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Cartels, Control, and Communicating the Reality of Tamaulipas

Few places are as central to the history of Mexico’s contemporary violence as Tamaulipas. It was in Tamaulipas where old-school drug traffickers first created proto-military forces, and where those proto-military forces waged a vicious war with rival organizations and the government. It was in Tamaulipas where censorship of journalists became so intense that the region became a “zone of silence.” It is a state that has often been defined by the violence that occurs there.

To better grasp the dynamics that drive insecurity in Tamaulipas, the Mexico Violence Resource Project spoke with Carlos Manuel Juárez, co-founder of Elefante Blanco, a new independent media project that has undertaken a number of important investigations regarding human rights and politics.

The state’s current violence, Juárez observes, is the product of intense fragmentation. The first conflicts were the product of clashes between the Gulf Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel, followed by a ferocious schism between the Gulf Cartel and its proto-military group of enforcers known as the Zetas. It was that rupture, in 2009, that marked the start of a new era.

The story of modern-day organized crime in Tamaulipas is about how the dominant group—the Gulf Cartel—adapted to the challenges they perceived. The trafficking business was initially a smaller family affair that then it became something more violent, more controlling. It stopped being about just illicit smuggling and became an effort to control everything that passed through the territory—legal and illegal products, migrants, everything.

With the events of 2009 and the two years of extreme violence that followed, things changed. Although the names of the organizations remained—the Gulf Cartel and the Cartel del Noroeste—and those names continued to hold tremendous weight in the collective imaginary, after 2011 the groups themselves were extremely fragmented. This meant that there was a group under the Gulf Cartel ‘umbrella’ in Reynosa, another in Matamoros, another that controlled a park, or the center of a city, or the south, and so on. The names were everywhere, but it was not a single group.

That pattern of fracturing is, I think, very unique to Tamaulipas—it is not the same as when the Sinaloa Cartel ruptures, for example. Some of that is the criminal geography of the state: Tamaulipas is a big place, and it is as valuable to control the border as the south where there are two very important ports, but to do so you need to know the terrain.

In that sense, the criminal groups in the state have a particular profile. Even if they are franchises of the ‘umbrella’ groups as happens elsewhere, here they all have local roots and are comprised of local people who were born here, raised here, and rise up the ranks of their groups here. In Tamaulipas, the most important groups always have this local connection and they have a familial quality as a result, and because it is about family power, disputes between groups can become very violent.

While the history of criminal fragmentation explains one piece of the state’s violence, Tamaulipas has also been the site of a dramatic and public failure of federal and local security strategies. Police and military forces in the state have not only generally failed to reduce crime, but have often directly contributed to citizen insecurity, both colluding with criminal organizations and committing widespread human rights abuses. Most recently, members of an elite police unit, the GOPES, were accused of massacring 19 migrants in the town of Camargo, an event that Juárez explains was revealing of broader security dynamics.

What happened in Camargo was instructive because the story only came out because of the survivors—the account of the massacre that the government ultimately recognized as truth only came to light because there were survivors who had made it to the United States and revealed what had happened. Even though in that area, in la ribereña, people were willing to speak out, in this case it was only the survivors who were outside the state who could speak up. That tells you that people perceived the police as being almost untouchable, and that it was only because there were witnesses that the government was forced to arrest the police involved.

The residents of Camargo knew the police were protected. The GOPES have been granted a tremendous amount of power—there’s talk of their training in the United States, and people know of all the raids and detentions they have conducted in Miguel Alemán and Camargo. And that behavior shows that the GOPES know they have the governor’s backing, because it was the governor who presented them as the force that was going to put an end to insecurity in the region. And even before the Camargo massacre the GOPES had allegedly participated in extrajudicial executions—so the massacre wasn’t a question of a few bad agents, it was an institutional issue.

In that area, around Nuevo Laredo, the fight for control is ferocious, and it is unlikely that Camargo is a truly isolated incident. We know about the enforced disappearances that the Marines were responsible for, but it is bigger than even that. The security forces that operate in those areas feel like they have the power and political support to break protocols and operate with impunity, that nothing will happen to them. Despite the Marines being arrested, the abuses continue. Last week it was the Army, the week before, the National Guard.

It is territory that is so contested that a different security strategy is desperately needed. The soldiers, the members of the National Guard, the Marines who are there are exposed to tremendous stress, and they are not prepared for it, and the result is that they only create more chaos. But the question is whether that is why they are really there: to create chaos. That is the question.

Citizen responses to this failure of security strategies have ranged from heroic individualism to narrow self-interest. On the one hand, Juárez recounts how it was only through the efforts of Raymundo Ramos that many of the human rights abuses that have occurred in Nuevo Laredo became known. On the other, political and business elites mobilized in response to outbreaks of violence, but their efforts led to security policies that sought to insulate the privileged from violence, not reduce violence for society as a whole.

In 2014, when there was a major wave of violence, groups started to form in Tamaulipas that were modeled after Mexico S.O.S. or Causa en Común—groups of businesspeople who joined together to protect economic stability. They wanted security for their businesses and for certain parts of the city—but they did not demand security for everyone. So the result was an arrangement between ministers, businesspeople, and a gulf that separated them from activists and journalists. The governor has only met with families of the disappeared twice, but frequently sits down with businesspeople or foundations and he goes to the United States and talks about security, but violence in the state continues unchanged.

This violence is thus both a political issue, and a form of politics. As Tamaulipas prepares to hold a gubernatorial election next year, tensions have increased. Juárez notes that given this context, “things get stirred up, there’s a lot of violence, and—predictably—there’s a lot of effort put into controlling the media.” This control extends to candidates as well, who are obligated to negotiate with organized criminal groups in order to survive.

I think that every candidate who has a chance of winning has no choice but to negotiate with the group that controls the region. I struggle to think of a politician who did not run into the de facto power of organized crime. There are certainly groups that are more interested in discussing arrangements, for example in the southern part of the state where there are ports and criminal groups have a great degree of control, it is unthinkable that there are not agreements made. I don’t have proof, but I don’t doubt it either.

In some parts of the state it is more visible. For example, Hidalgo, near Ciudad Victoria, is a region that is controlled by a group called the “Columna Armada.” And there it is more or less open knowledge that they are the ones who make the political decisions—they select their candidate and decide which party they will support, be it Morena or the PAN, and the parties know that if they do not agree, they will lose the election. And that is more or less what happens everywhere, it is just clearer in Hidalgo.

When (current governor) Francisco Cabeza de Vaca was campaigning, his opponent Baltazar Hinojosa was not even allowed into the region around Hidalgo—and that showed the group’s power, because it broke the tradition of PRI dominance there. Now the region is backing Morena, and President López Obrador knows it, he even acknowledged in his press conference that when he goes to the region he has the respect of the people. But in terms of the state’s political situation it is clear what that means.

These dynamics of control extend to the media environment in the state, which has—since the late-2000s—been among the most severely censored in Mexico. During the most intense moments of conflict, many news outlets in Tamaulipas received explicit instructions regarding what stories they could or could not publish with different criminal organizations sometimes providing conflicting orders. If fewer journalists were killed than in Veracruz, it was because the threats in Tamaulipas were so clear and the control so complete that many outlets simply opted to dramatically reduce their reporting. Even as the memory of those years recedes, Juárez observes that the state continues to have a complicated relationship with the press.

We have to accept that organized crime infiltrated newsrooms, and that there were colleagues who were seduced by organized crime or agreed to work for criminals, just as there were police, soldiers, and officials who made the same choice. It is also very reasonable that newsrooms that were infiltrated decided not to cover security issues, and the painful reality is that given the vulnerability of journalists it was necessary to make compromises in order to keep reporting safely. The problem is that in some places the editorial control continues and there is still control over newsrooms but nobody will denounce it, and the government surely knows it… but the issue is complicated.

Organized crime has often been the vehicle for political or business interests, and in my experience the name of a criminal group is used as a veil. When someone comes to tell you that the group has a message, they use the veil of the name, but behind the veil are businesspeople, politicians, and others who want to maintain their power through fear. When you are making things public that are affecting their interests, they know that in Tamaulipas the most effective channel for silencing you is the threat of violence.

In launching Elefante Blanco, Juárez and his co-founders sought to develop a new approach to covering the state, applying both a critical eye to their journalism. This has meant reflecting on the relationship between violence and society, and understanding their responsibility as journalists in a context where fear and stigmatization are widespread.

The situation is complicated because the boundaries are not clear here: the story of crime and violence is not black and white; it is not a story of heroes and villains. There are contexts for everything. When there is a crime, when there is a criminal, you have to go deeper, you have to start with the question of “why?” and slow down, look for information, find an explanation, and if you can find one, you have to say it.

There was a case, in 2014, of a high schooler who was killed, and the majority of reporters in the state accepted the narrative that he was dealing drugs, and that he was, in that sense, deserving of death. And I felt that the assumption was wrong, so I went to his home and to the funeral, and that was how I began to report the story. In cases like that you have to begin from a critical perspective, you have to start with the idea that the death of a child like that is not natural. It is not natural that he would be involved in organized crime, that he would deal drugs, that he would be killed, that gunmen would mistakenly kill him. We should never treat any of that as normal, we must not normalize it with the assumptions we make in reporting. So from my perspective, the only ethical way to cover this violence is to ask these questions that challenge the assumptions.

With Elefante Blanco we have decided not to focus on security issues, at least in terms of everyday homicides, because we think that simply reporting violent events does not explain anything. And there are certainly cases that simply are not safe to investigate. We have a responsibility to be descriptive but not alarmist; being ethical means not creating terror among the readers.

A crucial part of the Elefante Blanco project is developing new narratives for Tamaulipas, and incorporating new voices into the public debate in the state. Juárez describes how this effort to provide a broader vision of tamaulipeco society is essential, noting that the popular image of the state has a profound effect on residents.

It is a project that we had been imagining for several years, and we decided to launch it now because of everything that is happening in the state. We focus on four themes: human rights; environment and health; society and politics; and history, culture, and art.

That fourth theme is very important to us because we want to offer historical perspective. We want to understand what the state was like before the violence and to break with the image of the state’s residents as delinquents. We want to show that tamaulipecos are not just those who drink beer and eat carne asada, we want to talk about the state’s different cultures. There is a part of the population here that speaks indigenous languages, that has a different way of seeing the world—we have to talk about the migrants who have come here to work, and we have to talk to them. We also must speak to the tamaulipecos who no longer live here, who have fled or been forced to migrate elsewhere, and who have been sidelined from the public debate; we have to discuss their exile.

Constructing an alternative vision of the state is not easy. When you sit down with people who don’t know you, they’ll say you’re from mataulipas, from “kill-ville”—everyone makes the jokes, and there’s no reflection.

And that’s because violence here has never been treated seriously, in its social and political contexts. Since freedom of expression was not protected in Tamaulipas, there is no reporting like what came out of other places where there was extreme violence. Unlike Tijuana or Ciudad Juárez, Tamaulipas has not had reporters who have been able to link violence to other phenomena and offer explanations for it. So, for example, we still deal with the refrain about how people who disappear “must have been involved in something.” And it has been only recently, ten years after the violence began, that we’ve been able to address the fear, to reflect on what we were told, and put the story together and explain what happened.

These ongoing tropes about violence in Tamaulipas plague all coverage of the state, Juárez observes, noting that the very dynamics of crime and violence there tend to defy nuance and reflection.

Foreign media come to Tamaulipas to capture a snapshot, and they can’t be blamed for it: the state is the perfect place to do sensationalist coverage of Mexico. It is a place where you can find—just out on the street—a migrant who escaped from two police units, a criminal group, and is walking north because they want to reach the border and cross into the United States. It is a place where you can find someone who was captive for ten days and saw the worst horrors imaginable. So in a sense, it is hard to ask for more depth, to ask for a different story, to tell the story of perpetrators for example. But that is what is missing: principled coverage of the state that goes beyond superficial depictions.


Carlos Manuel Juárez is a co-founder and director of Elefante Blanco. He is a native of Tamaulipas and has reported extensively on politics, society, and environmental issues in the state.


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