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
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."
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