Mexico’s Deadly Drug War Spreads South To Resort City Of Veracruz

Once bustling with tourists, the port city of Veracruz has become a new battleground for drug cartels. The arrival of the mysterious Mata-Zetas (Zeta Killers) has left hundreds dead, scared off visitors and raised questions about just how much the local g

Mexican tourism has been hit hard by the drug war (ANGELOUX)
Mexican tourism has been hit hard by the drug war (ANGELOUX)
Frédéric Saliba

VERACRUZ At the Plaza Las Americas mall in the city of Veracruz, the employees are scared. A month ago, someone dumped 35 naked and tortured bodies in two vans just steps from the shops. "All of our customers left," says a saleswoman. "It was horrific."

On the Malecón, the promenade that runs along the harbor, masked and helmeted soldiers carrying rifles disturb the lazy ambiance of the tropical resort. Since early October, the government has sent major military and police reinforcements to the region in an attempt to end what has been an unprecedented wave of violence. In the last month alone, hundreds of bodies have been found in Veracruz and Boca del Rio, which form a metropolitan area of roughly 700,000 inhabitants.

The authorities attribute the killings to a new gang, the Mata-Zetas (Zeta Killers), of which eight members were arrested on Oct. 7. The gang is suspected of being linked to the Sinaloa cartel. It made its debut this summer by posting videos online announcing its commitment to eradicating the Zetas, another notorious gang.

With its three ports and more than 700 km of coastline, the state and city of Veracruz represent a strategic area for the trafficking of both drugs and people – illegal immigrants from Central America – to the United States.

"The Zetas, who are former members of elite military groups, control the area. They have infiltrated the local government, police and customs. They extort money from traders while also maintaining public order," says Rosa Maria Hernandez, deputy editor of a regional daily newspaper. "But since the arrival of the new governor in December 2010, the Sinaloa cartel has tried to take over the place."

Hernandez keeps her voice low. "The cartels have informants everywhere," she says.

The city's troubles have also been fueled by controversy over the identity of the Mata-Zetas. "In terms of their methods they are paramilitaries," explains one anonymous source familiar with organized crime in Mexico. "Their men are highly trained, and act as death squads with the support of local authorities." The source suspects the Mata-Zetas are also being sanctioned by the Mexican and U.S. governments, which hope the new gang will restore balance to the region's drug trafficking by supporting the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful force against the Zetas.

A lack of reliable information

The governor of the state of Veracruz, Javier Duarte de Ochoa, insists otherwise. "In the eyes of the authorities, the Mata-Zetas are criminals just like any others," he said.

Still, many in the region suspect the state government isn't being completely up front when it comes to the many murders being attributed to the Mata-Zetas. On Oct. 6, social media networks began reporting the discovery of more than 30 bodies. The government denied these figures, stating that only four bodies were found. "We have not yet received an official confirmation from the army," said Georgina Dominguez, spokesman for the state government.

Why the huge discrepancy? While some see it as evidence of government ties to the mysterious Mata-Zetas, others, including Rafael Ugarte, a forensic medicine researcher at the Institute of Regional Studies, say the government is just trying to downplay the violence in order to reassure investors and keep the public calm.

The official press hasn't been much help in clearing up the confusion. Self-censorship abounds as reporters avoid digging too deeply into the murders – out of fear of reprisals. In July, two journalists of the regional daily Notiver were killed. One was with his wife and 21-year-old son, who were also murdered. "I myself have received threats," says Rosa Maria Hernandez.

The lack of official information feeds the constantly churning rumor mill. "People use social networks to warn each other of violence, and this leads to abuses," says Edgar Gonzalez, a sociologist at the University of Veracruz.

In late August, a former staff member and a professor of mathematics used their Twitter and Facebook accounts to publish a false story about an attack on drug traffickers in the schools of Veracruz. "Like hundreds of other parents, I panicked and rushed to pick up my seven-year-old son," says Maria Martinez, whose child attends a primary school in the city center.

Accused of "terrorism" and "sabotage," the authors of the false story were arrested the next day on charges that could have put them behind bars for 30 years. They were released in late September, however, under pressure from organizations defending freedom of expression. Still, the case prompted the state Congress to pass legislation making it an offense to "disrupt public order" through social networks – a crime now punishable by one to four years in prison.

Also taking note of the poisonous atmosphere in Veracruz are would-be tourists, who are simply staying clear of the place. Bars and restaurants in the tourist area, which are usually animated, now remain empty at night. Even during the day, the breezy front patio of La Parroquia, a famous coffee shop, is nearly deserted. The same goes for the hotels. "We have 10,000 rooms, and we are only at 35% capacity," says Ezequiel Guzman, president of the Association of Hotels and Motels in Veracruz. "If this continues, the sector will need to lay off more than 5,000 workers."

Read more from Le Monde in French


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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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