Ghost Town

The crossfire of drug-related violence is rendering farming towns along the U.S.-Mexico border virtually uninhabitable. Texas Monthly staff writer Cecilia Balli, a 2010 Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, reports on residents of one border town who live amid escalating terror.

Note: This piece is reprinted with permission from the February 2011 edition of Texas Monthly. Read a Q&A with Ballí about this article and her work here.

The Bad Ones came to town around eight o’clock on a cold February evening and no one was prepared. When the gunfire and the explosions began, panic coursed through the narrow streets and spilled into the small cement and cinder-block homes where families were warming their dinners. Children cried, doors and windows slammed shut, people dropped to the ground. They closed their eyes and felt their hearts race.

Outside they could hear the ceaseless spitting of AK-47’s and .50-caliber sniper rifles, the thunder of blasting grenades. Just three miles south of the Rio Grande, the Mexican town of Ciudad Mier would never be the same.

It’s not like the Bad Ones—this is what the Mierenses would come to call them—hadn’t been there already. It’s not like they hadn’t been running their operations out of Mier and the surrounding towns, carrying their loads of cocaine and marijuana through the surrounding brushland and up to the lip of the river, where they placed them on boats or rafts or inner tubes and floated them across into Texas. Even if no one spoke of them by name, they were already deeply woven into the social fabric. But on this day, they came like an invading army. The following morning, on February 23, the onslaught resumed before the sun had even risen. Forty SUVs swarmed the local police station.

Armed to the teeth, dozens of men descended and forced their way in, taking every one of the officers, confiscating files, radios, and weapons. Then they scattered about town, setting houses on fire. Word spread that they were kidnapping dozens of people, perhaps entire families. It took more than three hours for the military to respond, and when soldiers finally confronted the men, bodies fell on both sides.

As people would come to tell it, that was the day, one year ago this month, “when the war began.” Thirty-five days before, 63 miles away, one man had killed another in the border city of Reynosa, and now it was raining fire. The murder was the culmination of more than a year of tension between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. Although the Zetas, originally a group of deserters from the Mexican army’s special forces, had begun as the enforcement arm of the Gulf, they gradually gained clout after 2003, when the Gulf’s leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, was arrested. By 2008, they were an organization in their own right, operating alongside the Gulf in an alliance known as the Company.

While both groups held ground in the larger cities, the area around Mier became more tightly controlled by the Zetas. Then the tension exploded. The man who had been killed in Reynosa was a plaza boss for the Zetas, managing the flow of drugs through the city. The Zetas demanded the killer, but the Gulf refused. That is how the war began.

After the explosions subsided, Mayor José Iván Mancillas Hinojosa phoned the governor of Tamaulipas and begged for help. But the reinforcements would take nine months to arrive. The state had been embroiled in conflict ever since President Felipe Calderón, who had declared war on the cartels immediately following his inauguration, in 2006, had unleashed the marines on the Gulf and the Zetas. But now it became a three-way battle that would bring Tamaulipas to its knees. The same days that Mier was attacked by the Gulf last February, the cities of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo and the towns of Valle Hermoso, Díaz Ordaz, Camargo, and Miguel Alemán all experienced terrifying gun battles. Over the next months, decapitated and dismembered bodies appeared hanging from trees and utility poles. The severed head of a state police commander was delivered to a military post. Banners were strung in which the Gulf cartel exhorted the government to step aside and allow them to wipe out the Zetas, since “poison can only be combated with poison.”

For the average resident in Mier whose life was not directly touched by the drug trade, the Zetas and the Gulf cartel were one and the same: Los Malos, “the Bad Ones.” But now Mier became a battleground between the two. Throughout that spring, summer, and fall, the townspeople would have to withstand more gunfights, each lasting six, seven, eight hours at a time. The police station was bombed. The buildings became so severely scarred by repeated rounds from AK-47’s and heavy-caliber rifles that they began to look like sieves. Then, on November 5, in Matamoros, marines tracked down one of the Gulf’s top leaders, Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, a.k.a. Tony Tormenta, and killed him. The Zetas saw an opportunity to regain the upper hand in Mier. The same day that Cárdenas fell, word spread that the Bad Ones were out in the streets, shouting for all Mierenses to leave town or be killed. Of the families who remained, hundreds panicked and fled, leaving behind only those who were too frail to move.

Those who had visas crossed into Texas. Others crowded in with friends in nearby Miguel Alemán, where the mayor set up a temporary shelter in the Lions Club for some five hundred people who had no place to go. Relief aid trickled in. Then the journalists came, Mexican and American, and wrote stories that described the shelter as the first for drug war “refugees” in Mexico. On November 20 the Wall Street Journal suggested that Tamaulipas was a failed state.

This was a public relations disaster for the federal government, which was still reveling in the killing of Cárdenas. Its strategy of targeting cartel leaders had once again unleashed a wave of violence, and it had no plan for containing the resulting unrest in Mier and across Tamaulipas. So four days later, officials announced a new mission, dubbed Coordinated Operation Northeast, which would finally send additional troops and federal police to the state (and to neighboring Nuevo León, where the Gulf and Zetas were also fighting). It had taken them three weeks to respond to the mass exodus of Mier, a town of 6,500 citizens. But just five days after the reinforcements arrived, a spokesman for Calderón declared that crime in Tamaulipas was down by almost half. Then came the order to shut down the shelter, since, according to the government, it was safe for the Mierenses to go home.

* * *

Although Mier is a few miles from the Rio Grande, it has no “twin city” on the Texas side and no international bridge. To get there, you cross upriver at Falcon Dam or downriver at the Roma toll bridge and proceed along Mexican Federal Highway 2, which parallels the border. The drive takes less than fifteen minutes from the crossings, but it can quickly feel desolate. They call this region La Ribereña, “land of the river,” a long, narrow strip of territory bound by the highway and the Rio Grande and running from Nuevo Laredo down to Matamoros and the Gulf of Mexico. The 150-mile stretch between Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa is more affectionately known as La Frontera Chica, “the small frontier.” The four towns along it—Guerrero, Mier, Miguel Alemán, and Camargo—are small in population but rich in history. Along with Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, they form the cradle of the borderlands: More than 250 years ago, when the river was not yet an international boundary, Spanish colonizers founded three of the towns (Miguel Alemán came later), and the newly landed families dispersed north and south. Today all the longtime Mexican American families of South Texas can trace their roots to one of these settlements. Yet the vastness of the area, its proximity to the international line, and the rugged and desolate terrain make it a prime spot for drug smuggling. Most of the drugs that enter South Texas come through here; once on American soil, they get transported up to Laredo or down to McAllen, then stuffed into hidden compartments in cars and trucks or mingled with legitimate goods in tractor-trailers and rolled out north to an insatiable market.

In early December, a day after the shelter had been shuttered and the families had supposedly returned to Mier, I visited the town with a friend whose ancestors were from there. I had already looked at photos of the scorched buildings, the pockmarked walls, the charred hulks of trucks, the shattered windows everywhere. But seeing the entire landscape of devastation in person left me speechless. I had reported from Nuevo Laredo in 2005 and Ciudad Juárez in 2009, when each border city was considered the most unstable in Mexico due to drug violence. Yet Mier was the first place I’d seen that embodied the true meaning of “war.” As we drove into town, dozens of soldiers stood guard at a checkpoint, some of them hiding behind piles of sandbags with mounted rifles. No signs of normal life remained, even on a sunny Saturday at noon: On the surface, Mier appeared all but empty. Occasionally a car or pickup truck rattled down the desolate streets, breaking the silence. Up ahead of us, two soldiers waded through knee-high weeds that had sprouted in a lot where only the blackened skeleton of a building remained.

Turning down a side street, I glimpsed a flash of life. Two older women were hunched over, vigorously sweeping the ground outside their house, which stood between buildings that had been ravaged by fire. I rolled down my window and asked for directions to the main plaza and whether it was safe to drive there. “I can’t assure you of anything right now,” one of them replied. I told her that we were looking for a friend of a friend who lived there; the woman recognized the name, but she informed us that the person had left town months before. I said that we were journalists and asked if she might let us inside her home to chat. She seemed to frown, so I started to explain that I didn’t want to be seen with my notebook, but a military convoy rolled by just then and slowed to a crawl, the soldiers eyeing us suspiciously. The woman motioned for us to park and follow her inside.

She was in her fifties and had a solemn, self-restrained presence. I’ll call her Romelia. She quickly offered me a chair and a glass of water. The other woman turned out to be her older sister, Lupita. Lupita’s daughter, Marta, also joined us, and then Lupita’s husband, Lorenzo, and their son. The five adults sat or stood around the kitchen and studied us quietly. The room was small and immaculate, its brown floor tiles shining. On the white plastic dining table, a corner altar remembered a niece and nephew who had died too soon.

“We don’t have anything to say,” Romelia began, evidently fearful and distrusting. “The facts speak for themselves.” Lupita agreed. She was dressed in brown, knitted short pants, and her gray hair was pulled back in a tiny ponytail. “Words aren’t necessary,” she said, in a deep, commanding voice that belied her wiry frame. “You’ve seen the images. The houses burned, the streets emptied out, the people leaving? Whatever we have to say is irrelevant.”

Despite their initial hesitance to talk, a story gradually unfolded. This particular family’s misfortunes had begun when five SUVs pulled up outside their home and the Bad Ones started to torch the house next door. The family panicked, but the criminals stayed outside, leaving them no escape route. Their only alternative was to hide and pray. They crammed Lorenzo, the oldest family member, into a small closet. They could hear the laughter of the men outside as the building was engulfed in flames. Why had the house been targeted? The second floor was being expanded and the garage sported an elaborate wrought-iron gate—maybe its owners were involved in the trade and had ended up on the wrong side of the war. If so, Romelia’s family didn’t care, and they certainly didn’t ask. That was a commandment in border towns like Mier.

Hiding soon became their way of life. Whenever shooting would erupt, everyone hit the floor. The gunfire sometimes lasted for hours. The local police were gone and the state police had pulled out—the city was defenseless. Although soldiers from a nearby regiment occasionally patrolled the streets, the criminals would return as soon as they left. And so Romelia, Lupita, Lorenzo, and their families began to live with the rituals of war. They locked themselves in by six every evening, having gathered enough water to last through the night, because they knew the city’s water pump was too dangerous for work crews to get to after dark. The violence always felt as if it were inching closer. “Even the dogs don’t bark anymore when they hear the shots,” Romelia said. “The animals hide.”

More than 100 people, perhaps as many as 140, had disappeared. (One story told of a young woman who had been dating a trafficker; when the Bad Ones came to get her, her parents clung to her in desperation and all three were whisked away.) Both roads that led out of town—Highway 2, along the border, and Highway 54, heading to the industrial and commercial capital of Monterrey—were impassable: The criminals hijacked cars, sacked tractor-trailers, and ambushed one another. The local economy was dead. Americans had always come in the fall and winter to hunt doves and white-tailed deer, but this year they had stayed home. Many of the ranches, the region’s largest industry, had been appropriated by the cartels. (Statewide some five hundred ranches had ceased to operate.) Cows were left to die; some of the ranchers who had risked visiting their properties had never made it back home. Pemex, the government-owned petroleum company that had reliably propped up the local economy with its natural gas exploration, had pulled out all of its workers after some were kidnapped. And dozens of businesses were shuttered: restaurants, hotels, money exchanges, grocery stores, travel agencies, pharmacies, building supply stores, phone companies, gas stations, health clinics, auto repair shops—all of them had closed, having been ransacked, burned, or damaged from gunfire. On the day I visited, only two small grocery stores and a boot shop remained in business.

Families watched their income dissolve. Marta had earned a living making cakes and tamales for family banquets, but who was having parties anymore? Her husband had worked as a welder, but who could afford security bars these days? Jobless, she had sold her car so she’d have enough money to move temporarily to Matamoros, where she hoped to find employment. After she’d spent six weeks there, however, her father-in-law went missing when he visited a ranch to sell some cows. Marta had returned to Mier to be near her mother-in-law, who was slowly losing the will to live. “We’ve been unemployed for nine months,” she told me, exasperated. She had hazel eyes and fair skin and was dressed in aqua-blue sweatpants—the same sweatpants she wore every day, she told me. When I asked what the family was living off of, her mother chimed in, “From the food provided by the DIF [a federal assistance program] and our relatives in the United States.”

Lupita had spent thirteen days in the shelter in Miguel Alemán, but she had felt depression taking hold, and a doctor had diagnosed her with nervous colitis. So she had gone back home to Mier. The family didn’t have the wherewithal to leave for another Mexican city, and crossing the border to join their relatives in Texas would have required renewing their border-crossing visas, which would mean proving their financial solvency to the U.S. consulate and coughing up almost $200. It might as well have been $2 million. “They changed our life,” Marta said, her eyes growing wet. “They changed our whole life.”

* * *

Two days later, safety would return, if only temporarily, when the streets of Mier were flooded with one thousand federal police and army and navy troops. They did not come to stay but to protect the governor of Tamaulipas, Eugenio Hernández Flores, and the Mexican minister of the interior, Francisco Blake Mora, who were visiting to determine what kinds of interventions were needed. Although the population was down to about one thousand, more than a hundred families lined the cobblestone streets near the main plaza, which is graced on the south by the Church of the Most Pure Conception, a gorgeous structure built in 1755, with a handsome carved sandstone facade. The church had been one of the main reasons that, in 2007, the Mexican tourism department had named Mier a pueblo mágico, a “magical town,” because of its rich history and culture. These days the joke was that the town was magical because of how easily people disappeared.

After a six-hour wait, the townspeople finally spotted a helicopter preparing to land. The distinguished visitors boarded an armored SUV and took a short tour of the wreckage before arriving at the main plaza. Handsome, blue-eyed, smiling widely, and dressed smartly in a white shirt and black designer jacket, the governor acknowledged the crowd. Behind him, in a white windbreaker, the minister appeared somber, more reserved. The townspeople contemplated the men respectfully for a brief moment. Then, one by one, the voices that had been silent since February began to rise from the crowd.

“Every family has a relative that’s disappeared. Why did it take you nine months to get here?” “My son was killed and my husband is disappeared!” “We want military vigilance!” “We want the soldiers to stay, but we want them to defend us, not to hide in their barracks like they do every time the shooting starts!” “There’s no security, but we also want work. There are no jobs!”

One woman’s voice grew so hoarse from screaming that it was hard to make out what she was saying: “ . . . living in terror during the night! . . . We haven’t had water!” The governor seemed unmoved by her cries; he glanced at someone else and smirked. Minutes later, an elderly woman in a pink shawl politely attempted to get his attention. “My grandson,” she told him in a small voice. “His pharmacy is closed. He doesn’t have any work.” The governor scanned the crowd distractedly and said, “Yes, I can imagine.”

A local online news columnist would later describe the promises made that afternoon with a penetrating world-weariness: “Security as long as necessary, credits for business owners, temporary jobs, ranching subsidies, thorough investigation of disappearances, rule of law, the full weight of authority, cooperation among the three levels of government, frontal attack on organized crime, blah, blah, blah.”

* * *

Romelia and her family wanted these things too, and they hoped the government would deliver this time. On the day I visited Mier, as we sat shuttered in their small home, I had turned to Lupita and asked how long she and Lorenzo had been married. Fifty years, she had replied proudly. They had celebrated their anniversary on September 15, the same night that Mexico had marked two hundred years of independence. She recounted how she and Lorenzo had met in singing contests when they were young, how they had fallen for each other’s voices. Then she offered to sing us the tune her husband had performed the day he had won her heart.

She grabbed a green plastic chair and pulled it up close to her old man, who was resting his hand on a cane. He grinned broadly as she began the melody, then immediately jumped in with a harmony, his raspy voice melding perfectly with hers, as if they had never stopped singing. It was a classic by José Alfredo Jiménez. As they sang, their voices filled the room and spilled out onto the quiet street, and their grandchildren, who had been playing outside, gathered around the screen door to listen.

What a beautiful love

What a beautiful sky
What a beautiful moon
What a beautiful sun.
What a beautiful love
I hold it dearly
Because it feels
Everything that I feel.