The breakdown of one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels is driving violence in a valuable border city

Mexican marines soldiers matamoros tamaulipas
Mexican marines patrol downtown Matamoros in Tamaulipas, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, March 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
  • Violence in Reynosa, a major Mexico border city, has been elevated since late spring.
  • The bloodshed appears to have been sparked by the killing of a Gulf cartel leader.
  • The Gulf cartel, which has dominated much of northeast Mexico, has undergone severe fragmentation, and the remnants left behind are fighting each other for influence.

Mexico’s narco underworld has seen the fragmentation of its major criminal groups in recent years, perhaps none more so than the Gulf and Zetas cartels, whose home turf in northeast Mexico has seen consistently high levels of violence.

In and around Reynosa — a major city across the border from McAllen, Texas — there have been numerous violent clashes between various factions of the Gulf cartel over the past several months.

Reynosa had 144 homicides through September, according to data compiled by the Mexican federal government. That was a 167% increase over the 54 homicides the city had over the same period last year, and a 92% increase over the 75 homicides between January and September 2015. (Federal data is thought to underreport homicides.)

Nearly 60 of Reynosa’s homicides so far this year came in May and June — the weeks after the April 22 killing of Juan Manuel Loisa Salinas in a clash with Mexican authorities.

Homicides Tamaulipas Reynosa Mexico

Known as Comandante Toro, Loisa Salinas was the leader of factions of the Gulf cartel, and his death appears to have set off the latest round of heightened violence, according to Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

“With his demise, the Gulf cartel has splintered even more, where it’s almost like so many grains of rice,” Vigil told Business Insider. “And that has led to a lot of violence.”

Much of the bloodshed has come from shootouts between members of criminal groups as well as their clashes with police and soldiers in the streets in and around the city.

Such incidents are often accompanied by roadblocks that shut down traffic in the city and across the border.

There has been an increase in other crimes, like kidnapping — Tamaulipas state’s 113 through September are the third most in Mexico — and car theft, which criminal groups often use to procure vehicles.

Competing groups of the Gulf cartel have been able to move around Reynosa and nearby Rio Bravo with relative impunity — on some occasions, they have posted videos on social media telling residents to stay in their homes while they attack rivals. Bystanders have reportedly been wounded by stray bullets, and shootouts between gunmen and Mexican soldiers have shut down parts of the city and sent schoolchildren scrambling under their desks.

“Normally when the cartel is strong and all of a sudden it starts to splinter or fragment because of law-enforcement activity or other issues, it splinters into two, three groups,” Vigil said. “The Gulf cartel has been crippled for a number of years, so now with the demise of El Comandante Toro … it splintered into so many groups you need a scorecard to keep track of them.”

Tamaulipas Nuevo Laredo Reynosa Matamoros

Reynosa is not alone in Tamaulipas — Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Victoria, which is the state capital, are also among the country’s most violent municipalities — but it has attracted special attention.

Despite intervention by the federal government in Reynosa in late 2016, violence in the city has continued to rise. It now has the fourth-highest feeling of insecurity in the country, with 89.6% of residents saying they don’t feel safe, according to the national statistics agency.

The Tamaulipas state government, led by Gov. Francisco Cabeza de Vaca, rolled out United Plan for Reynosa in early September, allotting nearly $US35 million for anti-crime, infrastructure, and development programs involving civil society and the commercial sector.

Francisco Cabeza de Vaca Tamaulipas Mexico governor
Tamaulipas state Gov. Francisco Cabeza de Vaca. Twitter/Francisco Cabeza de Vaca

“It must be remembered that Reynosa is the most important city in the state — 20% of the population lives here,” Cabeza de Vaca said in September.

“It is the most booming city in Tamaulipas [and] that which generates the most jobs, but at the same time it is where the quality of life has deteriorated the most.”

Cabeza de Vaca’s ascension to office in October 2016 may have contributed to recent violence.

A member of the conservative National Action Party, he took over for a governor from the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party, which long held power in the state. Such political changeovers can disrupt links between politicians, authorities, and criminal groups.

Up until about a year ago, police in Reynosa did little to fight drugs and crime, Vigil said, “simply because they were bought and paid for by the remnants of the Gulf cartel.”

Now, however, “that whole thing has changed and the state police [are] engaging, and they’re not so much into anybody’s pocket,” Vigil told Business Insider.

The Gulf cartel and the Zetas — which started as the armed wing of the Gulf cartel, led by deserters from Mexico’s special forces who eventually formed their own criminal group — have long held sway in the state. They were at first focused on drug trafficking, using transit links between northeast Mexico and Texas to move drugs to the voracious US market and relying on networks of corruption to operate.

Those groups, the Zetas in particular, soon diversified into numerous criminal enterprises and expanded to target non-drug-related businesses and natural resources. Their fragmentation has created a plethora of criminal groups preying on Mexico, its people, and its industries.

The criminal groups that remain in and around Reynosa are likely to remain focused on small-scale drug trafficking and sales, as well as local criminal enterprises.

Such a breakdown basically leaves groups “fighting for street sales, because … they’re not going to have the contacts for the drugs that they need to be major players in the game,” Vigil said.

In Reynosa, on which remnants of the Gulf cartel have focused their attention, there is still too much disarray in the criminal environment to determine which group has the advantage, Vigil told Business Insider.

“Right now it’s like a free-for-all,” he said. “It has become a free-for-all, with just about everybody within the Gulf cartel.”