Gulf Cartel’s power struggle holds Mexican city of Reynosa hostage

The sinister-looking men seem to be everywhere. They stand idly, walkie-talkies in hand, at key intersections or at the entrances to gated communities where their unseen masters live. They are the front line of the dark power struggle that’s roiling Reynosa, a Mexican border city just a short drive from the tranquillity of Texas.

At least four times in recent weeks, running gunfights have erupted in the streets of this city of 600,000. The battles have featured caravans of gunmen in SUVs firing on each other, sometimes tossing grenades. The longest erupted March 10 and lasted until dawn the next day, between six and seven hours. Dozens may have been killed and wounded; there’s no official count. Since then, firefights erupted March 14, 17 and 19, all in broad daylight.

The army and police largely have been bystanders. Residents cower in their homes or in stores, waiting for the next outburst. An eerie information vacuum reigns. The city’s news outlets report almost nothing of the violence, and local, state and even federal prosecutors are largely silent.

“I’d like to help you but I am not authorized to speak,” said Everardo Sanchez, the spokesman for the local branch of the federal Attorney General’s Office, which is housed in a bunkerlike compound surrounded by a high wall with concertina wire.

This is what happens when a drug cartel turns on itself in a community where the law is largely in the hands of a creepy parallel power structure. When the narcotics business goes smoothly, residents say, they learn to put up with the influence of the narcos. Lately, it’s been anything but smooth.

Rival gangster bosses are skirmishing to fill a vacuum at the top of the Gulf Cartel, a criminal group that traces its roots to whiskey bootleggers in the 1930s. The smugglers turned to narcotics in the 1970s. Despite their longevity, they’re racked by internecine disputes that have been in crescendo for several years.

Different factions control Reynosa (Los Metros) and Matamoros (Los Rojos), two of the largest cities in Tamaulipas state, along the border with Texas near the Gulf of Mexico.

The dispute between the rivals worsened last September, when Mexican naval units arrested the cartel’s alleged top two figures, Mario Cardenas Guillen and Eduardo Costilla Sanchez. Since then, trigger fingers have twitched. On Jan. 15, gunmen killed a leader of the Metros faction, David “Metro-4” Salgado, in an apparent power grab by an alleged Metros rival, Mario Armando Ramirez Trevino, known as “Baldy.”

“Basically, they’ve ceased being a real cohesive organization,” said Scott Stewart, the vice president of analysis at Stratfor, a strategic intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas. “It’s more like these regional, local warlords.”

To travel the streets of Reynosa these days is to penetrate behind the lines of a jittery enemy. Few people dare ask questions about the violence. They look away from the late-model SUVs teeming with gunmen. The cartel may be at war with itself, but drug gangs still call the shots in the city.

“You just mind your own business,” said Maria Nidelvia Avila Basulto, a Roman Catholic nun who runs the Our Lady of Guadalupe migrant shelter. “You have to pretend you don’t see things. And what you do see, it’s as if you didn’t.”

Migrants at another shelter said they’d been instructed to venture outside past a cartel lookout – who’s wearing a hoodie and toting a radio – only when necessary.

“They are the owners around here,” said Sahira Avilez, a 28-year-old Honduran migrant, nodding toward the gang member.

Hector Silva, a pastor who runs the Way of Life migrant shelter, said Reynosa residents knew not to call the police or the army when cartel gunmen appeared. The gang learns of the calls immediately.

“We hear gunfights every day. Do you see that helicopter?” Silva said, signaling an army aircraft overhead. “There’s probably a firefight over there.”

Residents dread blundering into an area of the city where a firefight has erupted, so they plug into social media to stay abreast of what Mexicans describe in shorthand as SDR, Spanish initials for “situations of risk.” On Twitter, they post public security news under the hashtag #reynosafollow.

Some use a smartphone app called Zello, a free push-to-talk program that allows users to employ their cellphones like walkie-talkies, asking those online about security conditions around the city. When word goes out of firefights or highway blockades, users flock online and reports flow anonymously.

One user, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted, said Zello operated as a modern citizens band radio.

“We are not lookouts. We don’t work for the government. We don’t blow the whistle on where soldiers are mobilizing,” he said, adding that the network is one of the few ways to disseminate information amid a general news blackout.

“Nobody offers information on anything,” he said. “It’s a total vacuum.”

Others take clandestine video and post it to YouTube. One 15-minute video from the late-night firefight March 10 includes the repeat rat-tat of automatic weapons fire. Twitter reports from that night say battles raged between convoys of gunmen who moved between districts with no interference from police or soldiers.

The only official report of the result of the firefight was a statement from the Attorney General’s Office that stray bullets had killed a taxi driver and a minor. It didn’t say how many “armed civilians” were slain.

The Monitor newspaper of McAllen, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Reynosa, cited a law-enforcement official the next day as saying gangsters had hauled off bodies that filled four vehicles.

A journalist in the nearby city of Matamoros, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the cartel, said he’d heard that as many as 60 vehicles carrying gunmen from Los Rojos had rushed in a convoy to Reynosa that night to do battle with Los Metros. Police and army units that were guarding the highway, overwhelmed by the cartel’s show of force, let the convoy pass, he said.

If one entered Reynosa on a quiet day, it might seem to be just a low-rent version of a Texas town. Its streets are lined with familiar names: Church’s Chicken, AutoZone, Blockbuster, Chili’s, Home Depot and Walmart, among others.

But then on one central street corner is a sizable one-room shrine – littered with flowers and stickers of cartoon characters – to Samuel Flores Borrego, a Metros boss who was killed in September 2011. A portrait of the drug lord looks down on the street. Any driver who dares peer for long receives glares from men idling nearby.

An alleged Rojos boss, Juan Mejia Gonzalez, reportedly ordered the hit on Flores Borrego.

For all the mayhem, Reynosa Mayor Everardo Villarreal Salinas feigns that nothing untoward occurs. On March 14, at an event to mark the 264th anniversary of the city’s founding, Villarreal hailed what he called Reynosa’s vibrant economy.

“Reynosa continues to be today one of the cities with the highest growth and economic development in the whole country,” Villarreal boasted.

He’s made no public mention of the gun battles in city streets.

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