NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Even in a city where residents are used to feigning ignorance about the region's drug wars to avoid threats, violence or death, the silence here the week that a former mayor was confirmed dead was deafening.
A forensics team in Monterrey, Nuevo León, said on Tuesday that it identified the body of Benjamín Galván Gómez, according to a statement issued by the Tamaulipas attorney general’s office. Galván, who was mayor from 2011 to 2013, disappeared while en route from Nuevo Laredo to Laredo in late February. He and businessman Miguel Angel Ortiz, an associate of Galván’s, were allegedly kidnapped. Their bodies were found on a highway on the outskirts of Monterrey.
The Tamaulipas attorney general's statement said that the state government "condemns this act and deeply regrets the deaths" of Galván and Ortiz, adding the state would offer its support to the families of the victims and see the investigation to its conclusion. No cause of death was given.
Gauging reaction to Galván's death from the city’s residents is not easy. “I don’t have anything to say about that. I don’t know anything,” said a snack vendor peddling goods at the city’s market.
“Sorry, but we don’t have anything to say. Not about that, anyway,” added an employee at a nearby patio bar. “You know how it goes. It’s the subject matter.”
Even those who would address the news, on condition of anonymity, said nothing should be assumed to be true. It’s yet another signal that for residents, ensuring safety and survival takes precedent over publicly sharing information and opinions.
The reports about Galván's death could just be rumors, said a woman crossing the country’s pedestrian bridge back into Mexico from downtown Laredo. “Lots of things happen, but no one pays attention anyway," she said. "There’s no authority here, so who knows what’s true?”
The violence here has ebbed since a turf war between former rivals in the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels came to a head in 2005 and 2006 and made worldwide headlines. But many Americans who once considered Nuevo Laredo a simple extension of its South Texas counterpart now see the city as off-limits.
Violence has still flared at times. In April 2012, the heads of 14 men were found in ice chests in an abandoned vehicle near city hall. That June, a car bomb exploded near the same location, with a note from Sinaloa members that alleged Galván and members of his staff were protecting the Zetas, former allies of the Gulf Cartel who have since split from the group. Accusations of officials protecting one group of outlaws over another are common in Mexico.
The uncertainty around Galván’s death isn’t limited to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar said he couldn’t speak to a motive or even when Galván died. Though his office communicates regularly with its counterparts in Nuevo Laredo, it is not involved in the investigation. But Cuellar knew the former mayor well and had advised him on security issues.
Blogs that cover the drug war stated just days after the alleged kidnapping that Galván was murdered, though the news release from the state government did not reveal a manner of death or how long Galván and his associate had been dead.
“There are always a lot of rumors. I don’t have anything concrete,” Cuellar said about why Galván and Ortiz were kidnapped. “What they were saying was that he was going back and forth [from Nuevo Laredo] as if nothing; he didn’t have to worry about anything and then he gets kidnapped. So nothing makes sense.”
Cuellar said Galván was intent on changing things in the border city. Just weeks after taking office in January 2011, Galván met with Cuellar in Texas to talk about improving safety for the mayor’s security detail. Two weeks later, Retired Brigadier General Manuel Farfán Carreola, Nuevo Laredo’s police chief, was gunned down.
“At that time he came by to talk about training for his escort personnel. It never happened, but we did share some information,” Cuellar said. “He always meant well. For him to go like that, I am really sorry.”
There were rumors that Galván, like many Mexican border lawmakers, had a house in the United States. But the FBI office in San Antonio, which oversees the Laredo field office, said the jurisdiction in the case rests solely with Mexican authorities.
“Sometimes they ask for assistance,” said special agent Michelle Lee, an FBI spokeswoman. “We are available and willing to assist upon the request and have many times in the past.”
Lee said she couldn’t speak with authority on Galván’s alleged cartel ties, though she conceded that rumors always abound – about anyone in power.
“In some instances you hear those whispers, but in this instance, I am sure you would hear a scream,” she said.
“There are a lot of suspicions here,” said Carlos González, a watchman on Nuevo Laredo's streets and member of a local union of guards. “He was always against organized crime and supported the military. But he had his own problems. He probably had a lot of enemies.”
González said that the mayor’s death is just another chapter on the border.
“This will never end, never,” he said.
Unfortunately, Cuellar said, he expects similar news to continue. He said he learned recently that a former high-ranking Mexican official was also kidnapped at about the same time Galván went missing.
“If they look hard, they’ll find his body in Monterrey,” Cuellar said.