The residents of the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, Texas’ closest neighbor to the south, have been living under a near constant threat of violence since 2010. That was the year the paramilitary organization Los Zetas splintered from its former partner in crime the Gulf Cartel.
Since then, so many kingpins, plaza bosses and sicarios have been killed by the military or cartel rivals that it’s almost impossible to keep count. But one thing is certain. The death of kingpin “Tony Tormenta” or the arrest of “Z-40” hasn’t made Tamaulipas a more peaceful place. Instead the state of 3.3 million people is experiencing its worst wave of violence since those dark times in 2010 when 72 migrants were massacred in San Fernando and nearly the entire city of Ciudad Mier fled to Texas after living under siege for weeks. In 2010, journalists from Mexico City who came to report on the bloodshed in Tamaulipas were kidnapped and threatened with execution. Many local reporters were killed. After two reporters escaped with their lives and returned to Mexico City their editor in an open letter pronounced the death of press freedom in Tamaulipas.
After that the lights went dark. Most of Mexico’s national media stopped coming and few foreign reporters ever go to Tamaulipas. It’s a tough state to parachute into, because it’s been co-opted for so long by the Gulf Cartel and organized crime. Corruption has flourished for decades and festered. The local police have worked for the cartels for years. The only way any information gets out of Tamaulipas these days is through a dedicated network of citizen reporters sending out short dispatches on Twitter streams like #reynosafollow or through Facebook.
But the most troubling aspect of Tamaulipas’ descent into violence is how a state so rich in hydrocarbons and other natural resources could be so utterly abandoned by Mexico’s political class. That’s why many citizens were buoyed by the news that after weeks of gun battles, bodies in the streets and blockades, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto announced he had a plan. Last Tuesday, Mexico’s Interior Secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, and top military officials traveled to Reynosa to announce the government’s new strategy to quell the violence. The government will split the state into four parts: two regions controlled by the Army and the other two by the Navy. Each region will have its own federal prosecutor to investigate crimes. Local and state police, which have long been accused of corruption, will be disbanded and replaced by the federal police.
It might sound like progress until you look at what happened in the state of Chihuahua or Michoacan—largely run now by self-defense forces—where Mexico has tried similar military takeovers. Violence and human rights abuses have skyrocketed. In 2009, former President Felipe Calderon sent more than 8,000 soldiers and federal police officers to Juarez to help fight organized crime. But after their arrival, the murder rate spiked, and Juarez became the murder capital of the world. Human rights abuses were rampant and residents fled to other parts of Mexico or to the United States to seek asylum. In the Juarez Valley, which I wrote about in 2012 for the Observer, it was a scorched earth scenario. Many surviving residents blame the military and the federal police for extortion, extrajudicial killings or for standing by as cartel gunmen massacred families and burned down their homes. No law enforcement or military official has been investigated in any of these allegations.
Still, at least we knew about the extrajudicial killings, the human rights abuses and other atrocities because of the fearless Juarez journalists who not only didn’t give up despite the murders of their coworkers, they also helped hundreds of foreign journalists like me access the sources and information we needed to report these tragedies to the world. We can also thank the state’s brave activists and human rights defenders. Tamaulipas has few such journalists or activists. The grip of organized crime is so tight that few journalists or activists can take the risk and speak out.
What our neighbor really needs are strong civic institutions, freedom of the press and the rule of law. These are the most effective weapons against the deep-seated corruption that is fueling the violence and destroying the state. Sadly, President Peña Nieto’s plan to save Tamaulipas doesn’t include any of these key aspects of a healthy democracy. Instead, it’s the old heavy-handed method that so many leaders have tried before. “What Tamaulipas needs is not military occupation but sustainable peace,” says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chair of the government department at the University of Texas-Brownsville who has studied this complex border state for years. We should all pay more attention to our neighbor to the south because it points to Mexico’s future. And if we’ve learned anything from the past, we should be deeply concerned.