Few outside Coahuila state noticed. Headlines were rare. But steadily, inexorably, Mexico’s third-largest state slipped under the control of its deadliest drug cartel, the Zetas.
The aggressively expanding Zetas took advantage of three things in this state right across the border from Texas: rampant political corruption, an intimidated and silent public, and, if new statements by the former governor are to be believed, a complicit and profiting segment of the business elite. It took scarcely three years.
What happened to Coahuila has been replicated in several Mexican states -- not just the violent ones that get the most attention, but others that have more quietly succumbed to cartel domination. Their tragedies cast Mexico’s security situation and democratic strength in a much darker light than is usually acknowledged by government officials who have been waging a war against the drug gangs for six years.
“We are a people under siege, and it is a region-wide problem,” said Raul Vera, the Roman Catholic bishop of Coahuila. A violence once limited to a small corner of the state has now spread in ways few imagined, he said.
What sets the Zetas apart from other cartels, in addition to a gruesome brutality designed to terrorize, is their determination to dominate territory by controlling all aspects of local criminal businesses.
Not content to simply smuggle drugs through a region, the Zetas move in, confront every local crime boss in charge of contraband, pirated CDs, prostitution, street drug sales and after-hour clubs, and announce that they are taking over. The locals have to comply or risk death.
And so it was in Coahuila. One common threat from Zeta extortionists, according to Saltillo businessmen: a thousand pesos, or three fingers.
With the Zetas meeting little resistance, wheels greased by a corrupt local government, there was little violence. But the people of Coahuila found themselves under the yoke of a vicious cartel nonetheless.
“It was as if it all fell from the sky to the Earth,” said Eduardo Calderon, a psychologist who works with migrants, many of whom have been killed in the conflict. “We all knew it was happening, but it was as if it happened in silence.”
The “silence” ended in rapid-fire succession in a few weeks’ time starting mid-September. Coahuila saw one of the biggest mass prison breaks in history, staged by Zetas to free Zetas; the killing of the son of one of the country’s most prominent political families (a police chief is the top suspect); and, on Oct. 7, the apparent slaying of the Zetas’ top leader by federal troops who say they stumbled upon him as he watched a baseball game.
“Apparent” because armed commandos brazenly stole the body from local authorities within hours of the shooting. The military insists that the dead man was Heriberto Lazcano, Mexico’s most feared fugitive, acknowledging that he had been living comfortably and freely in Coahuila for some time.
“He was like Pedro in his house,” former Gov. Humberto Moreira said, using an expression that means he was totally at home and could go anywhere.
The Zetas had such confident dominion over the state that Lazcano, alias the Executioner, and the other top Zeta leader, Miguel Angel Trevino, regularly used a vast Coahuila game reserve to hunt zebras they imported from Africa.
Since their formation in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a paramilitary bodyguard for the then-dominant Gulf cartel, the Zetas operated primarily in Tamaulipas state on Mexico’s northeastern shoulder and down the coast of Veracruz and into Guatemala.
For most of that time, Coahuila, rich in coal mines and with a booming auto industry, was used by cartels as little more than a transit route for drugs across the border. The Zetas maintained a presence limited to Torreon, the southwestern Coahuila city that served as a bulwark against the powerful Sinaloa cartel that reigned in neighboring Durango state.
In 2010, the Zetas broke away from the Gulf cartel, triggering a war that bloodied much of Tamaulipas and spilled over into neighboring states. Coahuila, with its rugged mountains and sparsely populated tracts, became a refuge for the Zetas, and they spread out across the state, including this heretofore calm capital, Saltillo.
Even if the violence hasn’t been as ghastly as in other parts of Mexico, nearly 300 people, many of them professionals, have vanished in Coahuila, probably kidnapped by the Zetas for ransom or for their skills.
The man in charge of Coahuila during most of the Zeta takeover was Moreira, the former governor. After five years in office, he left the position a year ahead of schedule, in early 2011, to assume the national leadership of the Institutional Revolutionary Party on the eve of its triumphant return to presidential power after more than a decade.
But scandal followed Moreira, including a debt of more than $3 million he had saddled Coahuila with, allegedly from fraudulent loans. He was eventually forced to quit the PRI leadership, dashing what many thought to be his presidential aspirations.
Tragedy followed when Moreira’s son Jose Eduardo was shot twice in the head execution-style in the Coahuila town of Acuna early last month. Investigators believe that most of the Acuna police department turned Jose Eduardo over to the Zetas as a reprisal for the killing of a nephew of Trevino. The police chief was arrested.
Killing the son of a former governor -- and nephew of the current one, Humberto’s brother Ruben -- was a rare strike by drug traffickers into the heart of Mexico’s political elite.
In mourning, Humberto Moreira gave a series of remarkably candid interviews in which he accused entrepreneurs from Coahuila’s mining sector of sharing the wealth with top drug traffickers who in turn used the money to buy weapons and pay off their troops. They killed his son, he said.
Mining in Coahuila is huge and notoriously dangerous, with companies routinely flouting safety regulations and workers dying in explosions and accidents. The depth to which drug traffickers have penetrated the industry is being investigated by federal authorities.
The question on the minds of many Mexicans was: If Moreira was so aware of criminal penetration, why didn’t he stop it?
Critics suggest that during his tenure, he was happy to turn a blind eye to the growth of the Zetas as long as he could pursue his business and political interests. He denies that now and says fighting organized crime was up to the federal government; the federal government blames state officials, in Coahuila and elsewhere, for coddling the drug lords.
“The northern governors have long cut deals with the cartels that operate in their domains. The pattern in the north is cooperation,” said George W. Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who has written extensively on the Zetas and Mexican issues.
“The Coahuila police are among the most corrupt in all Mexico.”
The extent to which the Zetas’ tentacles had penetrated state government became clear this year when federal authorities discovered a protection racket that dated well into Humberto Moreira’s administration and was led by none other than the brother of the state attorney general. According to the federal investigation, he and 10 other state officials were being paid roughly $60,000 a month by the Zetas to leak information to the gang.
The nearly 3 million residents of Coahuila, meanwhile, find ways to survive and accommodate.
In rural areas where the Zetas are most commonly seen on the streets, people have learned to be mute and blind. In cities such as Saltillo, they change their habits, don’t go out at night, send their children to school in other cities.
A businessman whose family has lived here for generations said, “We are in a state of war, without realizing when or how we got there.”