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?
The 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.
The 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. And 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. 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.
In 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.
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. And 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.
The 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. Bus 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.
But 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.
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 presence 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.
It 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.
The 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.
And 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?