On July 3, 2000, I stood in the center of Reynosa’s busy plaza interviewing people for a story about Mexico’s historic presidential election. Vicente Fox, the tall, straight talking former Coca Cola executive had just won Mexico’s presidency. It was an unprecedented moment for the country because Fox was from the center right National Action Party, or PAN. It was the first time in 71 years that a candidate from any party besides the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had won the presidency.
The young people I interviewed were hopeful that Mexico would finally become a true democracy after seven decades of being the “perfect dictatorship,” as Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa once called the PRI’s reign in Mexico. Reynosa’s older residents were more cautious in their enthusiasm, even cynical after enduring so many decades under the PRI’s most cynical kleptocracy. I remember one elderly man, who shined shoes for a living, telling me sourly “Nothing will change. The rich will get richer and the poor will stay poor.”
None of us—not even that elderly gentleman shining shoes in the Reynosa plaza that day—could have imagined the levels of violence, corruption and chaos that would engulf Reynosa and the state of Tamaulipas just a decade later. If I had been a better student of Mexico’s history maybe I would have seen it coming because the systemic government corruption under the PRI, the censorship of the media and the crushing of social dissent as well as the incredible sums of money being made from narco trafficking—it was all there for anyone who chose to pay attention.
In fact, the state of Tamaulipas became the “perfect dictatorship’s” most perfect creation. There exists an almost total censorship of the press and you will never see a public protest in the streets like you do in Juarez. Massive sums of money are made from the illegal trafficking of everything from drugs to human beings to pirated DVDs. The graft flows from the streets into the pockets of cartel operatives and the PRI politicians as it has for more than 80 years.
As Dawn Paley wrote in her excellent piece in The Nation about Tamaulipas in 2011 “few dispute that state and local government are inseparable from organized crime and both use repression to do away with their opponents.” Paley goes on to quote Francisco Chavira Martinez, the rector of the University of Northern Tamaulipas:
“Here, [local governments] use car thieves to steal the cars of anyone who opposes them; house thieves who will rob your house to frighten you; narcotraffickers, who they use as a way to create fear in the people, so that you don’t participate, so that you don’t raise your voice or go against the government; they even send their own to throw grenades at city halls,” said Chavira Martinez.
“Why?” he asked himself, pausing to sip his coffee. “So that the people are scared and don’t go to City Hall to make demands; they won’t go and demand that public accounts be transparent, or [ask] what the money is being spent on.”
With the fateful presidential election in 2000, the PRI lost control of the monster it helped create in Tamaulipas. The Gulf Cartel and its militarized enforcers Los Zetas fractured in 2009 and the gunmen became the heads of state and their former PRI bosses now do their bidding. U.S. government officials call Tamaulipas a “failed state” and the Mexican government would rather not acknowledge its troubled existence, especially during the presidential election season which culminates on July 1.
But you cannot underestimate the state’s importance, says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an assistant professor in government at the University of Texas at Brownsville. Correa is working on a book about Tamaulipas, which she calls “the forgotten border.” Tamaulipas spans 143 miles of international border from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros and has 17 international bridges—the most of any Mexican border state. The Nuevo Laredo crossing is the biggest and most lucrative border corridor in Latin America with more than 10,000 trucks crossing every day into Texas.
It is no surprise that it has become the most violent and contested plaza in Mexico after Juarez.
The corruption in Tamaulipas has deep historical roots. The network of local government protection and smuggling goes all the way back to the 1920s when smuggler Juan Nepomuceno Guerra ran liquor across the border to thirsty Texans during the prohibition. This network of political graft and protection was inherited by the Gulf Cartel, which got its start in the 1980s in Matamoros smuggling cocaine to the United States. “And the silencing of the media and corruption have been endemic to Tamaulipas since the inception of the Gulf Cartel,” Correa says.
Recently, both the Mexican and U.S. governments have shown signs of trying to untangle the nest of corruption and killings in the state. Drug related murders rose ominously from 90 in 2009 to 1,209 in 2010 in Tamaulipas, according to Correa, citing numbers from the Mexican federal government.
In January, it was revealed in the Mexican media that President Felipe Calderon’s government, which like Fox is aligned with the PAN party, is investigating three former Tamaulipas PRI governors—Eugenio Hernandez, Manuel Cavazos Lerma and Tomas Yarrington—for corruption. They and their families have been put on a federal travel watch list in Mexico and their movements monitored. In the United States, Yarrington who served as the governor of Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2005 was implicated in February in a U.S. money laundering case involving Antonio Peña Arguelles who is accused of laundering millions of dollars for the Zetas and Gulf Cartel between 2000 and 2012.
In a sealed court document, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency, lays out a long and damning case against Peña Arguelles who allegedly laundered millions through U.S. banks and purportedly gave several million to Yarrington on the behalf of the Zetas for political influence. Yarrington has not been charged to date and has publicly denied any wrongdoing, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
In April, the U.S. government arrested Gilberto Lerma Plata, a Mexican police commander from Tamaulipas and cousin of former Tamaulipas governor Manuel Cavazos Lerma, a PRI candidate for senator. Lerma Plata has been indicted for alleged drug smuggling into the United States since 2006.
Members of the PRI argue that the indictments and investigations are politically motivated, orchestrated to help Calderon’s PAN maintain its hold on the presidency. But the investigations have had a big impact on the populace of Tamaulipas, which finally sees a glimmer of attention from both the U.S. and Mexican authorities. “We live in the shadow of corruption,” a Tamaulipas resident recently told me.
If the PRI takes back the presidency in July, as many political experts predict, it’s difficult to imagine how Mexico’s most troubled state can ever emerge from the shadows.