Tamaulipas: 'Failed state' in Mexico's war on drugs

Forensic workers carry a body found in a mass grave in Matamoros, 11 April 2011 Forensic experts say the number of dead could rise further as they continue to excavate the area

The discovery of at least 116 bodies in mass graves in the north-eastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas has become the most gruesome incident in the country's four-year war against drug cartels.

The city of San Fernando, about 150km (93 miles) from the border with Texas, has previously been hit by drug-related violence on a massive scale and efforts to control the situation there appear futile.

Last August the bodies of 72 Central and South American migrants were found on the outskirts of the city.

The migrants, making their way to the border, were killed by drug gang members after they refused to work for them.

'Haven for traffickers'

The federal government deployed hundreds more troops in the area and promised to improve the security situation.

But less than eight months later an even deadlier massacre has taken place in the same spot, allegedly after passengers on long distance buses were kidnapped by the Zetas, one of Mexico's most violent drug cartels.

Start Quote

Criminal groups are more effective at collecting 'taxes' than Tamaulipas' own government”

End Quote Alberto Islas Security analyst, Mexico City

These tragedies, along with the targeted killings of top officials and members of the security forces, are fuelling thoughts of Tamaulipas as a possible "failed state" within Mexico - a haven for drug traffickers, people smugglers and criminals of all kinds.

The federal government strongly rejects this view.

But state governor Egidio Torre Cantu recently said the violence was not only a threat to the people of Tamaulipas, but also "a situation that affects Mexico's internal security."

'Bad Smell'

The people of San Fernando do not always hide their sense of hopelessness about the chaotic security situation.

The residents only found out about the massacres by chance, one inhabitant told the BBC via telephone.

"It starts to smell bad because there is a funeral house close to where we walk every day," the woman - who asks to remain anonymous - says.

They live in fear. "Nobody goes out into the street after 7pm," she says.

At the San Fernando City Hall they do not accept interview requests because of "security concerns".

This town is not the only area of Tamaulipas, a state of the size of the Czech Republic, virtually paralysed by violence.

Ciudad Mier, a town further north, was the scene of the first "mass exodus" from the conflict last November.

After rival drug gangs started fighting over the border town, 400 inhabitants fled to a nearby, safer city.

A body found in a mass grave is taken into the local morgue in Matamoros, northern Mexico, 8 April 2011 The find of the latest graves followed a tip-off by a suspect detained on Saturday 9 April

To the south, near the state's capital, Ciudad Victoria, Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a candidate for governor for the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the brother of the current governor, was shot in an ambush in June 2010.

He was considered favourite to win the election and had made fighting crime one of his main campaign promises.

Tamaulipas has been caught in a bloody fight between two of Mexico's most powerful cartels - the Zetas formed by army deserters in the late 1990s and the Gulf Cartel, which used to have a stronghold in the area.

The number of drug-related killings in the state has jumped to more than 1,200 in 2010, from 90 in 2009.

'No control'

Some people in Mexico go as far as saying the federal government has lost Tamaulipas.

"Neither the regional nor federal government have control over the territory of Tamaulipas," says Alberto Islas, a security analyst in Mexico City.

"For example criminal groups are more effective at collecting 'taxes' than Tamaulipas' own government," he adds, explaining that cartels have become organised crime groups, which as well as trafficking narcotics, also extort and kidnap.

The federal government disputes this view, saying the violence in the state is confined to a few municipalities and that it has made advances in the fight against cartels.

It also says that in a country gearing up for presidential elections next year, criticism of their security strategy is politically motivated. The conflict will be a major campaign issue.

But everyone seems to agree that the situation is serious.

"It is a critical situation of national emergency," says former head of the Mexican government's organised crime unit Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz.

"This is a war between drug dealers that has gotten out of hand," he says.

"The weakness of the region's government allowed them to fight and these are the results we are seeing."

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