No Relief in Sight: Reynosa, Mexico, Military Occupation Yields No Let-Up in Drug War Violence

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #523)
Politics & Advocacy

In the latest move in his ongoing war against Mexico's powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- President Felipe Calderón last month sent some 6,000 Mexican soldiers and federal police into the cities on his side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from Nuevo Laredo down to Matamoros. They disarmed the municipal police forces, who are widely suspected of being in the pay of the traffickers, established checkpoints between and within cities, and are conducting regular patrols in Reynosa and elsewhere.

[inline:reynosa-hidalgo.jpg align=left caption="Reynosa/Hidalgo border crossing (courtesy"]The crackdown on the Tamaulipas border towns came after a bloody year last year. According to the Reynosa-based Center for Border Studies and the Protection of Human Rights (CEFPRODHAC), drug prohibition-related violence claimed 67 lives in Tamaulipas border towns last year. But it was only after a violent shootout in Rio Bravo (between Reynosa and Matamoros) last month that resulted in several traffickers killed and nearly a dozen soldiers wounded, and the cartel's retaliatory attacks on army patrols in the center of Reynosa the next day that Calderón sent in the soldiers.

Since then, the military occupation has put a damper on the economy -- and especially the nightlife -- of Reynosa and other valley border towns, but it hasn't stopped the killing. According to CEFPRODHAC, as of Tuesday, 18 more people have been killed in the Tamaulipas drug wars so far this year, accounting for the vast majority of the 25 killings overall. In Reynosa, a whopping 12 of the city's 14 homicides this year were related to the drug war, including one Sunday night.

If the army hasn't stopped the killing, it has brought the city's tourist economy to a near halt. Several bar and club owners in the Zona Rosa, the tourist zone near the international bridge said they had been ordered to close at 10:00pm by soldiers or police. They also said it barely mattered, because they weren't getting any business anyway.

"We used to have the Texans coming across to party," said one club owner who asked not to be named. "Now they don't come. They don't want to be harassed by the soldiers."

Workers in some of Reynosa's seedier industries -- prostitutes, strip joint workers, pirate taxi drivers -- even led a protest march two weeks ago, complaining that the occupation was making it impossible for them to earn a living. (A pair of Reynosa businessmen who absolutely declined to go on the record claimed that the march was backed by the narcos, but that is a charge that is yet unproven.)

While Calderón's resort to sending in the army -- more than 20,000 troops have been deployed to hotspots in the past year -- has won praise in Washington and even some support among Reynosans tired of the violence, it is also leading to a spike in human rights abuses, according to CEFPRODHAC. "We have had 11 complaints of abuse filed with us since the soldiers came," said Juan Manuel Cantú, head of the group's documentation office. "One in Rio Bravo and 10 here. People are complaining that the soldiers enter their homes illegally, that they torture them, that they steal things from their homes -- electronic equipment, jewelry, even food. The soldiers think they're at war, and everyone here on the border is a narco," Cantú complained.

CEFPRODHAC dutifully compiles and files the complaints, Cantú said, but has little expectation that the military will act to address them. The military opened a human rights office last month, but it has so far made little difference, he said. "Until now, there is no justice. When the complaints go to SEDENA [the office of the secretary of defense], they always say there are no human rights violations."

When the abuses come at the hands of the police or the military, victims or relatives will at least file complaints, even if they don't have much expectation of results. But when it comes to abuses by the narcos, the fear of retaliation is too great for the victims or their families to complain. "People don't want to talk about those crimes," said Cantú. "They won't talk to us or the official human rights organizations, they won't talk to the military, they won't talk to the federal police. They feel threatened by the narcos."

Paired with Brownsville and McAllen on the Texas side, Reynosa, Matamoros, and the other cities on the Mexican side are part of a bi-national conurbation with a combined population somewhere around three million. (Roughly 700,000 people in the McAllen area, 400,000 in the Brownsville area, 700,000 in Matamoros, another 500,000 in Reynosa, and a few tens of thousands scattered in between). Spanish is the most commonly heard tongue on both sides of the border. While the military occupation and the drug war violence (for the most part) is restricted to the Mexican side, the drug trade and the drug war are felt on both sides, albeit in different ways.

Mike Allen is vice-chair of the Texas Border Commission, a non-governmental entity that seeks to represent the interest of elected officials on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Among the commission's primary concerns are facilitating cross-border trade and fending off what it sees as bone-headed responses to concerns about security on the border.

Number one on the commission's list of complaints is the planned border wall, which is set to cut across South Texas, forcing landowners to go through distant gates to get to portions of their property beyond the fence and, according to unhappy local officials, damaging the environment without serving its stated purpose of controlling the border. Local officials and landowners are now engaged in legal battles with the Department of Homeland Security as the department threatens to exercise eminent domain to seize property for the wall.

"The wall is a huge waste of money," said Allen. "Those of us living here know that. The Mexicans will go over, under, or around it. But you have to remember that 99% of the people coming across that border are trying to get jobs. They're not criminals or terrorists or drug traffickers."

But some of them are, he conceded, pointing a finger at his own compatriots. "The reason we have so much drug trafficking here is that we have so many American citizens taking drugs," said Allen. "It doesn't matter what we do -- the drug trafficking will continue one way or another because there is such a demand for it in the US."

The drug trade has not adversely affected local economies, said Allen. That is perhaps an understatement. While the Lower Rio Grande Valley has high indices of poverty, it also has gleaming office towers, numerous banks, high-end specialty stores, thrumming traffic, and gigantic shopping centers like La Plaza in McAllen, where the JC Penney's store stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and everyone -- customers and employees alike -- seems to be speaking Spanish.

"We have more banks here than we have 7-11s," former DEA agent and valley resident Celerino Castillo chuckled ruefully. "This is supposed to be a poor area, but everybody's driving Escalades."

But while the drug trade may not have hurt business along the border, the drug prohibition-related violence associated with it has -- on both sides of the border. "People hear about those shootings, and they don't want to cross the bridge into Mexico," said Allen. "A lot of Americans don't want to cross into Mexico, and that means some of them won't be coming here on their way," he said.

And while there is much noise about corruption in Mexico, that door swings both ways, said Castillo, who first came to public attention when he exposed US-linked drug-running out of El Salvador's Ilopango Air Base during the Central American wars of the 1980s in his book Powderburns.

"There is corruption on both sides of the border," said Castillo. "The drug war isn't about stopping drugs; it's about lining pockets. That's why this billion dollar aid package is just bullshit. We've been fighting this war for 30 years, and we're worse off than when we started."

Castillo regularly works gun shows in the area selling Vietnam-era memorabilia, and he said he regularly encounters cartel members there. "They're always showing up looking for weaponry," he said, "along with members of the Mexican military. It's very, very busy."

Some handguns are in high demand by cartel members, said Castillo. "They really like the Belgian FN Herstal P90 because they can easily remove the serial number," he explained. "These things retail for $1,000, but cartel buyers will turn around and pay $2,500 for them, and whoever takes them across the border gets $4,000 a weapon," he said.

Other, heavier, weapons and munitions are not available in the civilian gun market, but that just means the cartels use other networks, Castillo said. "The heavy weapons, the grenade launchers, the mass quantities of ammo are only available in military armories, here or in Central America. We sell tons of weapons to the Salvadoran Army, and it's my belief they're turning around and selling them to the cartels."

The drug trade thrives off poverty of both sides of the border, said one local observer. "In reality, you can put a lot of money into policing, but people have to eat, people have to survive," said Marco Davila, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas-Brownsville. "If there are no jobs, you have to do something. It's not just the drug trade, there is also prostitution, theft, and other forms of deviance."

What is needed on both sides of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is real assistance, not massive anti-drug programs for law enforcement, said Davila. "You can put that money wherever, but if the people are still hurting, it will be a toss-up whether it will work. The people who need money are not the cops and soldiers," he said.

CEFPRODHAC's Cantú agreed with that assessment. "That money isn't going to make us safe," he said. "It won't do anything good. If the soldiers get that US aid, it will only mean more violence. They are prepared for war, not policing. What we need are programs for drug education and prevention, even here in Mexico, but especially in the United States," he said. When asked about drug legalization, Cantú was willing to ponder it. "It might stop the violence," he mused.

On the Texas side, said Davila, a culture of poverty traps whole generations of poor Latinos. "Look at these kids in Brownsville," he said. "They have no hope. They've given up. They're not talking about trying hard. They're saying 'We're gangsters, we're gonna sell drugs.' People used to have tattoos of the Virgin of Guadelupe, but now she's been replaced by Scarface."

On the other side of the river, poverty drives the drug trade, too -- as well as illegal immigration. "The Mexicans are just broke, scared, and hungry. They have nothing else," said Davila. "If they don't want to go into an illegal trade, like drug trafficking, they come across the border any way they can. People are putting their lives on the line to cross that river," he said.

And many of them are paying the ultimate price. According to reports from Reynosa human rights watchers, 75 would-be immigrants drowned in the Rio Grande between Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros last year. Another five have drowned already this year.

And so it goes on the Mexican border. Just as it has for the past 20 years, when in yet another stark example of the law of unintended consequences, then President Reagan appointed Vice President George Bush to head a task force designed to block Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes. From that moment, what had previously been relatively small, local, family smuggling operations carrying loads of marijuana into the US began morphing into the Frankenstein monster known as the cartels.

Mexico and the United States are inextricably intertwined. A solution to the problems of drug abuse and the violent black market drug trade is going to have to be a joint solution. But few observers on the ground think throwing more money at Mexico's drug war is the answer.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


tokerdesigner (not verified)

1. Cannabis defamation

This story runs on and on about "drugs"-- and near the end mentions an incident concerning smuggling of cannabis. Nothing new-- in almost all media coverage, directly or indirectly,cannabis is routinely mixed in with drugs.

This certainly benefits the tobacco industry, which survives on the basis of keeping cannabis--and the anti-overdose smoking utensils adopted by many cannabis users-- illegal, and thus protecting the hot-burning-overdose cigaret as the only smoking entity "legal" enough that masses of users aren't afraid to try it.

Bear in mind that it is defamation to group cannabis under "drug" rather than "herb", while tobacco has its own bureaucracy (with alcohol and firearms) and does not officially suffer the label "drug" which it deserves.

2. Effect of cannabis legalization on drug war

What would happen to the market for meth, coke, crack, heroin etc. if the government just gave up and eliminated restrictions on cannabis? The tobacco companies have their vested interest in not allowing such an experiment, and it concerns me that drcnet and other forums don't explore this point and find out how tobacco promotes both drugs and drug war to fend off its nemesis cannabis.

Fri, 02/15/2008 - 5:29pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't know why everyone is so upset about all the violence along the border when the root cause for this is the U.S.'s insatiable appetite for drugs. As we
all know, drugs beget violence. I don't claim to know what the answer to a worsening problem is. I'm from Texas originally and have seen this problem up close and to be sure, it's ugly. I don't doubt that the Mexican cartels are extremely violent, but as history has proven, you can't legislate morality. I don't say that we should roll over and ignore this situation. What I am saying is the overall, consuming desire for drugs in this country needs to be curbed and I believe that many of the cartels would be dismantled. When there is lessening or no demand, business ceases to exist. I think in many ways we Americans are our own worst enemy in this whole affair. We are a nation of addicts. Again, I don't profess to know the answer, but before we go into the border areas, guns blazing, we need to take a good look at ourseleves. In many ways we are to blame for this situation

Mon, 02/25/2008 - 3:56pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Great response! America is a country built on greed and has never taken responsibilty for their actions. History continues to repeat itself in other ways. as long as their isn't a multi racial govenment there will be no CHANGE! I for one am ready for this world to look at all humans and treat eachother equally. Mexico is the hot spot right now for cheap labor, which I call modern day slavery. Americans know they could not properly take care of their families off the pennies we pay for services in Mexico. All I can say is get ready nothing will change for 8+ yrs.

Wed, 05/14/2008 - 10:45am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Mexico needs to build theit ecominy, have laws like usa. they have have always been a third world country

Wed, 09/17/2008 - 11:34pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I just left Mexico three weeks ago. If I were a Mexican I would want to try to cross the border everyday. I am grateful for what I have. I don't know what the answer is but I know first hand they need all the help they can get.

Thu, 02/19/2009 - 11:19pm Permalink
Melinda (not verified)

Es muy triste saber de todo esto que esta pasando en mi Reynosa. Yo creci aqui cuando todo era pacifico y se podia caminar a altas horas de la madrugada tranquilamente sin se asaltado ni robado por la propia policia corrupta, que son tambien culpables de todo esto que esta pasando, por cubrir las fechorias de estos maleantes que en lugar de ganarse la vida honradamente buscan el dinero facil y la policia que no son mas que unos pelagatos sin huevos, ignorantes que el mismo gobierno contrata. Es muy triste que ni el presidente puede controlar esto. La corrupcion nunca va a terminar en Mexico y eso todo el mundo lo sabe. Cada colonia tiene su grupito de repartidores de droga donde vigilan quien entra y quien sale con apoyo de la policia preventiva por eso es que nunca van aterminar con algo que apenas esta empezando en Reynosa y esto el es PRINCIPIO esperen lo peor. Ya empezaron con aterrorizar a la gente con llamadas por telefono amenazandolas con danar a sus familias, pidiendoles dinero hasta a las pobres viejitas no se salvan. El terrorismo ha invadido por donde quiera, ahora hasta con amenzas de bomba. Ya ni en el periodico publican nada porque no hay libertad de expresionPOR FAVOR ALTOS FUNCIONARIOS PROTEJAN LAS COLONIAS PROLETARIADAS no los abandonen, hay jovencitas desaparecidas que no llegan a sus casas y las que sufren son las madres y no solo eso, hay gente adulta que desaparece tambien y no ESPERANZA de volver a ver esta a estos seres queridos Que pasa con este GOBIERNO CORRUPTO que han llegado tan bajo y todo por el maldito DINERO que no se lo pueden ganar decentemente y prefieren danar a gente inocente. Yo se que esto que escribo a NADIE le importa, el pueblo de Reynosa tienen miedo de expresar su opinion
solo basta en ver esta pagina con pocos comentarios.

Tue, 03/23/2010 - 12:46am Permalink
Juan (not verified)

Man is a spiritual being that is constantly searching for happyness. It doesn't matter which side of the border hes from. For so many years his head is filled with so many so called truths. When he is a child he is told that if he only believes he can do or be anything that he wants to be, thats all great but they forget to tell the children that not all of them are going to be great at sports and have a high IQ or have enough money to pay for their dreams of higher education. Most children are taught that evolution is true and go through life believing that they are nothing but a descendant of a gorilla and that there is no real reason to care about life or about respecting your neighbor and that in the end you just die and that there is no heaven to look forward to. So what it eventually leads to is the people on one side needing drugs and sex and other temporary vices to try and fill a void in their heart which cannot be filled by material things. On the other side there is the hunger for power no matter what the consequences are, even to go as far as to keep a people uneducated, poor and unarmed to become victims in their own homeland. These people become overwhelmed by the situation dealt to them and are forced to leave their country in search of a better life not knowing how high the cost may be. By keeping the people uneducated and poor they become seceptable to becoming part of a drug gang and to do illegal activities which under better circumstances they would not even have considered to be a part of. So there is plenty of blame to go around. The question is, what is being done on both sides to remedy this situation? JESUS is the answer.

Mon, 05/17/2010 - 12:32am Permalink

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