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As Mexico’s drug cartels fracture, violence and travel warnings soar

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The internal fracturing of Mexico’s drug cartels has led to soaring violence across the country in the past year, prompting the U.S. State Department to issue travel warnings to 23 of 31 Mexican states, including four bordering Texas and two popular tourist destinations.

The warnings, including Tuesday’s upgraded advisory for Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, highlight the deteriorating security across Mexico under President Enrique Pena Nieto. He came into office five years ago promising to improve security.

“Clearly the successes of recent years are being undone,” said Eric Olson, a Latin American security expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “Mexico has struggled and largely failed to re-establish control in states where organized crime has its deepest roots and where local and state governments are essentially part of the criminal enterprise. It’s a crisis of governance, violence and corruption, and Mexico has yet to find the key to solving this problem.”

More than 12,500 people were killed in the first six months of this year, an increase of about 30 percent over the comparable period in 2016. That puts Mexico on pace for what could be the deadliest year in its post-revolution history.

States such as Chihuahua and Tamaulipas have consistently made the State Department’s list, but surprisingly, so have popular beach regions including Cabo San Lucas in Baja California Sur and Cancun in Quintana Roo.

The warning Tuesday could be devastating to Mexico’s $20 billion-a-year tourism industry, which accounts for about 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Quintana Roo alone accounts for an estimated one-third of all American tourists.

“U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in various Mexican states,” the travel advisory says. It added that “gun battles between rival criminal organizations or with Mexican authorities have taken place on streets and in public places during broad daylight.”

There’s no evidence that criminal groups in Mexico have targeted Americans based on their nationality, the advisory says.

Enrique de la Madrid, Mexico’s secretary of tourism, called the warnings a “wake-up call” for a country preparing for snowbirds heading south as fall arrives.

The violence is all too familiar in Nuevo Laredo, where fractures in the long-dominant Zetas cartel and the growing demand for heroin and other opiates in the United States have residents feeling under siege. Widespread corruption in the Mexican government and security forces also contributes to the lawlessness and fear.

Nuevo Laredo Mayor Enrique Rivas, is a frequent target of threats by warring cartels. U.S. law enforcement officials believe the mayor lives much of the time in Laredo, on the Texas side of the border.

In a text message, the mayor denied that Nuevo Laredo is dangerous. When asked if he lives on the U.S. side for safety reasons, the mayor did not respond to text messages and phone calls.

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Nuevo Laredo has been wracked by violence since the birth of the Zetas, a paramilitary group fighting Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel for control of the lucrative I-35 drug route, more than 10 years ago.

In recent years, the Zetas split into two groups. One is known as La Vieja Guardia, or the old guard, pitted against family members of former leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, who has deep familial ties in North Texas and is believed to influence operations from a Mexican federal prison. That group evolved into the CDN, or Cartel del Noroeste (The Northeast Cartel).

The CDN controls not just drug routes, but also smuggling, extortions, kidnappings and random killings, said Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent working as a private investigator along the border.

The gruesome discovery last month of nine bodies — five women and four men, most members of a family — piled up in front of a house near the international bridge highlights the violence. The incident didn’t make the local press, which is heavily censored by the warring criminal groups. But gruesome pictures of the victims, their faces disfigured, appeared on social media with a warning: “We’re not playing.”

Citing internal intelligence on both sides of the border, Fontes said there are two theories about the killings.

Cartels encroaching on the area are aligned with remnants of the old Zetas and Gulf cartel, an explosive situation in an unpredictable presidential year.

The victims could have been behind the smuggling and kidnapping of immigrants. They could have been operating as free agents without paying CDN its cut. The murders took place the week of July 26, when several migrants and deportees were being held captive.

“There’s more desperation for easy money, and that makes everyday residents and immigrants that much more vulnerable,” said Fontes. “The more fractured these criminal groups become, the more desperate for cash they are.”

In its update, the State Department repeated a 2016 warning that “organized criminal groups may target public and private passenger buses traveling through Tamaulipas. These groups sometimes take all passengers hostage and demand ransom payments. … Nuevo Laredo has experienced numerous gun battles and attacks with explosive devices in the past year.”

Cartels also target migrants to turn them into hitmen, or prostitutes, whatever helps their bottom line, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, the author of Los Zetas Inc. and an associate professor at George Mason University.

“Deportations have provided transnational criminal groups operating at the border with new members willing to participate with them, but they mainly represent a source of income for these groups because their intention as soon as they arrive to the Mexican side of the border is to cross again to the United States,” she said.

The pull of the U.S. is so strong, she said, that many deportees will do whatever it takes to get back, including working for the cartels.

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