Cumbia plays on the patrol radio as it moves down the highway amid a herd of trailers and cargo trucks. Standing and armed with R15 rifles, three policemen watch the road from the back of the pick-up. The kilometers go by and the little that is available is a cow grazing among the cactus fields, ladies selling tacos in the rest areas and a boy in an orange vest waving a flag to warn that they are fixing the pavement and it is convenient to go down speed. The patrol hits the brakes but the rifles keep pointing.
During the journey made by EL PAÍS on the last Wednesday in June aboard the police car, the highway that connects Monterrey with Nuevo Laredo could go through any other highway in Mexico. Like so many other times, the demons of violence hide under the apparent normality. In recent months, almost a hundred people have disappeared in the barely 200 kilometers that separate the capital of Nuevo León, a Mexican industrial hub, with the border city of Tamaulipas, a red hot spot for organized crime.
The prosecutors’ offices of both states have opened 65 investigation files, while family associations report 109 missing persons. More than 70 since January: truckers, Uber drivers, tourists, families with children. There is no clear pattern, there have been rescue calls asking families for money, and some 30 people have already turned up. In their accounts, according to the testimonies collected by the associations, they say that they were interrogated and mistreated before being released.
One of the testimonies, to which EL PAÍS has had access, speaks of a “little room in which there are many people, including children”. It continues with “hits, questions and a taco a day to eat.” Another of the accounts, provided by the Nuevo León State Police, specifies the case of a family who were found during interrogation by photos with hunting rifles. “Before releasing them, they forced them to call their family to send them photos with their hunting weapons permits,” reveals a police source.
With these indications, the authorities discard the kidnapping hypothesis and point to a hunt undertaken by an organized crime gang in search of members of a rival group. While the ghosts of the worst years of the drug war reappear among family members, when indiscriminate attacks against the population became common currency. The pressure of the associations has managed to intensify security since last week with a special device of the Army, National Guard and State Police in what has already been baptized as “the highway of death.”
The route of this newspaper with the police ends halfway, at kilometer 100. At the height of Sabinas Hidalgo, a municipality of just over 100,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Monterrey. Here the trail of Gladys Pérez and her two children, 16 and nine years old, was lost. It was June 13 and they were driving back to Texas after visiting family. The intervention of the FBI, since they were three American citizens, gave more visibility to the accumulated complaints and placed the searchlights on the highway towards the border.
“We are the skill”
This Wednesday, another family was taking a break on the Sabinas service road. They have an appointment in Texas to revalidate the US visa. “We thought about not coming and delaying the appointment, but when we saw that the device was announced this week, we decided to make the trip,” says Aarón Treviño, a 39-year-old computer engineer. They have stopped here because the rest of the way they no longer intend to stop for safety. “As we enter Tamaulipas we will go straight ahead without looking to the sides,” adds the father along with his wife, daughter and in-laws.
There are only 50 kilometers left to enter Tamaulipas. That’s where the authentic Comanche territory begins, according to all the testimonies. On February 13, a 65-year-old businessman from Monterrey, who prefers to remain anonymous, was driving his family back from Houston after receiving the covid vaccine. As they entered Nuevo Laredo and headed down the highway, a truck without license plates blocked their path: “An armed man got out and told us: ‘We are the skill. They have to contribute $ 600. ‘ The family collected the money and in return the individual handed them a piece of paper with some numbers: “If they stop you later, you tell them that you have already cooperated.”
The episode illustrates the degree of penetration and impunity for crime in the city on the border with Texas. “The panic is such that no one travels by car anymore. I have a friend with cancer who has to go to Houston every few months. He has decided not to travel again ”, adds the businessman. The highway is the main overland commercial artery from the industrial capital of Monterrey to the US border. The truckers and the rest of the workers who cross to the other side every day have no other option. “We are more afraid but we have to chambear. We try to travel during the day and if you see something strange, why are you going to get into fights “, Francisco Ruiz, 32 years old, tells before getting on the trailer.
The relatives of the disappeared, some for more than two months, repeat the expression “it is as if the earth had swallowed them”. Verónica López is the wife of Rigoberto Mata, a worker for the Didi transport app who stopped answering the phone on April 23 after leaving for a road service too early. “We filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office but nobody explains anything to us, they throw the ball between them and we still don’t know anything,” he says by phone.
For family associations, some born more than a decade ago during the worst years of President Felipe Calderón’s so-called war on drugs, helplessness and helplessness are also repeated with the excuse of respecting the competence of each State. After days of sit-ins before the Nuevo León Prosecutor’s Office, on Friday a group of family members traveled under escort to the Tamaulipas offices to meet with the prosecutor. “They are concessions that they make us so that we lower the criticism. There are still no results or clear information on the operations, ”says Angélica Orozco, spokesperson for the group Fuerza por Nuestro Disappeared in Nuevo León (FUNDENL).
In the opacity and confusion of the new scenario, the identification of criminal groups is also included. “Before you knew that they were one or the other. Now it is not clear even that. It seems that there are many subgroups, ”adds Orozco, who experienced the peak of violence in the late 2000s. The narco arrived in Nuevo León due to the shock wave of the struggle for the coveted Tamaulipas border between the local Gulf cartel and the ambitions of the Sinaloa cartel. Everything got more complicated after the appearance of the bloodthirsty Zetas, at war against everyone.
In the new map of organized crime in the northwest, the nucleus continues to be Tamaulipas, which in recent weeks has experienced borderline episodes and accumulates up to five governors imprisoned or denounced for collaboration with drug trafficking. But with the historical bosses down, the big organizations have dismembered into a galaxy of small satellites and splits that multiply the fires. According to the Nuevo León prosecutor’s office, up to six groups operate in its territory. From the remnants of the Gulf, splits of the Zetas and the new criminal group with hegemonic aspirations: Jalisco Nueva Generación.
The murder figures in Nuevo León remain in line with recent years, but along with the red light on the road, bad signs accumulate. Three months ago, one of the bosses of the Gulf cartel, Evaristo Cruz Sánchez, The cowboy, who controlled the border city of Matamoros, was arrested in Monterrey. Two weeks ago, a group of armed men shot into a concert, leaving at least three dead and seven wounded. Scenes that haven’t been seen since the lead years. And the National Search Commission announced last month that the four northwestern states – Nuevo León, Coahuila, Tamaulipas and Durango – account for around 20% of the total number of missing persons in the country.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.