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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About Gary Moore

Investigative journalist, international and domestic issues,
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