Tamaulipas, Cradle of Mexico's Drug War, Erupts

The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, birthplace of the country's oldest criminal organization, the Gulf Cartel, is again awash in blood. Just across the Rio Grande from Texas and abutting the Gulf of Mexico, neither a change of presidents, seemingly endless battles within the cartel and with their former allies turned deadly enemies Los Zetas, years of high-profile killings and arrests of cartel leaders, or the United States' own seemingly endless war on drugs have made a dent in the violence. While some U.S. publications have myopically lauded the government of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto as "saving Mexico" since he took over from his predecessor Felipe Calderón's militarized battle with the country's narcos, the reality on the ground tells a different story.

In the space of a few days in May, gun battles in the city of Reynosa killed at least 23 people, 16 bullet-riddled corpses were found in abandoned vehicles around the state, and the chief bodyguard for Tamaulipas governor Egidio Torre Cantú was arrested for involvement in the murder of state intelligence chief Salvador Haro Muñoz. Just south of Tamaulipas in the tropical port city of Veracruz, nine presumed cartel gunmen were slain in a shootout with Mexican armed forces, and earlier this month more than 30 bodies were found in a mass grave there, a grave it took the state's governor days to secure.

As I detail in my new book, In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico, (Lyons Press), the Gulf Cartel was a regional anomaly among Mexico's drug trafficking organizations, most of whose lineage harkens back to the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa. The organization traces its roots back to the failed U.S. policy of prohibition of alcohol, a time when millions of Americans were turned into criminals because of a substance they chose to put into their own bodies, and during when the power and reach of organized crime in the United States grew exponentially, much as it has in Mexico in recent decades.

The criminal band that would grow into the Gulf Cartel was founded by a Tamaulipas farm boy named Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, born in 1915, and who for years ran the organization from behind the doors of the Piedras Negras Restaurant in the city of Matamoros, its walls adorned with pictures of horses from his 500-acre ranch, El Tlahuachal.

In his dotage, by the mid 1980s Guerra had turned over the running of the organization to his nephew, Juan García Ábrego, who ran it until his arrest in January 1996. García Ábrego was eventually succeeded by Osiel Cárdenas, who, in a highly significant move for drug trafficking and for Mexico, around 1997 succeeding in getting a clique of Mexican special forces soldiers to defect and form a group of enforces, Los Zetas (the Z's). Eventually, many more Mexican (and Guatemalan) special forces soldiers, and ambitious common criminals, would follow.

The expansion of the Gulf Cartel, its allies and its rivals was helped invaluably by economic pressures north of the border.

According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with a population of 310 million, the United States consumes around $37 billion of cocaine a year, while Europe as a whole, with a population of 830 million, consumed $34 billion. Much of that money is laundered through the U.S. banking system, with financial institutions such as Bank of America, HSBC and Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) found by U.S. investigators to have laundered billions of dollars of drug profits for groups like the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.

Despite the United States having the highest rate of incarceration in the world (between 1989 and 2009, the private prison industry in the United States grew by an astonishing 1,600 percent), and despite more than half of America's federal inmates being in prison for drug-related offenses, no one ever went to jail for the banks' role in facilitating the cartels' bloody business. Meanwhile, border states with liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona have long served as a one-stop shop for Mexican drug cartels.

Osiel Cárdenas was arrested in Mexico in March 2003, yet more or less continued running the organization for behind bars until his extradition to the United States in January 2007. Both García Ábrego and Cárdenas are now held at the super maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, along with such inmates as the "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and the Al-Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

Eventually, the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas would violently rupture, with ever more micronized versions fighting battles with heavy-weapons such as grenade launchers over specific towns and even individual streets. This past December, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the author of this article ran headlong into a heavily-armed Gulf Cartel roadblock set up in the border city of Reynosa, only a few minutes from the U.S. border.

Tamaulipas remains a bastion of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI), the party that ruled Mexico for decades until 2000, and to which current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who recaptured the presidency after it rested for 12 years in the hands of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN), belongs.

Historically, residents of Tamaulipas, long a PRI bastion, would be unwise to look to officialdom for protection. In addition to Torre (who ran for governor only after his own brother, Rodolfo Torre Cantú, was murdered while campaigning in June 2010 in what many believe was a cartel-sanctioned hit), the previous governors of Tamaulipas have an interesting history.

Torre's immediate predecessor, Eugenio Hernández Flores, saw fit to entrust his personal security to a well-known Gulf Cartel hitman during his 2005-2011 tenure, and fled to Europe at the end of his mandate. Hernández's own predecessor, Tomás Yarrington, was publicly praised by Texas governor Rick Perry during his time in office, but his 1999 to 2005 reign saw an extraordinary expansion of drug trafficking in the state. Yarrington eventually disappeared entirely shortly before being indicted both in Mexico and the United States for aiding the Gulf Cartel. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

During Mexico's 2012 election - the one that brought the PRI back to the presidency - some residents of Tamaulipas claimed to receive anonymous calls claiming to be from the Gulf Cartel ordering them to cast their ballots for the PRI under penalty of death for failing to do so. This strategy did not work in Matamoros itself, where voters elected the PAN candidate for mayor, breaking the PRI's long domination of the city.

As a result both of Mexico's own institutional failings but, also, those of the United States -- where drug money is laundered in U.S. banks, the private prison industry spends millions of dollars lobbying for mandatory minimum sentencing statutes for drug offenses, and firearms manufacturers gleefully supply cartels with weapons -- Tamaulipas has been almost completely lawless for years, although it has received scant attention compared with Ciudad Juarez, over 800 miles to the west.

Until the United States is willing to face up to its own role in Mexico's drug war, both as the world's largest consumer of narcotics and a bonanza for cartels seeking firepower, it is unlikely that the long-suffering citizens of Tamaulipas can expect anything like peace.