Tamaulipas once again finds itself under siege, plagued by shootings and street blockades

The Mexican government has done little to stem the violence around the state, while local business owners demand greater collaboration with the US

Pablo Ferri
Semefo de Matamoros, en Tamaulipas.
Mexican troops guard the forensic medicine center (SEMEFO) in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.Juan Alberto Cedillo (Cuartoscuro)

Year after year, Tamaulipas endures endless cycles of violence and peace triggered by ineffable forces. Governor Américo Villarreal (Morena Party) has been in office for nine months, and seems powerless or unwilling to stop the frequent street blockades and shootouts south of Reynosa and Matamoros, two of the largest cities in this northern border state. When a group of armed men attacked Héctor Villegas, the Secretary of Government for Tamaulipas and Villarreal’s second in command, a perplexing silence settled over the incident.

But it was just the state government that stayed silent because the firefights on the streets never stopped. On July 7, a few days after the attack on Villegas, the security spokesperson for Tamaulipas reported an attack on army troops near Matamoros. Several media outlets reported the deaths of nine civilians, casualties that remain unconfirmed by the authorities. On July 5, armed groups clashed near Reynosa, blocked roads with cars and threw spike strips to puncture the tires of pursuing vehicles.

The official statistics rarely tell the whole story and don’t include data from the latest crime wave. On June 1, Secretary of the Navy Rafael Ojeda reported a decrease in murders and kidnappings in Tamaulipas, a slight increase in extortion, and a decrease in home and vehicle theft. Yet Tamaulipas is the state with the highest rate of missing persons in Mexico. How can we truly measure the scale of these shootouts between criminal gangs and attacks on authorities? How can we effectively evaluate the gravity of the state’s governance crisis? And how can we adequately understand the profound fear endured by the people of Tamaulipas?

Julio Almanza, President of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Tamaulipas, is deeply concerned about the impacts of the ongoing war on his state. His organization represents the interests of 20,000 businesses in services, tourism, trade and other sectors of the economy. Almanza says they are always on high alert due to the constant violence between cartels that have turned the state into a battlefield since 2008.

Very little is known about the attack on Villegas, who was the mayor of Río Bravo (between Reynosa and Matamoros) until mid-last year. Villegas says he was traveling with a bodyguard from Río Bravo to Ciudad Victoria, the state capital, three and a half hours to the south. Just as their vehicle got to where the highways from Reynosa and Matamoros converge, armed men opened fire on them.

Ataque armado Tamaulipas
Police officers around Héctor Villegas' car after the July 3 attack.CORTESÍA

Villegas, the spokesperson for state security and the governor have all remained tight-lipped, offering no further information regarding the incident. No one is venturing to say whether it was an isolated case of shots fired at a passing vehicle, collateral damage from the area’s rampant crime, or an intentional assault on Villegas. Photos show a partially damaged vehicle stranded in the middle of the road, suggesting that shots were fired, forcing the vehicle to stop. But no one is talking.

Questions about the attack spread after many conflicting accounts circulated on social media. Some allege a verbal confrontation between the attackers and Villegas, who was accused of criminal links when he was mayor of Río Bravo. EL PAÍS has been unable to interview Villegas, despite numerous requests to his office and attempts to contact him directly.

From the inside out

The recent surge of violence in Tamaulipas, like many other parts of Mexico, can be attributed to the underlying criminal economy, an entrenched power structure that outlives every government transition. Historian Pedro Alonso Pérez said, “Tamaulipas has frequently experienced similar circumstances throughout its history. It’s a border state that has been a hub for drug trafficking, smuggling and more tracing back to the 1940s. Crime has persistently plagued this region.” By “circumstances,” Pérez means the shootouts and armed clashes throughout the state that appear to be disputes between Gulf Cartel factions and affiliated splinter groups. “The blockades and confrontations have been increasing since 2008,” said Pérez, “and we had very intense peaks of violence in 2010 and 2012, in Reynosa, Matamoros and Tampico, to the south.”

The violence has affected the entire state. Each region is controlled by a criminal organization that always seeks to extend its territorial control. Social media threads are sprinkled with clues to the agreements and betrayals between these organizations. People often resort to social media when they need to communicate with them. In June, a group of families of missing persons appealed on social media for a ceasefire so they could peacefully search for their loved ones. In response, the Northeast Cartel, a group based in Nuevo Laredo with connections in the southern part of the state, declared a temporary ceasefire.”We have spoken with the Gulf Cartel Matamoros Division. We are in peace talks and on the same page,” said several masked cartel members in a video.

Although this type of violence can be seen everywhere in Mexico, Pérez says it has some unique characteristics in Tamaulipas. “The criminal economy here works from the inside out.” In other words, organized crime here is orchestrated from within the power bases, rather than the other way around. Pérez cites General Eulogio Ortiz as an example. For decades starting in the 1920s, Ortiz held various positions in the state’s security apparatus. “Yet he was the one behind all the organized crime.”

“Crime within the government structure has been a historical trait,” said Pérez. “But whatever the governor represents doesn’t necessarily pertain to his entire administration. The accusations against Villegas and other public officials haven’t been confirmed, and the recent attack must be explained. We haven’t been informed and we need to be… It’s odd that very few people publicly condemned this attack. I wonder why this didn’t happen.”

Julio Almanza wants Tamaulipas to start collaborating again with Texas and US federal security agencies. “Mistakes have been made by Villarreal’s administration. There has been a change in strategy and we have lost some progress. The governor and his security cabinet appear concerned and want to solve problems, but they rely too heavily on the federal government. And the federal government has 20 states up in flames,” said Almanza. “It’s important for them to support American agencies since we share a border with Texas – respecting national and state autonomy, of course. But we believe that more work needs to be done in that regard because the cartels are engaging in terrorism – organized crime is terrorisms. I’m not saying that relations with the United States have been severed, at least it doesn’t seem so. But the previous government had a good relationship and worked closely with them. Villareal’s team has stopped doing certain things for political reasons.”

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