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Caught behind enemy lines

It starts at the airport. A burly guy in a hoodie drapes himself over the barrier that leads out of the parking lot. Watching. Just watching.

Most taxi drivers are on the drug cartels’ payroll, ordered to spy on visitors and monitor the movements of the military and state investigators. Their license plates brazenly shed, they cruise streets dotted with paper-flower shrines marking the dead. Watching.

In the main downtown plaza, in front of City Hall and the cathedral, about a dozen guys in baggy pants with sunglasses on their heads hang out alongside the shoeshine men. They eye passersby, without speaking.

This is a city under siege.

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It’s a city where you avert your eyes when men clean their guns in the middle of the plazas.

Where schoolchildren are put through the paces of pecho a tierra drills, literally, “chest to the ground” — a duck-and-dive move for when the shooting starts.

Where you try to remain invisible; you never know who is standing next in line at the grocery store or the 7-Eleven.

Where a middle-aged man muses that it’s turned out to be a good thing, after all, that he and his wife never had children.

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The Times spent a week recently in Reynosa, passing time with and talking to a dozen residents, to learn how they cope under cartel rule. All were terrified to speak of their experiences and agreed to do so only under the strictest anonymity. Most did not want to be seen in public with a foreign reporter and would meet only in secret. One insisted on meeting across the nearby border in the United States.

“You go around with Jesus in the mouth,” one man says.

Meaning, you pray.

*

Reynosa is the largest city in Tamaulipas, a harrowing state bordering Texas that is all but lost to federal government rule.

The Burger Kings and California-style shopping malls give the city a sense — a false sense — of normalcy. Cars circulate down wide streets. Evangelical churches and donut shops and beauty parlors are open for business.

But Reynosa, with a population of about 700,000, may be the single largest city in Mexico under the thumb of the cartels.

Drug traffickers with the powerful Gulf cartel have long dominated Tamaulipas. In Reynosa, residents more or less coexisted with the traffickers, sometimes joining them, sometimes skirting them. No authority dared challenge them.

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The arrangement was shattered early this year when the paramilitary wing of the cartel, the Zetas, split furiously from their patrons, and the two ruthless groups declared war on each other. It was when, as people here put it, the devil jumped.

Battles raged in the spring and early summer, with uncounted scores of people killed. The Gulf cartel fought the Zetas, and the Mexican army fought them both. Bombs and grenades exploded at nightclubs, television stations and city offices. The man who was likely to be the state’s next governor was assassinated in broad daylight, along with most of his entourage.

Combat still erupts regularly. But Reynosa is as much a prison camp as a war zone. Army patrols periodically pass through — listening to the bad guys listening to them on radio frequencies — and on the outskirts man roadblocks and hand out leaflets pleading for citizens’ cooperation.

The Gulf cartel has control of the city, but Zetas lurk for about 60 miles in any direction. Highways between major Tamaulipas cities are extremely dangerous, stalked by one gang or the other. People speak using terms of war, like “refugees” and “displaced.” Even the mayor is displaced. (He fled to Texas.)

The cartels have infiltrated everything: from city hall and the police department, through border customs agencies and all the way down to taco vendors and pirated CD stands.

“There is a great sense of uneasiness in the city,” said Armando Javier Zertuche, a psychologist who also serves as secretary of economic development for Reynosa. “It used to be that if someone got kidnapped or killed, you knew they had something to do with [drug trafficking]. Now, with this war, everyone is at risk. It has fallen on top of regular citizens.”

*

The Commuter

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Her stomach clenched when she saw the big white cars ahead in the road, blocking the way. Maybe it’s the army, her husband suggested, noting the gunmen were wearing camouflage. But she knew.

She had already been grabbed by the traffickers twice in the last few months. How she survived the third time, she doesn’t really know. But survival now is the goal of every day.

She commutes regularly between Reynosa and her home city, a couple of hours away: The work is better in Reynosa. She uses all sorts of tactics to try to be safe, keeping in constant radio contact with loved ones, hiding her money in her underwear, even using U.S. roads to commute between Mexican cities.

“My life has changed totally,” she says, speaking in a hotel room with a television on to cloak the conversation. “To drive on the highways is to tempt death.”

She and her husband had not driven far out of Reynosa that morning in September, westward along the “Riberena” riverside highway that occasionally glimpses Texas, when they were confronted by the armed men.

The men, gruff, cursing, communicating with their comandante by radio, reeked of marijuana. One was branded, like a head of cattle, with the letter Z, for Zetas.

They threw her husband against the hood of the car, rifled through her purse and packages, demanded to know who they were and where they were going and gestured wildly with their AK-47s. They demanded to see her husband’s papers, as though they were the authority. She felt herself beginning to pass out.

“You know who we are?” growled one of the men.

They stole the couple’s cellphones and toiletries and CDs but, for some reason, let them go. She and her husband climbed back into their car and drove for nearly 10 miles in utter silence.

“This is out of the government’s hands,” says the commuter, 46 and wound tightly. “Mexico has been sacrificed and sold to the narcos. It is the narcos who have the power.”

In their quiet moments, the commuter and her husband don’t chat about work or movies or family. They talk about how to behave when confronted by gunmen. Remain calm and passive. Don’t show defiance. Assume no help will arrive.

“The narcos rule our lives,” she says. “They order. We must obey.”

*

The Dentist

Every morning when the dentist leaves for work, her mother says a prayer: “Dear God, let my children remain invisible to the eyes of the bad men.”

She rushes to finish all her tasks in the daytime, to avoid going out at night. Friends have been kidnapped, and everyone has a story of being caught in a gun battle. Her family frequently receives telephoned threats.

“The saddest part is that our authorities have washed their hands of this. If you have a problem, you have nowhere to go,” says the dentist, who is 41, tall, with long, dark hair. “We are abandoned and alone.”

She is seated in the back section of an empty coffee shop at a nearly deserted shopping mall. She lowers her voice when the kid mopping up comes close. She stops talking until he moves on.

She would like to open up her own dental office instead of working for the state, where she tends to those who can’t afford private healthcare. But then she’d have to pay piso — extortion money to the traffickers. Her uncles, a family of bakers, pay weekly sums to the gangsters to avoid having their bakeries torched, or worse. One uncle refused, and they kidnapped and held his son until he forked over the cash.

That means the dentist’s plans are on hold. That spares her one dilemma: whether to fill the cavities in the mouths of narcos.

For all the fear, intimidation and what she calls psychosis, life must go on. And so it does in fits and starts. She has ventured out at night a few times lately, always in the company of friends and usually meeting at someone’s house. And always super-vigilant, watching the cars sharing the streets, casting an eye into the distance to avoid roadblocks, erected either by the military or the gangs.

Nothing is done in a casual or spontaneous way.

“You even have to be careful of your friends and workmates,” she says. “You don’t know who they might be related to.”

*

The Journalist

There are other parts of Mexico where cartels also hold sway, like blood-soaked Ciudad Juarez, or drug-trafficking central Culiacan, and where journalism remains strong and active. Not Reynosa.

Throughout the state of Tamaulipas, in fact, journalists practice a profound form of self-censorship, or censorship imposed by the narcos. The gun battles and grenade attacks that raged for months were rarely, if ever, covered in the largest local newspapers.

It is also the only place in Mexico where reporters with international news media have been confronted by gunmen and ordered to leave.

“I spend all day tweeting,” says a young Reynosa journalist who, like most here, is on the payroll of both his television station and the city government.

Social media networks such as Twitter have taken the place of newspapers and radio reports, with everyone from city officials to regular people tweeting alerts about a gun battle here, a blockade there. It is a kind of ad hoc warning system, but it is not journalism.

The reporter says everyone knows what can be written about and what must be ignored. Asked if his life in Reynosa is scary, he pauses for a long while, puts his head in his hands and rubs his brow.

“Not scary. Not comfortable.”

Four local journalists disappeared from Reynosa in March. Only one was heard from again; the others are presumed dead. (One of those purportedly ran a news website for the Gulf cartel.)

Mexico’s major television network, Televisa, has given security training to all of its employees in Tamaulipas. On-air broadcasters are told to change their clothes before leaving the building so they can’t be easily identified. Everyone is told to drive nondescript cars.

Journalists know their newsrooms have been infiltrated and their publications are watched. They routinely receive telephoned warnings when they publish something the traffickers don’t like; more often, they avoid anything questionable. In Ciudad Victoria, the state capital, the Zetas now have a “public information” branch that regularly sends news releases to the local papers. The papers know they have to publish the releases: editors were rounded up a while back by the Zetas who used wide planks to beat them into submission.

It is a kind of instinct, knowing at a gut level what the cartel wants divulged, the young journalist says.

“Everyone knows the limits.”

*

The Mother

The store with the copy machines is just three blocks away, but the mother doesn’t let her 13-year-old son go alone. Recruiters for the drug traffickers cruise the neighborhoods in their SUVs, armed to the teeth, “fishing” for youngsters.

A 12-year-old in her son’s class was recently kidnapped. He eventually reappeared, a few cities over, but is so traumatized that he remains under psychiatric care.

Outdoor recesses have frequently been canceled; school itself is often called off or interrupted when battles break out. And in their free time, kids collect spent shells as souvenirs.

When life is so tenuous, the mother says, you seek value in agony. Her son has gotten a lot closer to her, not bothered by and in fact welcoming her frequent calls to check on him.

“That youthful rebelliousness that you would expect at his age is gone,” she says.

She’s a native of Tamaulipas, her 14 brothers and sisters scattered all over the state. Holidays always meant the family got together. No more.

We lost Easter week, she says, because the fighting was so heavy.

“Now we are worried about Christmas,” she says. “The narcos have appropriated family activities. Even that they have taken away from us.”

*

The Businessman

The shootout at the baseball stadium was the last straw.

The businessman was there with his wife and young children, sitting a few rows from the mayor. The wife began to sob. The 9-year-old said, “Let’s move.”

And so they left Mexico.

The businessman, his wife and three children moved about a mile from their home in Reynosa, across the border to Hidalgo, Texas. “How long have we been here?” he asks his son inside their new home. “Four weeks, Papi.”

The only furniture in the living room is a couch, a flat-screen television and a bookcase. On top of the bookcase is a large, gold-trimmed black sombrero, a memento of home, the businessman says.

“I don’t want my kids to forget Mexico.”

He is a senior executive in his company, a good job with good pay and status. But it is a company with a certain public face, and he can no longer put his family at risk. He will continue to commute back to Reynosa daily, at least for the time being.

“Reynosa is a minefield,” he says. “You can be threatened by a soldier or by a criminal, or just stumble upon a gunfight. Anyone who can, escapes.”

No one is formally counting how many people have fled, but one city official said it could be about 10% of Reynosa’s population.

“One block over, there’s another family from Reynosa. And a couple blocks farther, there are four more,” the businessman says. “You run into people you know at stoplights.”

One time, a visitor from Mexico City came to his office. It didn’t take long for the phone to ring. It was the drug traffickers, asking who the visitor was. They ordered him to stop talking to the visitor.

He has changed his cellphone number four times in the last eight months to elude threatening calls.

The businessman and his family aren’t sure how many people were killed at the baseball stadium that day. No one ever knows these things with certainty. But the shooting forced the businessman into exile, a huge decision to leave his home of a lifetime.

The adjustment is clearly difficult. The children mope about, friendless, unsure of what to do. The wife is despondent, nervous. “You have to learn to start your life over,” she says.

He says exile will last just two years, because after the Mexican presidential elections in 2012, the next government will make a deal with the narcos and “this war we did not ask for” will be over.

It will be back to the norm: the narcos, peacefully, in charge.

wilkinson@latimes.com


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