The gas fields extend from the booming Eagle Ford play of South Texas deep into the ranch and coal country stretching inland from this violent border city. This is Zetas country, among the most fearsome of Mexico’s criminal badlands.
U.S. and Mexican energy companies long have been besieged by the gangsters here – their workers assaulted, extorted or murdered – despite a heavy military and federal police presence. Now, with feuding Zetas factions bloodying one another and fending off outside rivals, what has been a bad situation threatens to get much worse.
Northern Mexico’s gas production has suffered for years as gangland threats or attacks have kept workers from servicing the wellheads, pipelines and drilling rigs in the Burgos Basin, the territory between the Rio Grande and the city of Monterrey, which now provides up to 20 percent of Mexico’s natural gas.
“Petroleos Mexicanos has problems with security … principally in Burgos,” Guillermo Dominguez, a senior member of the National Hydrocarbons Commission, told the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.
And now the surging Zetas bloodletting pits the gang’s top bosses – Heriberto Lazcano and Miguel Angel Treviño – against Ivan Velazquez, a former underling known as “El Taliban.” From his base in the western state of Zacatecas, Velazquez reportedly has allied with the remnants of other gangs to launch a challenge for control of Coahuila state, which holds most of the shale gas reserves.
Challenge to control
Banners recently hung by both Zetas factions have accused one another of treason and other transgressions that will be avenged with death. Fighting has rattled Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas stronghold that also is the busiest land port for U.S.-Mexico trade, killing scores this month alone.
Still more banners appeared in Nuevo Laredo Tuesday, reputedly written by beleaguered civilians, promising all the gangster factions further bloody vengeance.
“Zetas are pretty much in control, but they have been challenged,” said a U.S. official in Mexico who monitors the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You have all these groups fighting one another, shifting alliances and internal fights … It’s a wilderness of mirrors.”
The Zetas’ spats with rivals already have turned Coahuila’s other large cities – Torreon in the west, Monclova in the center and Saltillo in the east – into fierce gangland battlegrounds. State officials are blaming the Sept. 17 escape of 131 prisoners from a Piedras Negras prison on the Zetas seeking to replenish their ranks for new battles.
The insecurity in Mexico’s gas fields contrasts sharply with the drilling and production frenzy seizing the ranchlands just north of the border. Oil field pickups and semi-trailer fuel tankers choke Highway 83, the once-desolate ranch-country highway that cuts northwest from Laredo though the lower reaches of the Eagle Ford.
Some 6,000 drilling permits have been issued for Eagle Ford shale in Texas, and 550 wells are producing there. By comparison, Pemex so far has drilled five exploratory shale gas wells, but hopes to drill 170 more in the next four years. The company plans to spend $200 million on exploration in the short term.
Those first exploratory wells have been drilled to the west of Nuevo Laredo and below the border at Piedras Negras, ranch and coal country that remains relatively violence free for now. But that tranquility may owe more to the now-threatened dominance of the Zetas bosses than to rule of law.
“They are in control,” said a U.S. official. “They are pretty much just doing their thing.”
At least eight Pemex and contract employees vanished in May 2010 near a gas facility near Falcon Lake, territory under the Zetas’ firm control. Last March, two men working for a Mexican company doing contract work for Houston-based Halliburton disappeared outside Piedras Negras.
Halliburton spokeswoman Tara Mullee-Agard said employees get regular security briefings, but the company declined to comment on the contractors’ disappearance.
“Many companies that were active in the areas have stopped until Pemex or the government can provide security,” said an employee of one Reynosa-based company. “In places where there have been incidents we don’t operate anymore. When darkness falls, we stop wherever we are.
- Zetas crimping gas industry in northern Mexico (mysanantonio.com)
- Banners claim an alliance has been formed against the Zetas (mysanantonio.com)
- Mexico: State Officials Killed in Nuevo Laredo (hispanicallyspeakingnews.com)
- Piedras Negras “megafuga” just the latest massive prison break (mysanantonio.com)
- 132 inmates escape from Mexican prison near U.S. border (theprovince.com)
By Dudley Althaus Updated 08:45 p.m., Sunday, May 13, 2012
MEXICO CITY – Officials blamed the Zetas gang for the slaughter of 49 people whose headless, handless bodies were recovered early Sunday near a highway that leads from the industrial city of Monterrey to the South Texas border.
A message left with the bodies outside the oil refining town of Cadereyta – supposedly signed by the Zetas – claimed credit for the latest in a series of recent atrocities by rival criminal gangs waging a brutal terror campaign against one another. The message’s content was not disclosed.
Though the lack of heads or fingerprints obviously will complicate identification of the victims, authorities rushed to assure a beleaguered public that ordinary citizens aren’t being targeted.
The corpses of the 43 men and six women were dumped about 2 a.m. The victims were killed elsewhere as many as two days ago, Domene said.
Monterrey and its suburbs, home to some 4 million people, have become a crucial front of the gangland violence that has killed more than 50,000 people since President Felipe Calderon deployed federal forces against Mexico’s powerful gangs upon taking office in December 2006.
The escalating bloodshed has besieged Cadereyta and nearby towns in recent months as the Zetas battle their former paymasters from the Gulf Cartel for regional dominance. Both narcotics trafficking gangs are anchored in the Mexican cities bordering south Texas.
Thriving drug trade
In addition to its own local narcotics market, metropolitan Monterrey is an important warehousing center for cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs bound for U.S. consumers. Petroleum pipelines running between Cadereyta and the border have also been among those most tapped by thieves, supplying Mexico’s vibrant black market for gasoline and other petroleum products. Small towns, ranches and isolated clusters of weekend houses between Monterrey and the border long have been favored haunts for gangsters.
Fighting in the Monterrey area and along the border recently has worsened with the participation of gunmen loyal to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the crime boss based in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa. Considered Mexico’s most powerful gangster, Guzman reportedly has allied with the Gulf Cartel and returned to the region – especially to Nuevo Laredo – to take on the Zetas.
Sunday’s slaughter followed the murder last week of 18 people near the western city of Guadalajara – at least some of them apparent innocents kidnapped from once-bucolic towns where thousands of U.S. and Canadian retirees live. Officials also have blamed the Zetas for those killings, which supposedly were committed in response to the Guzman gang’s killing in the past month of dozens of alleged Zetas in Nuevo Laredo.
In response, Calderon’s government has extended cooperative security agreements with both Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas states – which border Texas from upriver of Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico – to guarantee the continued presence of federal troops and police.
“We are not going to yield, we will never yield,” Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina said in signing the agreement Thursday in Monterrey. “We will continue investing and taking the necessary actions so that Nuevo Leon has solid institutions and safe cities.”
Zetas inmates aided by guards murdered 44 other prisoners allegedly belonging to the Gulf Cartel in the state prison in Apodaca, another Monterrey suburb in mid-February. More than 30 of the Zetas prisoners then slipped over the jail walls. The prison’s new warden, named just three weeks ago, resigned Sunday citing “personal reasons.”
Intended to terrorize rivals and the general population, the public display of butchered corpses has replaced the traditional gangland practice of burying victims in clandestine mass graves. Hundreds of bodies were collected from such graves last year in both northeastern Mexico and the western state of Durango.
But in September killers allied with Guzman dumped 35 bodies of accused Zetas on an highway interchange near an upscale suburban mall in the port of Veracruz. Zetas and their allies responded in November by leaving 26 corpses, supposedly belonging to members of Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, in downtown Guadalajara. The Zetas also claimed the massacre of several dozen people in Sinaloa this spring.
“I have no doubt that this is a media measure taken by organized crime to get the attention of the public and the rival group,” Javier del Real, the retired army general who was recently appointed head of Nuevo Leon’s state police, said of the Cadereyta incident at Sunday’s news conference. “They achieved that result.”
Nine bodies were spotted at about 1:00 a.m. hanging from an overpass at a major intersection, a source in the Tamaulipas state Attorney General’s Office said.
The five men and four women had their eyes covered and bore signs of torture, a municipal official said.
Accompanying the bodies was a message from the Los Zetas gang identifying the victims as employees of the rival Gulf drug cartel killed for “heating up the territory” by carrying out violent acts that attracted more attention from the security forces.
The message from the Zetas accused the victims of involvement in an April 24 grenade attack on municipal police headquarters in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas.
Just hours later, the dismembered remains of 14 people were found wrapped in plastic bags inside a van abandoned in front of the Mexican customs service office in the city.
The victims’ severed heads were left in coolers near Nuevo Laredo city hall.
The killers did not leave any message.
Los Zetas, a group founded by deserters from a U.S.-trained special forces unit, started out as the armed wing of the Gulf cartel, but the two criminal organizations later had a falling out and the Zetas went into the drug business on their own account, gaining control of several lucrative territories.
Media reports say the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have formed an alliance to fight Los Zetas, but this has not been confirmed by Mexican officials.
Fourteen dismembered bodies found April 17 in a vehicle parked near city hall were accompanied by a message bearing the purported signature of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, fugitive boss of the Sinaloa cartel.
The note said the Sinaloa outfit had come to Nuevo Laredo to cleanse the city of the Zetas.
Conflict among rival cartels and between criminals and the security forces has claimed more than 50,000 lives in Mexico since December 2006, when newly inaugurated President Felipe Calderon militarized the struggle against organized crime. EFE