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Caught behind enemy lines

Reynosa, on the Texas border, is a city under the control of cartels. Traffickers brazenly patrol its streets, setting up roadblocks, harassing citizens, gunning down enemies and even censoring the news. Those who can flee have. Others find ways to cope.

November 06, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Reynosa, Mexico — It starts at the airport. A burly guy in a hoodie drapes himself over the barrier that leads out of the parking lot. Watching. Just watching.

Most taxi drivers are on the drug cartels' payroll, ordered to spy on visitors and monitor the movements of the military and state investigators. Their license plates brazenly shed, they cruise streets dotted with paper-flower shrines marking the dead. Watching.

In the main downtown plaza, in front of City Hall and the cathedral, about a dozen guys in baggy pants with sunglasses on their heads hang out alongside the shoeshine men. They eye passersby, without speaking.

This is a city under siege.

It's a city where you avert your eyes when men clean their guns in the middle of the plazas.

Where schoolchildren are put through the paces of pecho a tierra drills, literally, "chest to the ground" — a duck-and-dive move for when the shooting starts.

Where you try to remain invisible; you never know who is standing next in line at the grocery store or the 7-Eleven.

Where a middle-aged man muses that it's turned out to be a good thing, after all, that he and his wife never had children.

The Times spent a week recently in Reynosa, passing time with and talking to a dozen residents, to learn how they cope under cartel rule. All were terrified to speak of their experiences and agreed to do so only under the strictest anonymity. Most did not want to be seen in public with a foreign reporter and would meet only in secret. One insisted on meeting across the nearby border in the United States.

"You go around with Jesus in the mouth," one man says.

Meaning, you pray.


Reynosa is the largest city in Tamaulipas, a harrowing state bordering Texas that is all but lost to federal government rule.

The Burger Kings and California-style shopping malls give the city a sense — a false sense — of normalcy. Cars circulate down wide streets. Evangelical churches and donut shops and beauty parlors are open for business.

But Reynosa, with a population of about 700,000, may be the single largest city in Mexico under the thumb of the cartels.

Drug traffickers with the powerful Gulf cartel have long dominated Tamaulipas. In Reynosa, residents more or less coexisted with the traffickers, sometimes joining them, sometimes skirting them. No authority dared challenge them.

The arrangement was shattered early this year when the paramilitary wing of the cartel, the Zetas, split furiously from their patrons, and the two ruthless groups declared war on each other. It was when, as people here put it, the devil jumped.

Battles raged in the spring and early summer, with uncounted scores of people killed. The Gulf cartel fought the Zetas, and the Mexican army fought them both. Bombs and grenades exploded at nightclubs, television stations and city offices. The man who was likely to be the state's next governor was assassinated in broad daylight, along with most of his entourage.

Combat still erupts regularly. But Reynosa is as much a prison camp as a war zone. Army patrols periodically pass through — listening to the bad guys listening to them on radio frequencies — and on the outskirts man roadblocks and hand out leaflets pleading for citizens' cooperation.

The Gulf cartel has control of the city, but Zetas lurk for about 60 miles in any direction. Highways between major Tamaulipas cities are extremely dangerous, stalked by one gang or the other. People speak using terms of war, like "refugees" and "displaced." Even the mayor is displaced. (He fled to Texas.)

The cartels have infiltrated everything: from city hall and the police department, through border customs agencies and all the way down to taco vendors and pirated CD stands.

"There is a great sense of uneasiness in the city," said Armando Javier Zertuche, a psychologist who also serves as secretary of economic development for Reynosa. "It used to be that if someone got kidnapped or killed, you knew they had something to do with [drug trafficking]. Now, with this war, everyone is at risk. It has fallen on top of regular citizens."


The Commuter

Her stomach clenched when she saw the big white cars ahead in the road, blocking the way. Maybe it's the army, her husband suggested, noting the gunmen were wearing camouflage. But she knew.

She had already been grabbed by the traffickers twice in the last few months. How she survived the third time, she doesn't really know. But survival now is the goal of every day.

She commutes regularly between Reynosa and her home city, a couple of hours away: The work is better in Reynosa. She uses all sorts of tactics to try to be safe, keeping in constant radio contact with loved ones, hiding her money in her underwear, even using U.S. roads to commute between Mexican cities.

"My life has changed totally," she says, speaking in a hotel room with a television on to cloak the conversation. "To drive on the highways is to tempt death."

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