Criminals in Mexico violated their unwritten rule: Leave Americans alone

Criminals in Mexico violated their unwritten rule: Leave Americans alone

Soldiers patrol outside the Forensic Medical Service morgue building in Matamoros, Mexico, March 8, 2023. (Alejandro Segara/The New York Times)

Five men were left prostrate on the sidewalk outside their black pickup truck, their shirts pulled over their heads, bare torsos pressed to the ground, their bound hands spread out in front of them almost in prayer.

The handwritten letter on the truck’s windshield read a formal, albeit chilling and extraordinary apology: The Gulf Cartel Scorpion group was deeply saddened that its members had accidentally shot and killed two Americans and a Mexican pedestrian while kidnapping two other US citizens.

The letter said the persons are being recommended to the authorities for correction for disturbing the peace. On Friday, Mexican prosecutors charged five people in connection with the kidnapping and murder.

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While Mexican drug cartels thrive in the law-and-order vacuum inside Mexico, there is one unspoken rule that many members of organized crime groups are careful not to cross: Don’t touch Americans.

The United States takes attacks on its citizens seriously, and the response to such violence on both sides of the border can be devastating for Mexican criminal groups.

“When American citizens are targeted, it brings pressure on the U.S. government, they get their security agencies involved, and then they start pressuring Mexico to act,” said Mexico security researcher Cecilia Farfán Mendez of the University of California, San Diego.

“The worst thing for the cartels is that they have to devote resources to dealing with Mexican authorities who mostly leave them alone,” he added. “It’s not good for business.”

Cartels can often outwit Mexican authorities or simply buy their cooperation, but they know that provoking the US government into action can hamper their ability to operate. And in recent years, organized crime has come to depend on the Mexican government’s inability to effectively control it.

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, came into office promising a new approach to curbing violence: avoiding direct confrontation with criminal groups in favor of tackling the root causes of crime, such as corruption and poverty.

But his strategy, which he has branded with the slogan “hugs, not bullets,” has failed to curb unusual levels of violence or reduce the ever-expanding power of cartels that transport drugs and migrants across the U.S. border and terrorize Mexicans at home.

In many communities, Mexicans live in fear of criminal gangs who commit daily acts of violence that attract little attention outside the country. And while the cartels deliberately avoid targeting Americans, their business model relies on shipping drugs north that has contributed to the epidemic of drug deaths in the United States.

The Biden administration has been reluctant to publicly criticize Lopez Obrador, wary of threatening his cooperation on immigration, including security issues in Mexico.

But last week’s attack on four Americans has become an international scandal, increasing pressure on the US government to do more to combat crime south of the border and prompting calls from Republican lawmakers to allow the US military to fight cartels.

The calls sparked an outcry in Mexico, with officials demanding that the US government respect their sovereignty, but forcing the Mexican government to respond. This week, hundreds of additional Mexican security forces were deployed to Matamoros, the border city where the attack on the four Americans took place.

This kind of outsized attention is precisely what criminal groups want to avoid, and they have left American citizens alone since the 1985 kidnapping, torture, and brutal murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena, who disrupted and drew cartel operations at the time. Their bloody rage.

Camarena’s mutilated body was found wrapped in a plastic bag on a farm in western Mexico, his hands and feet bound and his face unrecognizable after being stabbed multiple times with a blunt object.

In search of justice, the DEA launched Operation Legend, one of the largest homicide investigations undertaken by the agency, which revealed that Mexican authorities covered up Camarena’s murder and destroyed valuable evidence. The operation led to the arrest of cartel members and forced others into hiding.

The message was clear: Pursuing American law enforcement agents would have far-reaching consequences for criminals and their associates in the Mexican government.

The cartels eventually learned that even accidentally killing US citizens could be costly.

In 2019, an organized crime group opened fire on Americans and Mexicans who were driving through the northern state of Sonora, part of a Mormon group living in Mexico, killing three women and six children. Some of the victims were burned alive in their cars, about 70 miles south of the US border.

Later, several people were arrested, including a Mexican police chief believed to be protecting local criminal groups. The Mexican government claimed the deadly attack was a case of mistaken identity and related to a clash between two criminal groups vying for control.

This week, Mexican authorities were said to be considering a similar explanation for the kidnapping and killing of Americans in Matamoros, investigating whether it was another case of mistaken identity.

Those who live in Matamoros, which is part of the state of Tamaulipas and sits across the Rio Grande from the southernmost tip of Texas, endure daily bursts of violence that have consumed life here since criminal organizations began to consolidate control of the city.

What happened to Americans is what they face every day, Matamoros residents said, when dropping their children off at school, buying groceries or driving to work.

But what set this case apart, they said with sadness and anger, was the immense attention and quest for justice it received because of the victims’ nationalities.

“Who is talking about the woman who died here? Nobody,” said Alberto Salinas, referring to the Mexican who was shot and killed during the attack. Salinas owns a home next door to where the attack happened, but was elsewhere at the time.

Tamaulipas is generally dominated by the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest criminal organizations, but is carved into various factions of criminal groups. Even if factions belong to the same dominant group, they are not always aligned.

Local leaders are usually wary of who might encroach on their territory. The Scorpions group, which claims to have written the letter, originated as a special force that protected a former Gulf cartel leader, said Jesus Perez Caballero, a security expert and professor at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Matamoros.

While Mexicans often find cartel letters accompanying bodies, the note left this week was rare because it left five people alive who were found with it.

Criminal organizations police their own members, experts say, especially if they draw too much attention to the group’s activities.

The aim is to keep the men alive by ensuring they give statements to investigators that support the narrative that the cartel did not order the attack. Low-level members of such groups sometimes act on their own, although it is unclear what actually happened in these cases.

“A lot of times traumatized people try to show their worth to people with more power, and they go it alone and if it works, it works,” Perez Caballero said. “And if it goes wrong, well, it goes wrong.”

© 2023 The New York Times Company

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