Matamoros Was Once Relatively Safe for Texans. That Seems to Be Changing. (2024)

For the thousands of travelers who cross into Matamoros, Mexico, from Brownsville every day, the commute across the border requires a practiced vigilance. Since the days of Mexican bootleggers tunneling whiskey into Prohibition-era Texas, gangs in Matamoros have vied for control of cross-border contraband routes. Their battles are unpredictable and brutal, and, for those who travel to the city, the trick to stay safe has come down to a simple maxim: don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mexicans who live there summarize this same guidance in a different way: no seas estupido. (Don’t be stupid.)The most important rule is to cross the border during the day: northern neighborhoods, right along the wall, can get rough at night, but are typically safe in the midst of bustling traffic.Other rules range from the obvious—avoid flashing expensive watches or bags, and avoid driving a car with foreign plates or plates from a different Mexican state—to the more unique—don’t wear shorts, as locals don’t wear shorts.

For the past few years, this approach has worked in Matamoros, even as its home state of Tamaulipas has endured some of the worst violence in the hemisphere, as heavily armed factions of the balkanized Gulf Cartel battle for supremacy over various cities. In Reynosa, just up the Rio Grande from Matamoros and across the river from McAllen, many aid workers now avoid crossing altogether. However, Matamoros has enjoyed relative calm. It’s one of the few border cities where the U.S. State Department permits its employees to work. Every day, hundreds of Texan border residents cross into the city to visit family, get health care, or just grab a meal; thousands more cross the other direction, on a daily commute to work.

For fronterizos living on both sides of the border, however, assumptions that there were rules one could follow to improve safety were shattered on March 3. A group of four U.S. citizens, who said they were traveling from South Carolina for cheaper cosmetic surgery in Mexico, crossed the border in a white minivan just after 9 a.m. Moments after they gotinto Matamoros, in broad daylight and in full view of border traffic and cameras, a pickup truck rammed into their car, and masked men began to open fire. The armed men picked up the limp bodies of the minivan’s injured passengers, dragged them across the road, and tossed them into the bed of the pickup truck.

Everything about the kidnapping looked unusual. While murder and kidnappings are not uncommon in Matamoros, they’ve typically remained isolated to certain neighborhoods, much like crime in U.S. cities: violence is often committed among networks of perpetrators and victims who know each other. The incident on March 3, however, broke all the rules that cross-border travelers rely on to stay safe, and defied the assumption of some that U.S. citizens had little to fear.

A president of a private security company who has lived and worked in northern Mexico for more than a decade and requested anonymity to avoid alienating prospective Mexican clients, explained how strange the attack was. He said that, despite what you see in the movies, the cartels typically “don’t just go around open firing on random people.” In general, the only time they’ll risk a daylight balacera is when they’re fighting cops or rival cartels. And, typically, when cartels do injure someone, they don’t take them hostage where they’ll require nursing and an armed guard. Yet the attackers in Matamoros loaded the injured into their truck.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the kidnapping, however, was the prompt law enforcement response to it. In Matamoros, Mexican police acted with uncommon alacrity and arrested multiple suspects. Within days, two survivors were found in a shack, not far from the Gulf Coast; the other two had died from their injuries. Mexican authorities soon came across another crime scene, discovering a group of five suspected gang members, bound apparently by their own comrades, dumped in the street with a note from one of Matamoros’s major gangs apologizing for the attack on U.S. citizens.

The prompt investigation stands in contrast to the typical law enforcement response when South Texans go missing in Mexican border states. While some of the more disciplined, larger cartels have, at times, avoided attacking U.S. citizens altogether (to avoid the sort of crackdown that occurred after the Matamoros attack), more than 550 U.S. citizens are currently missing in Mexico, according to numbers reported by the Mexican federal government. Since the beginning of 2022, 144 Americans have gone missing in the country, but only 73 have been found (six of whom were found dead). Americans who’ve gone missing in three of the four Mexican states that border Texas account for one third of all Americans who’ve gone missing in all 32 Mexican states since 2022; Nuevo León, the state south of Laredo, was the most common place for U.S. Citizens to go missing, followed by Tamaulipas. The only two states for which the U.S. State Department has not issued a travel advisory are Campeche and Yucatan state, on the white beaches in the southeast.

For most of the families of those Americans seeking relief, the response from the U.S. government was: go take it up with the Mexicans. If you’re a U.S. citizen, and you go missing in Mexico—especially if you’re a working-class border resident—the Blackhawks and Delta Force are not coming to save you.

Take, for example, a border kidnapping less than two weeks before the attack in Matamoros. In late February, three women from Peñitas, a Texan border town on the outskirts of McAllen, crossed the river to sell clothes at a pulga in Montemorelos, a town that’s about a three-hour drive south of the border in the Mexican state of Nuevo León. As one of the women’s husbands talked to her on the phone while she drove, she suddenly stopped replying. The three women—sisters Marina Perez Rios and Maritza Trinidad Perez Rios and their friend Dora Alicia Cervantes Saenz—have not been heard from since.

In contrast to the massive manhunt after the kidnapping in Matamoros, the three Peñitas women have gotten little media attention and seemingly little government action. The FBI told reporters that the agency had been “notified” of their disappearance, and that local authorities in Nuevo León are investigating. Unlike the attack in Matamoros, there was no spectacular video to accompany the women’s disappearance. And, unlike the four Americans from South Carolina, each of the Peñitas women were of Mexican descent. U.S. audiences, experts who study violence say, have grown calloused and apathetic to what they view as Mexicans killed by Mexicans.

The Mexican government seems to have adopted a similar attitude. As shocking as the number of missing Americans might seem, it pales beside the more than 100,000 Mexican citizens currently missing in Mexico. In fact, many Mexicans expressed outrage that the four Americans who were recently shot and grabbed in Matamoros got so much official attention when missing Mexicans get so little.

The security company president said that travelers such as the Peñitas women are often explicit targets of smaller, more violent gangs. “Americans of Mexican heritage are the most exposed people ever [when they travel into Mexico],” he said. “They’re perceived as those who got away, to the land of milk and honey. There’s the perception of wealth.” Because Mexican Americans often have family on both sides of the border, they’re seen by criminals as lucrative kidnapping victims: they can extort money out of family members on the U.S. side and threaten family members on the Mexican side. And they can do it all in Spanish.

The attack in Matamoros might signal that the recent calm in the city could now be under threat. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University and one of the foremost experts on Tamaulipas organized crime, said that much of the violence in the state is a result of a fracture in the once-dominant Gulf Cartel.

Founded by the charismatic alcohol bootlegger Juan Nepomuceno Guerra in the 1930s, the Gulf Cartel is one of the oldest in Mexico, and for decades it defined the word cartel: it controlled every part of the drug trade in Tamaulipas, from production to smuggling to distribution in the U.S. However, by the 2000s, the narco group began to lose its hold on the state. Violence exploded when its notorious armed enforcers, los Zetas (the Zs), broke off and formed their own hyper-violent gang. The remaining Gulf Cartel members broke into factions, with names including los Ciclones (the Cyclones) and los Escorpiones (the Scorpions). The ensuing turf war horrified Mexico with some of the most gruesome scenes in its history. In 2010, the bodies of 72 Central Americans killed by the Zetas were found in a mass grave in San Fernando, about 80 miles south of Matamoros. The next year, gunmen kidnapped almost 200 mainly Central American migrant bus passengers in one mass kidnapping, beat them to death, and buried them in a series of mass graves on ranches just south of Texas.

The relative stability that Matamoros has had in recent years might come from the dynamics of this turf war. Correa-Cabrera said, in a perverse bit of irony, that a single faction—the remnants of the Cárdenas clan, the last family to control the entire Gulf Cartel— solidified control in Matamoros, ushering in a pax narcotica, a relative peace.

Since the new year, however, reports of gang members extorting locals have risen in Matamoros, indicating that the faction might be fending off a challenge to its territory. The high-profile attack on U.S. citizens earlier this month could have been a symptom of a new turf war. If that’s the case, Matamoros might descend into the same level of instability that plagues the rest of Tamaulipas in cities such as Reynosa, where gangs operate with near-total impunity.

According to Correa-Cabrera, many Tejano border residents have adopted a simple strategy in response: “They do not cross anymore. That is how they stay safe.” Correa-Cabrera, who used to teach at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, said she has friends in South Texas who will no longer visit family or go shopping in Tamaulipas. I’ve heard the same from residents across the border.

While Texans and other U.S. residents can make the hard decision to avoid Mexico, those who live in Matamoros have no choice. In the same attack on the four Americans on March 3, a Mexican woman was also killed: 33-year-old Areli Pablo Servando fell to a stray bullet. “She has not gotten the same attention,” Correa-Cabrera said. “Her death is not even mentioned by many other outlets.”

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Matamoros Was Once Relatively Safe for Texans. That Seems to Be Changing. (2024)


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