June 3rd 2010 | REYNOSA From The Economist print edition
Shifting battle-lines bring violence to new parts of Mexico
THE blood and cartridge cases have been cleared away, and the small upholstery shop across the road is turning out cheerfully coloured chairs once again. Less than 24 hours earlier, five blocks from the city hall and a few hundred metres from the border with the United States, a municipal official was killed on this corner in broad daylight with an AK-47 assault rifle. But it already seems forgotten. Reynosa, where cut-price dentists and prostitutes attract streams of Texan visitors, has become accustomed to such violence.
Until this year an uneasy alliance held in Mexico’s north-east between the drug-trafficking Gulf “cartel” and the Zetas, a band of former special-forces soldiers enlisted as hit men by Gulf bosses in the late 1990s. Large-scale violence of the sort seen in Ciudad Juárez, to the north-west, was unknown. But the relationship has soured: the Zetas have outgrown their role as enforcers, and the Gulf leadership has been shaken up by killings and extraditions.
In January a Gulf gunman murdered a top Zeta; his handlers refused to hand over the killer to the Zetas for retribution. Moreover, the Zetas began to suspect that Osiel Cárdenas, the extradited former Gulf kingpin who originally recruited them, was co-operating with American authorities in return for a more lenient sentence. Both sides declared all-out war in banners hung from motorway bridges in March.
The schism has made the north-east one of the most dangerous places in Mexico. The border cities in this region are smaller than those further west. But the violence in Tamaulipas state, where Reynosa is located, is now as bad or worse than in Juárez, reckons Jesús Cantú, a political scientist at the Technological Institute of Monterrey. Politicians who try to make a difference pay dearly. On May 13th José Mario Guajardo, a mayoral candidate in the town of Valle Hermoso, was murdered along with his son and an employee.
Journalists who delve into crime do not last long either. In Reynosa one was murdered and five disappeared in March, colleagues say. In the same month two journalists from Mexico City were kidnapped there and beaten, and an American reporter was ordered to leave shortly after arriving. Fear and insurance premiums now keep much of the media away. The city government has set up a Twitter account to warn citizens about shoot-outs. “Situation of risk in the area west of the gateway. Exercise caution,” reads one recent message. The all-clear came two hours later.
The Zetas are thought to be losing the showdown. On May 12th the army overran a Zeta camp in the state of Nuevo León, seizing 55,000 rounds of ammunition, 109 grenades and 124 heavy weapons, among other booty. Several dozen Zetas fled—perhaps a sign that its latest crop of foot-soldiers lack the professionalism of their predecessors. Given the death toll since Mexico’s government declared war on the gangs in 2006, this is not surprising. “When 23,000 people have been killed, you face a recruitment problem,” says Jaime López-Aranda of CIDAC, a Mexico City think-tank.
Privately, many politicians seem pleased that Gulf and its allies are getting the better of the Zetas, who have moved into kidnapping and domestic drug-pushing (80% of bars in Nuevo León state are forced to sell Zeta drugs or Z-branded whisky, officials say). Rivals, too, have particular reason to want to see the back of them, as the Zetas’ kidnapping and extortion attracts more attention from the police. This is especially unwelcome at the moment: organised crime’s latest diversification is crystal methamphetamine, a drug that requires “factories” which are safe from police interference. The sooner the traffickers are rid of the troublesome Zetas, the sooner they can get on with business.