Field Report: Security in Tamaulipas Today: Simulated Peace
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera and Jorge A. Pérez González
This Field Report is available en español here.
Since 2010, the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas has been in a state of high-intensity armed conflict. Earlier that year, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas—who at one point worked together—began a brutal confrontation that led to levels of violence never before seen in the state. In the framework of the Mérida Initiative and the ‘war on drugs’ declared by former President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006–2012), the extreme conflict between two violent organized crime groups—which had militarized their strategies, diversified their operations and had access to high-caliber weaponry-intensified with the entry of federal forces into the state.
Tamaulipas State Police Neighborhood Patrol
Source: The Authors
The Zetas had transformed Mexico’s criminal model by militarizing the practices of organized crime groups, which allowed them to control territories through access to sophisticated weaponry, the generation of terror and the extraction of rents from society through kidnapping and extortion of small and medium-sized businesses. In other words, the Zetas promoted a model of criminal paramilitarism, through which organized crime expanded beyond drug trafficking, diversified its activities and attracted the presence of federal forces (the army, the navy and the federal police).
The entry of the armed forces into Tamaulipas magnified the conflict between criminal groups that counted on the protection of authorities at all levels. Within the framework of the Mérida Initiative and with a focus on the elimination of the leaders of the two criminal groups (kingpin strategy), an armed conflict of unprecedented magnitude was generated, which resulted in a very high number of homicides, disappearances and brutal violence that manifested itself in dismembered bodies, hanging bodies, threats communicated by the so-called ‘narco-banners,’ road blockades, kidnappings on highways, shootings among many other events that shook the state and spread throughout the Mexican northeast and part of the Gulf of Mexico region. Likewise, many of the dead in the state ended up in what some have considered to be a kind of ‘extermination camp,’ as evidenced by recent reports on the property named ‘La Bartolina in the city of Matamoros.
Figure 1. Homicides in Tamaulipas
Source: National Institute of Statistics & Geography
(Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI)
The number of homicides and crimes has remained at extremely high levels to date and kidnappings and extortions by organized crime continue, often acting in collusion with the authorities. It is worth noting that the capacity of the two groups that once dominated criminal activities in Tamaulipas, as well as its territory, is attributed to the various degrees of protection they received from government authorities at all levels. Two former governors of that state are currently in prison for crimes allegedly linking them to organized crime; however, their personal and direct ties to the drug trafficking groups that operated in the state during their respective administrations have not been proven to date. Likewise, the current governor of the state is reportedly facing a process of impeachment in Mexico for similar issues, but he was granted an amparo[protective order] and his legal situation is uncertain to date.
After almost twelve years of extreme armed conflict, the dynamics of organized crime and violence in Tamaulipas have visibly changed. At the beginning of the second decade of this century, we had two criminal organizations operating regionally and dominating important territories in the northeast of the country and the Gulf of Mexico region. What some called the ‘war for Tamaulipas,’ or rather the armed conflict between two criminal groups and between them and the federal forces, led to the fragmentation of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel into different criminal cells that specialized in different illicit activities—not always related to drug trafficking. One example is human smuggling, which turned out to be an important source of income for some organized crime groups of Tamaulipas origin.
Thus, there are now multiple criminal groups or cells that once operated under the leadership of the former Gulf Cartel. These cells now operate under different leaderships and specialize in different illicit activities in specific municipalities, such as Matamoros, Reynosa and Tampico, among others. There are also various cells of what were formerly the Zetas, which have taken other names such as the Northeast Cartel and the Old School Zetas that operate in the municipalities of Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Victoria (the state capital), among other regions of this border state.
The split between the former Gulf Cartel and the Zetas persists. Some say that the Gulf Cartel as an organization continues to exist, but remains highly fragmented. In addition, violent frictions between local cells have allowed other groups to enter. According to various testimonies, the Zetas became La Vieja Escuela (the Old School), until the arrival of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) gave rise to another powerful and violent organization. Thus, the CJNG ended up allying with other members of the former Zetas to give rise to the Cartel del Noreste (Northeast Cartel)—something that was recorded in various chronicles written by anonymous specialists on social networks.
In this context, confrontations between criminal cells continue, most of them (if not all) enjoying protection from authorities at various levels (local, state and federal), including the police and members of the armed forces. In recent months, the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPES – Special Operations Group)—a state police force recently created to counter high-impact crimes in the state—was linked to the unfortunate events that led to the killing of 19 Guatemalan migrants in the city of Camargo, Tamaulipas. In addition to the scandals of the governor and the state police, there were other high-impact crimes, such as the attack against civilians by an armed group in June 2021 in the city of Reynosa and dozens of disappearances on the highway from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo in the same year.
The municipalities in the state that have registered the highest number of high impact violent events are Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Matamoros, Tampico, Ciudad Victoria and Ciudad Mante. The case of Nuevo Laredo is perhaps the most notable, and the fight for the plaza has to do, among other things, with the large number of daily crossings through the World Trade Bridge, which makes it impossible to check all commercial cargo. This facilitates the crossing of illicit merchandise. It is worth noting that close to eighty percent of the trade between Mexico and the United States circulates through the Monterrey–Nuevo Laredo highway.
Notwithstanding the situation of instability and violence described above, in recent years, official figures show a downward trend in the incidence of crime in Tamaulipas. For its part, the homicide rate in the state has been reduced (see Figure 1). Since 2019, Tamaulipas has been out of the top 10 Mexican states with the highest number of homicides. Likewise, the latest crime incidence reports from the federal government's Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection show that Tamaulipas' highways are among the safest in Mexico. Figures from the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System show a significant decrease in the levels of insecurity (measured through different indicators) with respect to the national average since 2018. Other crime incidence indicators that show a downward trend in Tamaulipas are: robberies in transportation, and against passersby and transporters, in addition to intentional injuries and vehicle theft.
Despite official statistics, it is possible to argue that in the state of Tamaulipas there is a simulated peace. Police and security reports in general are not entirely credible since citizen perception is different from the crime rates recorded in official statistics. A compilation of testimonies among some residents of the state who prefer to remain anonymous, as well as reports on social networks, confirm these trends. According to this information, kidnappings persist without the authorities reporting them in a timely manner, nor are the complaints recorded in the books. Fear seems to continue to be the determining factor in the extortions that affect many individuals, families and businesses in the state, who, on most occasions, end their tragic story by losing part of their patrimony, as criminals do not forgive the collection of derecho de piso (extortion fees).
Any businessman can become “a victim of kidnapping or disappearance when driving on the highways of Tamaulipas because of the territorial divisions that organized crime groups have established based on their leadership of the plaza." Apparently, ‘these imperceptible dividing lines are maintained in the state and only the criminals know where their zone of influence begins and ends.” Collusion of criminal groups with police commanders is also evident in every corner of Tamaulipas. The fact that there are different criminal cells is not a limitation for them to operate, in most cases, under the protection of the authorities of different orders. In addition, “since there is no trust in the forces of law and order, the citizenry chooses to avoid filing a complaint, and on many occasions decides to ‘arrange’ (or negotiate) in some manner with their captors.’
Those who practice small-scale commerce in different regions of Tamaulipas are the main ones affected, since in order to operate they regularly request permission and pay a fee to organized crime so as not to be bothered. However, when their activities unintentionally cross the territorial limits where another criminal faction operates, they have no choice but to pay another criminal group in order to preserve their lives. The source of the group’s break up can be explained by many factors; sometimes is related to internal differences, but in most cases, it is due to infiltration by other groups that have an interest in the area. As long as the divisions between criminal groups persist, security and stability will not come to the state of Tamaulipas.
In this context, law enforcement also has the opportunity to receive a portion of the fees collected through extortion, due to the collusion that exists between them and the various organized crime cells. According to some citizens of Tamaulipas, in some regions of the state, it is the police themselves who are in charge of extracting rents (street taxes) through extortion. For this reason, says a source who prefers not to be named, "there is more and more frequent mention in the media of different criminal groups, who want a piece of the pie, because the police in Tamaulipas also think that the territory is theirs and the illicit profits should be shared equally.” Thus, the security forces of Tamaulipas and the main politicians in the state seem to contribute to what we describe today as a simulated peace.
Tamaulipas State Police patrol cars.
Source: The Authors
 Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy and Civil War in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.
 Pablo Ferri, "La bartolina, el horror actualizado en México." El País. 28 August 2021, https://elpais.com/mexico/2021-08-28/la-bartolina-el-horror-actualizado-en-mexico.html.
 The amparo trial in Mexico is a guarantee of protection of an individual's constitutional rights. On this legal figure see "Mexico: ‘Amparo’ Lawsuits and their Implementation in the Legal System.’ Refworld. Accessed 29 December 2021, https://www.refworld.org/docid/47d6548cc.html.
 "De Yarrington a Cabeza de Vaca: Los gobernadores tamaulipecos en problemas con la ley," El Financiero. 20 May 2021, https://www.elfinanciero.com.mx/nacional/2021/05/19/de-yarrington-a-cabeza-de-vaca-los-gobernadores-tamaulipecos-en-problemas-con-la-ley/.
 Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, "La guerra por Tamaulipas." Nexos. 1 August 2010, https://www.nexos.com.mx/?p=13889.
 Alfredo Peña, "El grupo detrás de la masacre de Camargo," Nexos. February 8, 2021, https://seguridad.nexos.com.mx/el-grupo-detras-de-la-masacre-de-camargo/.
 “Reynosa Massacre: What is known about the attack that left 15 dead in the Mexican city over the weekend.” BBC News. 22 June 2021, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-57553841.
 Alberto Pradilla, “Drivers, Transporters and Vigilantes: Wave of disappearances on the Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo highway.” Animal Político. 10 June 2021, https://www.animalpolitico.com/2021/06/desapariciones-carretera-monterrey-nuevo-laredo-trabajadores/.
 “El 80% del comercio entre México y EU circula por la carretera Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo>” CCA Logistics Group. 25 June 2021, https://www.ccalogisticsgroup.com/noticia/el-80-del-comercio-entre-mexico-y-eu-circula-por-carretera-monterrey-nuevo-laredo/.
 Nadia Alcázar, “Tamaulipas abandons the ‘top ten’ states with the most homicides.” Radio Fórmula. 17 December 2019, https://www.radioformula.com.mx/breaking-news/2019/12/17/tamaulipas-abandona-el-top-ten-de-los-estados-con-mas-homicidios-431279.html.
 “Tamaulipas is among the safest entities in the country.” La Jornada. 2 November 2021, https://www.jornada.com.mx/notas/2021/11/02/politica/tamaulipas-se-halla-entre-las-entidades-mas-seguras-del-pais.
 These observations were compiled from testimonies we recovered from comments on social networks and informal conversations with citizens living in Tamaulipas.