Postcards From a Cartel City
A reporter returns to a border town riven by a drug war.
I’ve been dreading coming to Reynosa for weeks. I tell myself that if I stick with the immigration story I’m working on and don’t do any reporting on the drug war, I’ll be safe.
Two of Mexico’s most ruthless drug cartels—Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel—are battling for control of this city and the surrounding state of Tamaulipas, a prized smuggling corridor. Even before the drug war escalated, Reynosa, a gritty city of more than a half-million people, was not a place you’d visit for its cultural or historical significance. But it was industrious. The people had work, so they had hope. There was a healthy tourism trade downtown, and a plaza where children ate ice cream and old men shined your shoes and talked about politics or the weather. As my husband and I drive across the international bridge in mid-August, it’s difficult to reconcile my memories of Reynosa with the crumbling city before me. I had once known this place. A decade ago, I worked for the daily newspaper in neighboring McAllen and covered politics here.
On the bridge, Mexican soldiers barely out of their teens stand watch with hardened stares, M-16 assault rifles over their shoulders. I try to avoid eye contact. I orient myself by looking for the old restaurants and nightclubs I used to know, like the cavernous Tupinamba restaurant, with its solicitous waiters who served the city’s political class. It’s nowhere to be found. Weeds sprout from the fronts of the nightclubs where I went dancing on weekends. Buildings tagged with graffiti are caving in, crumbling. It’s noon, and it’s already 102 degrees. The heat makes the city feel even more desolate.
No one smiles. People avoid eye contact. They have reason to be wary. Two weeks ago, someone lobbed a grenade at city hall across the plaza square, shattering the windows. Now orange cones block the street in front. A massive video surveillance tower with flashing police lights, purchased from the United States, stands in front of the blackened building. The mayor is rumored to be living with his family in McAllen. The cartels assassinated two mayors this month—one in the state of Tamaulipas and one in Nuevo Leon.
Back in 2000, I’d stood in the city’s plaza and heard people talk about political change. For the first time in 70 years, a political party besides the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had won the presidency. The newly elected President Vicente Fox made a triumphant tour of the city. People rushed to shake his hand and have photos snapped with him. I had found the hope infectious then. Now I remember the words of a grizzled old man shining shoes on the plaza that day. “Nothing will change,” he’d said. “The rich will get richer, and we’ll stay poor.”
Things did change. They got worse. We didn’t realize then that the PRI’s control of the cartels and organized crime had tamped down the violence. But soon the cartels were terrorizing Reynosa and the rest of the country with gun battles, grenade blasts and kidnappings. These days former President Fox advocates legalizing drugs. And many Mexicans pray the PRI will win the 2012 presidential election and placate the monster it helped create.
We’re not bold enough to spend our nights here. Every day we cross the international bridge to do our work. Today we debate whether to take the new Anzalduas International Bridge back to the United States. It’s three miles west of downtown, which means going to the outskirts of the city near the military checkpoint. I’ve read about innocent bystanders dying in crossfire between the military and the cartels. The soldiers make me uneasy. I ask a man working for the government’s social services agency if there are places we should avoid. “No,” he says. “There can be gunfire anywhere at any time.” Most people rely on Twitter or text one another warnings about gun battles or narcos blockading major intersections. Bullets hit his government office a week earlier, the man says. He and other workers hid under their desks until the fighting was over.
I don’t find this consoling. But it’s either an hour’s wait in the broiling sun on the downtown bridge, or less than 15 minutes to cross at Anzalduas. Let’s go for it, my husband says. We pass an office of Pemex, the state oil company, then small shacks on the side of the road and an OXXO convenience store, where we stop to buy cokes. The afternoon newspaper on the rack next to the cashier shows a dead man slumped over a car trunk. Blood pools at his feet. The headline: “Hit men die in gun battle.” As we reach the city limits, I notice something glittering among the mesquite trees beside the road. It’s a freshly painted chapel for la Santa Muerte, Saint Death. Labeled an “unholy saint” by the Vatican, Saint Death has been drawing legions of followers for the past decade from Mexico’s poor and the criminal underworld. Her presence is foreboding.
We pull over and I put on the hazard lights. My husband jumps out and walks back to the chapel to take some photos. I watch in the rearview mirror. The chapel is next to a group of shacks pieced together from thin plywood. I worry that someone might take offense at our tourism. My husband disappears into the shrine. At that moment, a silver truck speeds toward me, its hazard lights flashing. It swerves dangerously in and out of traffic, weaving past a transit cop. A convoy of Mexican military Humvees follows. I freeze. Should I get out and run, or stay in the car? I watch with relief as they pass and my husband reappears. I argue that we should turn around now, away from the speeding chase. But he persuades me to keep going, and we cross Anzalduas without incident. West of the bridge, there’s billowing smoke. Two weeks later, there’s a gun battle near the bridge’s entrance. Several cartel members, soldiers and innocent motorists die.
I try to avoid talking with people about the drug war, but it’s impossible. My questions seem to double back to organized crime. In the course of interviews on my immigration story, a government official mentions that the city police work for the Gulf Cartel. A lawyer tells me he’d tried to file a lawsuit, but the courthouse isn’t operating; the government employees are there, but the file cabinets are empty. The only tentative grasp the federal government seems to have on Reynosa is through its military. But the soldiers aren’t trained to operate as a city police force, or as judges. A woman with relatives in the neighboring city of Rio Bravo tells me the Gulf Cartel has roadblocks at the city’s entrances. Cartel members have emblazoned their trucks and clothes with the initials CDG, for Cartel del Golfo. It’s this way all over Tamaulipas, with either the Zetas or the Gulf Cartel dominating towns and cities. No one knows how many men and women they’ve threatened or paid to fight for them. The Mexican army is chasing phantoms all over the state. When people tell me these things, they whisper, even in their own offices with doors closed, sometimes locked. “You didn’t hear it from me,” and “Don’t use my name,” I hear again and again.
We find ourselves at a migrant shelter run by Catholic nuns. I’ve heard that Central American immigrants are being kidnapped and extorted by cartel members when they arrive in Reynosa to cross into the United States. The shelter has a 15-foot, white stucco wall around it and a steel gate where a portly, unarmed man sits all day—the shelter’s security guard. Inside sit 20 or so dejected men and women from as far away as Honduras. Many have been deported by the United States, and some are waiting to cross back to reunite with their families.
A slight, 27-year-old Guatemalan man with the face of a teenager sits down and whispers about his escape from a cartel safe house. He’d asked a man on the street for directions to a money-changing house. Instead, the man had tied his hands with rope, taken his shoes and thrown him into a dark room with several other bound men. The kidnappers had taken $250 from him and were trying to extort his poverty-stricken family for more. He’s lucky, he tells me, because he escaped. He takes his baseball cap off, and I notice a fresh scar across his eyebrow. He wants to be deported back to Guatemala, but he’s terrified to leave the shelter. The kidnappers are outside, he says, waiting. The nuns can do nothing to prevent it.
A Honduran man tells me he sought political asylum in Mexico after being blacklisted during the recent coup. In Mexico, he’d been robbed of everything, he said, even the clothes on his back. He holds up a piece of paper from Mexican immigration. It has his photo on it, and it says he’s requested asylum. That was three months ago, and he hasn’t heard a thing since from the Mexican government. “There’s no work, and I can’t even go to the 7-11 across the street, because I’ll be kidnapped,” he says. “I can’t go back to Honduras, and I can’t stay here.
“You can feel the presence of the devil out there,” he warns as we gather our things to leave. The guard opens the gate, and we walk into the glaring sun. Men in baseball caps and jeans stand across the street staring. Three propped against the wall of the shelter smoke a joint. Their eyes are red, they stare emptily back at us. I look up, and a line of men sits watching from a building ledge overlooking the shelter. Dressed in black T-shirts, they remind me of vultures. We act as if we don’t notice, but I feel panicked. We climb into our truck, lock the doors and drive away. Two weeks later, I read about the discovery of 72 bodies on a ranch not far from Reynosa. They were Central and South American migrants too poor to pay the Zeta cartel’s ransom.
After yesterday, the thought of returning fills me with dread. But journalists are peculiar people. We insert ourselves into ridiculous and dangerous situations to ask perfect strangers probing, personal questions. I still don’t have enough for my story. So we go back to Reynosa, where I run into an old journalist acquaintance of mine. I am standing on the international bridge when I see him waiting for a bus from the United States. He’s with his 2-year-old son, and I walk over to say hello. He seems shocked to see me. He asks what I’m working on in Reynosa, and he warns me that things have become “very, very ugly” for journalists.
He’s always been able to navigate the city’s dark side, but things have gone too far, he says. He looks worn out. “I had a gun stuck in my mouth, I’ve been threatened dozens of times, but here I am still alive,” he says. These days, he tells me, journalists in Reynosa run all of their stories through the Gulf Cartel first. If the cartel doesn’t like it, you don’t print it. “If you print it anyway …” he trails off and drags a finger across his throat. One journalist had his hands cut off, my friend says. “Come with me,” he says. “The editor of the daily newspaper will tell you the story himself with tears in his eyes.”
I tell him we’re leaving, but that I might take him up on it later. Grenades had just been lobbed at two TV stations, in neighboring Matamoros and Monterrey. The all-out assault against the media in recent months prompted a United Nations group to come and investigate. They proclaimed Mexico the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere for journalists and called for President Felipe Calderon to intercede. My friend can’t wait for a miracle. He has to work for a living. His wife comes to collect him and the children. She looks at me warily as he introduces me as a fellow journalist. He tries to make light of the danger. His wife doesn’t smile. She looks scared.
The city’s only human rights office has been without power for four days. It’s 103 outside. I sit with employees at the Centro Estudios Fronterizos y Derechos Humanos. We fan ourselves with human rights pamphlets and sweat in the dark. The workers dutifully record complaints of people who believe their rights have been violated. These days it’s no use. It’s too dangerous to publicize the grievances. “No one reports abuses anymore,” says Rebecca Rodriguez, the center’s director, as she fans herself with a paper napkin. These days, the center provides temporary government IDs to migrants who’ve been deported from the United States.
The fluorescent lights in her office flicker on and off, then blink on. Rodriguez, a stout woman, thanks God. The workman wants 200 pesos for working the miracle, roughly $20. Rodriguez shrugs and tells him to come back another day. “I just don’t have the money right now,” she says apologetically, “but I’ll pay you just as soon as I get it.” Rodriguez, a social worker, scrapes by selling ornamental fish. Over the weekend, she’d sold about $15 worth. Her employees, a lawyer and two office administrators, haven’t been paid in weeks. The global economic crisis and the escalating drug war have devastated the economy.
If you have money, it’s not a good idea to flaunt it. Most business owners pay protection fees. Those who can’t are kidnapped or have their businesses torched. Many are fleeing, hoping to set up businesses in McAllen or other Texas border cities. Others are returning to their home states of Veracruz or San Luis Potosi and points further south. Rodriguez says she’s staying put. “This is my home. Where would I go?” She is resolute. Meanwhile, there is cake. An employee is turning 21 today. Rodriguez brushes the dust from a souvenir candle from a Tijuana migrant rights conference and lights it. We fan ourselves and sing “Las Mañanitas,” Mexico’s version of “Happy Birthday.” The young staffer blows out her candle and smiles. “I wished for a paycheck,” she says.