Supporters waved flags and snapped selfies as they waited for the MORENA party’s final rally to start in Reynosa – the scruffy border city of maquiladoras opposite McAllen, Texas. Music blared two hours later as the rally for MORENA’s gubernatorial candidate Américo Villarreal still hadn’t started.
Such tardiness can be common in Mexican political rallies as organizers wait for facilities to fill up prior to starting and for operators to herd in people lured by promises of sandwiches and soft drinks (and a few pesos). Outside the soccer stadium on May 31, a clean-cut man in tidy clothes, but seemingly hiding behind aviators, a medical mask and a ball cap identified himself a municipal employee. He attributed the slowness of people arriving to a lack of enthusiasm. He cited his own unenthusiastic example: he had been forced by his bosses to attend the MORENA rally and was required to bring others along.
“Ever since MORENA took over [the local government], they’ve been making us do this,” he said in an interview. A source with knowledge of other municipal governments in Tamaulipas confirmed the anecdote, adding bureaucrats in MORENA governments pay a diezmo (“tithe” of 10%) out of their pay packets to fund party activities.
Tamaulipas elects a new governor June 5 and renews it state congress. The state has been beset by narco-violence for the past dozen years – ever since Los Zetas broke with their former partners, the Gulf Cartel – along with not-so-secret suspicions of narcos infiltrating governments at all levels.
Most polls project a MORENA victory in Tamaulipas over a coalition comprised of the National Action Party (PAN), Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) headed by César “Truko” Verástegui. Observers attribute the lead to the popularity of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his policies of providing cash stipend to students, seniors and single mothers (among others.) Observers also say operators and formerly prominent figures from the PRI, which ruled Tamaulipas uninterrupted until 2016, have swung behind MORENA. “It’s due to vote-buying and the people receiving ‘bienestar’ benefits” – AMLO’s cash stipends – “who are scared of losing their money,” according to a Reynosa anti-crime activist.
But AMLO’s seemingly deferential discourse on drug cartels and the open support of MORENA by a so-called self-defense group in southern Tamaulipas has also caused disquiet in a state with such a history of narcopolitics and raised uncomfortable questions over the role of organized crime in state elections. “It would be like returning to 2010 or 2011,” the activist said, referring to the worst years of fighting between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. (Both cartels have subsequently splintered, but maintain strongholds in various Tamaulipas cities.) “You’re going to see fights for various crime plazas,” the activist added. “And the López Obrador government doesn’t fight criminal groups.”
Accusations of politicians acting in cahoots with drug cartels is nothing new in Tamaulipas. Two former PRI governors, Tomás Yarrington and Eugenio Hernández, were indicted on drug and money laundering charges. Yarrington was detained while on the lam in Italy in 2017 and convicted in a Texas court; Hernández is behind bars in Tamaulipas. PRI gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre was shot dead in final days of the 2010 campaign in the state capital Ciudad Victoria and was replaced on the ballot by his brother.
In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, former Ciudad Victoria mayor and small party candidate Gustavo Cárdenas said politicians opened the door to criminal groups, which were hired to provide services and funds for political campaigns.
“Politicians let them in so they could keep themselves in power. But these bastards started making demands on politicians. They started demanding quotas – public works contracts, operating waterworks, transit police and municipal police. They [still] have a ton of people working for municipal governments.”
People interviewed in Tamaulipas spoke of narcos in government almost as a given. The Reynosa municipal employee described the relationship between drug cartels and the government as: They have a lot of money, which gives them power. They have guns, which gives them more power. Plus, “they often have the backing of a higher level of government.”
Current Tamaulipas Gov. Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca has faced accusations of corruption and criminal association. Even before winning in 2016 – displacing the PRI for the first time – the newspaper Reforma showed Cabeza de Vaca owning an apartment in Mexico City worth $2.7 million. (He countered that the apartment was purchased with proper funds and only worth $760,000.)
The federal prosecutor in February 2021 presented accusations of organized crime, operations with resources of illicit origin and tax fraud. The MORENA-controlled federal Congress subsequently voted to impeach Cabeza de Vaca in April 2021. The procedure moved to the Tamaulipas state congress, which voted against impeaching the PAN governor – who called the impeachment politically motivated. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear an appeal from Cabeza de Vaca on June 1, but postponed the hearing.
Tamaulipas has experienced shocking violence over the past two decades, while drug cartels have never shied from showing their power. Busloads of travelers heading for the U.S. border were taken off the coaches, interrogated, killed and dumped in mass graves. Seventy-two migrants were massacred in 2010 on a ranch by Los Zetas. A cartel installed a network of 120 security cameras in the city of Reynosa without the authorities intervening. Convoys used to form taking drivers with state police escorts between Ciudad Victoria and the U.S. border. Kidnapping of residents and migrants is commonplace; the anti-crime activist said they were abducted by Los Zetas in 2011 and held for 12 days until their family paid a $13,500 ransom.
Atrocities have continued occurring since Cabeza de Vaca took office – such as shootouts in Nuevo Laredo, which forced the closure of the U.S. consulate; dozens of disappearances on the highway between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey; and 19 people killed in June 2021 by marauding gunmen in Reynosa. But some interviewees in Reynosa spoke of improvements in public security during Cabeza de Vaca’s term.
“There haven’t been as many shootouts in the six years of Cabeza de Vaca,” said a Tamaulipas resident. During the government prior to Cabeza de Vaca, “There was the traditional Tuesday shootout,” she said sardonically, which ended with the new administration.
The anti-crime activist commented that Cabeza de Vaca is allegedly “corrupt, the same as everyone. But security has improved in Tamaulipas.” The activist continued, “The only place that continues being hot here is the Ribereña,” which runs along the Rio Grande between Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. “Insecurity on the border is never going to end. It’s a very desired area for criminal groups. But looking at how we were a few years back and looking it now, I think we’re a doing a little bit better.”
The most notable improvement in public security is in the coastal city of Tampico in southern Tamaulipas. The April 2022 National Survey of Urban Public Security (ENSU) from the national statistics service (INEGI) found Tampico ranked second-best among Mexican municipalities in perceptions of security, trailing only San Pedro Garza García, a wealthy Monterrey suburb.
- HUGS, NOT BULLETS – IN TAMAULIPAS
Américo Villareal, a MORENA senator and son of a former PRI governor, has proposed the same security strategy as AMLO for Tamaulipas: Hugs, not bullets. He also attributed any improvements in Tamaulipas’ security to federal, not state initiatives. It’s a scenario a state police commander described as laughable, saying in a pre-election conversation that National Guard members, “do nothing,” when called to a crime scene. In a candidates’ debate Villarreal repeated AMLO’s talking points on security, according media outlet Latinus:
“The hugs from the government are not physical hugs: it’s zero impunity, scholarships for young people, opportunities for pensions, social welfare programs. Those are the hugs that the federal government gives to construct society and repair the social fabric and so we live in peace.”
Six Mexican states go to the polls on June 5: Tamaulipas, Hidalgo Durango, Aguascalientes, Oaxaca and Quintana Roo. Polls put Morena ahead in four of the six races, while the PAN-PRI-PRD coalition leads in Aguascalientes and the race in Durango too close to call. If the races turn out as polls project, MORENA and its allies would hold 22 of the 32 state governor’s offices. (MORENA was officially founded by AMLO in 2014 after leaving the PRD.)
Sources in Tamaulipas describe the MORENA as being colonized by the old PRI machine – which reliably turned out voters – prompting more idealistic members to leave the party. A source in the state of Quintana Roo (home to Cancún and the Mayan Riviera) described a similar situation of AMLO – who presents himself as an anti-corruption fighter – brokering deals with politicians bringing dubious pasts. The source said of the situation there:
Morena is the old PRI, but reloaded. It’s worse. In Morena, we’ve seen attitudes the PRI didn’t dare assume. … MORENA here has been taken over by former PRI, Green (Party people) and former borgistas” – people linked to imprisoned former governor Roberto Borge, whose graft and thuggery was especially notorious. “Nothing good seems to come out of that cocktail.”
- AMLO VISITS SINALO CARTEL COUNTRY – AGAIN
AMLO once again travelled to the rugged Sierra Madre Mountains to ostensibly inspect progress on a highway through what’s commonly considered territory controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. He arrived May 27 in Guadalupe y Calvo, a town in the heart of the “Triangulo Dorado” – comprised of seemingly impenetrable parts of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa – which he immediately rechristened: “The triangle of good and hardworking people.”
The rechristening continued his policy of offering kind words for narcos, while scorning and stereotyping large swaths of law-abiding Mexico – most recently doctors, who he blasted for objecting to his plans to import 500 Cuban doctors for seemingly ideological reasons.
AMLO’s tour through the Sierra, however, raised ever more uncomfortable questions about his administration courting drug cartels – specifically the Sinaloa Cartel – while exposing the absence of state control over vast swaths of territory (a phenomenon pre-dating AMLO’s arrival in power, but over which he shows no particular alarm.) His nonchalant response to questions of brazen displays of Sinaloa Cartel control – and along with those of other criminal groups – reinforce the old perceptions of the Mexican state not exercising a monopoly on the use of force and the political class not being particularly perturbed by it.
- PRESIDENTIAL PRESS POOL STOPPED BY NARCOS
The presidential press pool traveling with López Obrador reported being stopped at an irregular checkpoint some 30 minutes from the home of El Chapo’s mother in the hamlet of La Tuna, which was manned by narcos as they made their way through the Sierra. A journalist with Milenio TV told the new channel that at least eight armed individuals in combat fatigues stopped the journalists shortly after sunrise. The armed individuals checked for weapons and questioned the journalists’ reasons for traveling through the region. They also asked if the journalists cameras were turned off.
For his part, AMLO downplayed the detentions and existence of the roadblock, quipping to media from his chauffeured SUV: “Fortunately nothing happened,” he said. “There’s no problem. There was no fortunately no problem.” AMLO later acknowledged the existence of irregular checkpoints throughout Mexico, saying,
“There are in some places in the country, not only in Sinaloa, persons who are acting, thinking that they have to take care of a region, who don’t carry weapons, and sometimes there’s confusion, but, in general, everything is fine.”
A reporter later peppered the president with the question: “Criminal groups have control of the country?” to which AMLO responded, “No, no, no. That’s what conservatives think. … I’m not Felipe Calderón.” Upon returning to Mexico City, he blamed the stir over the roadblocks to adversaries – rather than condemning the roadblocks.. He also re-litigated the propriety of meeting with El Chapo’s mother, while touring the sierra in March 2020, insisting. “If she’s not being prosecuted and if she’s an elderly woman, a mother, she deserves total respect.”
- AMLO ALLY WARNS OF ‘NARCO GOVERNMENT’
Prominent lefty politician Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, meanwhile, voiced the suspicions of many Mexicans, when he publicly accused the López Obrador government of acting in cahoots with organized crime. Speaking at a conference of Latin American and Caribbean political parties June 1, Muñoz Ledo said of the president’s supposed links to organized crime:
“The president is going to finish his term. Time is already running out. He thinks that he can pass along his association with criminals to the next government and that this gives him greater power, because in addition to having the authority and resources of the federal government, these are added to those of drug trafficking, so there is nothing that can oppose him. ”
The accusations caused a stir in Mexico and followed the president’s trip weekend trip through the Sierra Madre Mountains and repeated overtures of courtesy and respect toward drug cartels. The accusations doubly caused a stir due to the source: Muñoz Ledo, a political heavyweight, co-founder of the PRD and former Mexican ambassador to the European Union. He’s also an elder statesman in AMLO’s own MORENA party and was the speaker of the lower house who administered the oath of office to AMLO in December 2018. In his discourse, Muñoz Ledo warned:
“A new king of the jungle has appeared: el narco, which has never-imagined powers and the use of money.”
- FORMER PRI PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE VOICES SIMILAR SUSPICIONS
Former PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida – who lost to Vicente Fox in 2000 – echoed Muñoz Ledo’s warnings of narco government. He told Aristegui Noticias, “There are indications, but not proof; indications that point to very suspicious government protection of drug trafficking.” He then asked, referring to El Chapo’s home municipality of Badiraguato, “Why go four times to a town of 5,000 people?”
For his part, AMLO denied the accusations of colluding with narcos, calling the comments “vulgar” and “low.”
Labastida’s claims seem to contradict with his previous stint as governor of Sinaloa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however – a time when suspicions of pacts between various levels of government and drug cartels were common. Adrián López, editor of the Sinaloa newspaper Noroeste, noted in a Twitter thread that when Labastida was governor of Sinaloa, “Manuel Félix Gallardo (arrested in Jalisco state in 1989 for the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in Guadalajara in 1985) was the most relevant drug trafficker in the country and one of the most wanted. In Sinaloa, the main security commanders worked for (Félix Gallardo). What did Gov. Labastida say then? ‘The informers failed me.’”
- CARAVAN SET TO DEPART TAPACHULA
Migrants stranded in the southern city of Tapachula have threatened to form a caravan and head for the U.S. border June 6 if Mexican immigration officials fail to provide them with documents for transiting the country. Press reports predict as many as 15,000 migrants could join the caravan, which would set out from Tapachula – near the border with Guatemala – and traverse the coastal highway toward the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where migrants traveling through Mexico usually turn northward to Veracruz and then onward to the capital and the U.S. border.
Caravans have formed for years in southern Mexico with participants perceiving increased protection by traveling in large numbers. Caravans in late 2018 captured international attention as more than 10,000 migrants wound their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico – along with Guatemala – have subsequently broken up caravans setting out from Central America or forming in Tapachula.
Thousands of migrants have been holed up in Tapachula at times since 2018, according to activists and Catholic priests working with migrants in the city. Still, some 14,000 Haitians arrived at the border town of Ciudad Acuña and crossed the Rio Grande into Del Rio, Texas, in September 2021 – prompting an activist for Haitians in Mexico to ask aloud: You get arrested immediately if you take one step out of Tapachula, but thousands of Haitians made it to the border.
Activists says the migrant population in Tapachula has changed somewhat with Venezuelans becoming the dominant group. Luis García Villagrán, director of the Centro de Dignificación Humana in Chiapas, told La Jornada:
“In Tapachula there are some 50,000 stranded migrants, but the poorest are those from Venezuelans at this time because those from Haiti … have now decided to stay in Mexico or at least wait for a response from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), because they are being deported from the United States.”
A Catholic priest whose parish regularly feeds migrants as they transit communities along Chiapas’ Pacific Coast described the caravans as acts of desperation, which, at minimum, get migrants out of Tapachula – where he says economic opportunities are scant. The government has also changed its strategy, he said, explaining:
“The caravans that have left recently, the government provided buses to transport them to different states in the country. With all of the caravans that have left, the government has provided transportation. They’ve taken them to different parts of the country.”