The “Town of Death” in northeast Mexico, 90 miles south of Texas, is to know the ironies of Mexico’s public image: a lot of illusions, a lot of good people trapped in bad circumstances — and a lot of disconnect when it’s all viewed from the United States.
San Fernando, the now-notorious Mexican farming center only two hours from Brownsville, Texas, near the Gulf of Mexico, has in the past 13 months made Mexican history. Since August 2010, San Fernando has suffered the largest mass executions of trapped civilians not only in the “drug war” of this decade but in modern Mexico’s lifetime, arguably dwarfing anything since the Mexican Revolution closed in 1920.
Last year, Mexico’s least-restrained drug trafficking cartel, the Zetas, began using the rural crossroads at San Fernando as a staging area for unparalleled — and largely unexplained — atrocities. There was a cold-blooded targeting of arbitrary pawns, seeming to actively cultivate a reputation for naked menace.
But in early April this took a twist. The massacre sprees ended — and a new complication was added to San Fernando’s image, arriving by ponderous stages.
First, in August 2010, the atrocity series started with the lead-off Zetas massacre (an almost inconceivable 72 dead). And this brought only ambivalent government feints in response. So the pattern festered. By March-April of this year (with at least 193 more victims found in mass graves) things had gone from bad to worse in San Fernando — which caused the scales to finally tip. At last, the beleaguered Mexican government was moved to focus its resources massively and win an impressive victory — which then remained almost invisible in the United States.
The tipping point, in early April, came as new horror stories were confirmed. The Zetas had begun going so far as to kill non-criminal Mexican bystanders in a kind of assembly line of gore, using sledgehammer blows (thriftily saving bullets). Amid such horrors, any previous central-government qualms about meddling in provincial affairs were swept away. By late June, so many troops and federal police had surged into San Fernando’s forbidding landscape that the seemingly impossible occurred:
Quiet. Suddenly, arrogant and long-standing signs of Zeta presence — the pickups or SUVs openly cruising with brandished heavy weapons — were gone from the streets. Where had the Zetas gone? More than 80 were reportedly arrested. Others seemed to evaporate, either fading into the populace or fleeing west or south beyond the surge area. The last dim report of a carjacking on the “Highway of Death” through San Fernando (Mexican Federal Highway 101) seemed to come in July.
Deep fear — and very real danger — still remained, but for the shell-shocked people of San Fernando, things had definitely changed. I went there in September, and the place was visibly more relaxed. A few days later the Spanish news agency EFE confirmed a similar improved picture in the same region, but closer to the border, at Ciudad Mier more than 150 miles northeast of San Fernando. These visits were media exceptions, however. What might be called the Massacre Zone, a 200-mile block of borderland leading out to the Gulf, has come to be viewed as impossibly dangerous by news organizations, leaving it mostly in darkness, uninvestigated.
Thus there are few observers to note what is in effect a triumph by government forces. Nor is the Mexican government itself quick to shout its own victory. For one thing, the move entails an affront to Mexico’s division of local-state-federal power. The feds found themselves forced (the sledgehammers were not subtle invitations) to surge into 22 city-county units, including San Fernando, as a reported 2,500 troops and federal officers kicked out and replaced local police. In San Fernando 17 local officers were arrested outright as Zeta henchmen and possible massacre participants. The rest were sacked, while state police in fatigues and troop trucks laden with Mexican marines or soldiers became the icons of law and order.
The new peace in San Fernando, however, imperfect contrasts with some statements in U.S. Congress. On September 13, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla) called for current policy on Mexico to be scrapped because “there is an insurgency taking place in Mexico along the U.S. border” — conjuring images of thousands of ideological guerrillas, a la Pancho Villa, setting up utopian mini-states. San Fernando’s reality is the reverse: convoys of drug thugs aren’t a mass movement, and what’s more they’ve been run out of their outlaw’s roost.
The retaking of San Fernando fits an old pattern. A year earlier and more than a thousand miles west, a smaller outlaw’s roost — though still painful for trapped locals — festered just south of the Arizona border (Arizona media, fixated on immigration chimera, rarely noticed such features over in Mexico). The Cerro Prieto stronghold finally forced a troop surge after a cartel battle on July 1, 2010, killed at least 21 pistoleros. There had been desperate cries for help earlier, but a high-visibility crisis seemed to be required to spur military action. This dynamic of reactive rather than pro-active force can be seen back through history and down through neighboring nations in Central America, where military bodies have been burned by politics. In Mexico, San Fernando suggests, unexplained slowness in restoring order doesn’t mean the capability isn’t there — at least with regard to relatively small hideouts like San Fernando.