was killed in the ensuing firefight.

This was when Deputy Rodriguez caught three slugs, though his armored vest stopped two, leaving only a third to draw blood, at a wound that was variously described by official statements as being in the stomach or in the thigh. At least six persons, including a woman, Salma Arellano, were arrested and charged with various crimes–raising more questions. The gunman Gonzalez was the only fatality, but a murder charge was brought against one of his apparent kidnap victims, under Texas’s “law of parties.” Official narratives had Perez exchanging fire only with deputies. This, too, sounds like the confusing battles in Mexico.

The questions would linger–as the second case arrived.

Not quite a month later, on November 21, a semitrailer was rumbling into northwest Harris County at the fringe of metro Houston, a long six hours north of the border. The big rig was carrying a hidden marijuana load, but that wasn’t all. This was a decoy operation run by undercover law enforcement, designed to flush out waiting recipients of the pot. The truck was bird-dogged by lawmen in disguised vehicles. Then suddenly three other vehicles swooped in, apparently having followed this singular parade still more secretly from the border. The new vehicles opened fire, strafing the truck and killing its driver, Lawrence Chapa, an undercover informant.

Again there was a firefight. Again a sheriff’s deputy was wounded, this time in the leg, apparently as another officer fired in the confusion. Again, one of the attacking gunmen was killed. Four more were arrested. Confessions said they were operatives of the Zetas Cartel in Mexico. Three were reportedly Mexican citizens.

Theories arose. Only 300 pounds of marijuana lay in the truck, a small load to try and rip off at such a risk. Plus, the attack came not on a lonely road in the countryside but in more chancy urban terrain. Some theorists said the Zetas were sending a message, that this was not an attempt to rip off a drug load but a pinpoint assassination of an informant, performed inside a U.S. city to show the Zetas’ reach. Famed as the most violent Mexican cartel, the Zetas are known for sending terroristic messages via bursts of violence that are never overtly explained.

Both these cases suggest that if the drug war does spill onto U.S. soil, the smoke of battle may hide much of the field.


The map above suggests why law enforcement officials are nervous in South Texas. Spillover from Mexico’s violence has been happening there for some time.

But if the map is examined closely it also shows why U.S.-side nervousness remains mostly at the preparedness stage, and not in full cry of alarm–at least not among many knowledgeable front-line officers on the ground. Spillover has made a pattern of isolated dots. U.S. law enforcement has kept it from forming a unified wave.

Typically, U.S.-side arrests of drug bosses (green letters on the map) have occurred not as cartels tried to conquer U.S. territory, but as they used U.S. border areas as safe havens, escaping Mexico when feuds closed in. This occurred in 2010 with some escaping members of the Zetas Cartel, and again in 2011 with the Gulf Cartel as it was rocked by infighting. Some of the sanctuary-seekers became well established before they were caught (B, C and D on the map), some were caught almost immediately (A, E, F) and one (G) turned himself in to U.S. authorities at a border bridge, the day after his battle group was smashed in Mexico ten miles away. Escapees in hiding can bring extra problems, as their Mexican foes cross to the U.S. and shoot at them (red numbers on the map).

Will such isolated dots connect in the future, to trace out a crisis?
The answer is a matter of passionate opinion–and intense debate.


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Flying Blind

by Inside the Border/Gary Moore.

The weather trap closed quickly. The Super Puma helicopter carrying eight persons, including “the second most powerful man in Mexico,” Internal Security Minister Francisco Blake Mora, took off from Mexico City in what appeared to be acceptable flying conditions. There were ominous low clouds, but not low enough to form confusing ground fog–at least not at the take-off site.

However, Mexico City lies cupped in a mountainous bowl. The helicopter’s planned route, to Cuernavaca just south, had to climb past a big triple peak called the Three Marias, up in the clouds, where low visibility presented nightmare obstacles.

The pilot, Lt. Col. Felipe Bacio, was a veteran aviator in what appeared to be a well-functioning craft. He seemed to decide on an end run. Only minutes after take-off, reportedly near the prominent landmark of Azteca Stadium in southern Mexico City, Bacio turned away from his planned course. Aviation officials said later that he appeared to opt for a backdoor route to Cuernavaca, trying to stay under the cloud level by sticking to lower ground.

One solution to the Tres Marias problem, with its fog on the heights, would be to navigate along a nearby series of basins. Just east of the planned route, old Aztec lakebeds pointed south toward the Valley of Cuautla. It was a logical course–if had it been followed.

Unfortunately, just after the helicopter veered southeast, away from its planned route and toward the basin area, something happened. Accumulating evidence seems to show that it was nothing as spectacular as a bomb–or a fire, or, seemingly, any sort of mechanical malfunction. The fateful event seems to have involved an indefinable chain of decisions.

AAAA radar image of the craft was recorded (though such helicopter flights are not guided by control-tower instructions). The Super Puma can be seen continuing straight and level at a routine speed of about 130 miles per hour, with no known distress chatter on the radio. The straightness of the new course was precisely the problem.

AAAAlmost immediately after deviating to the southeast, the copter should have veered once again, this time to the south, in order to begin following the basin area. But no second turn came. Eerily, the southeasterly course continued unbroken. In the bowl of mountains enclosing Mexico City, such a straight and level course inevitably meant reckoning with the bowl’s far wall, to the east. Once the basin country had been missed (perhaps the clouds had closed and the craft was already flying blind, or the basin corridor itself was fogged in), the ground elevation began rising under the eight seatbelted occupants as the east wall drew nearer.

Why did the copter continue this course, at this altitude, when it was certain to intersect with the ground? This is the riddle (barring any possible revelations that could emerge in the future). The riddle suggests severe disorientation.

Helicopter TPH-06 (one of six VIP transport helicopters serving Los Pinos, the Mexican White House) was moving toward mountains so high that in the background was Popocatepetl, the eternally snow-crowned volcano more than three times higher than mile-high Denver. TPH-06 would never get that far.

At a thickly-fogged lower hump called Ayaqueme, and an elevation of about 2,600 meters (8,530 feet), the ground’s upslope converged with the copter’s straight and level path. Radar seemed to capture only a slight slowing before impact, at the last moment.

In 2009 a similar Super Puma helicopter, also flown by a veteran pilot, was ferrying workers to a British Petroleum oil rig in Europe’s North Sea–when a fog trap began to close. Flying conditions had seemed acceptable at first–and almost to the end–as the pilot spotted the rig ahead in open ocean. But the fog was capricious, seeming to envelope the copter on its approach. Witness accounts grew confused. One had the pilot emerging from a blind patch to find the rig much closer than he had thought. Another had a passenger never guessing anything was wrong at all, expecting a rig crewman to open the hatch as the copter finished easing down, only to find seawater entering instead, for the craft had ditched in the waves. That crash was not against a mountainside, and the occupants survived.

There is reason for special scrutiny of the last flight of TPH-06, on November 11, 2011, for, unsettlingly, it came three years almost to the day after another Mexican Internal Security Minister was killed in a Mexico City plane crash, also under puzzling circumstances. The other crash, on November 4, 2008, came around the time of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and its three-year anniversary in 2011 was memorialized personally by Internal Security Minister Blake Mora. When Blake himself met a mirror-image tragedy seven days later, various coincidences stirred suspicions.

Francisco Blake Mora was the most visible point man on his government’s drug war, which is now said to have cost 50,000 lives since its beginning in late 2006, though official counts have stopped being issued. In a dark time for Mexico, with many blind turns, unexplained riddles are sometimes the only clues that deeper forces are at work. Sometimes–but not always. At a point between Azteca Stadium and Ayaqueme Mountain, just past 8:50 a.m. on November 11, 2011, there was only the riddle. A course toward disaster was left to play out its hand.

The eight persons on TPH-06, besides Minister Blake Mora, were pilot Bacio; his co-pilot, Lt. Roman Escobar; Mexican government Sub-Secretary for Judicial Affairs and Human Rights Felipe Zamora; departmental public relations director José Alfredo García; administrative secretary Diana Miriam Hayton; and departmental chief of security René de León. Response teams on the moutainside confirmed the bleak outcome, finding no survivors.

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