BROWNSVILLE — Arguing that the U.S. must throw its full support behind a controversial military deployment in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, a Brownsville congressman says the bloodshed there is a “crisis” for America as well.
But some analysts have doubts about the security plan, saying that the Mexican government’s strategy lacks specifics on weeding out corruption and sustaining peace once the federal forces quell the unrest and leave.
Last week in Reynosa, Mexico’s secretary of the interior, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, unveiled the federal government’s plan to increase security in Tamaulipas following a rash of violence. The uptick is attributed to a continued turf war between the Gulf Cartel and its former enforcers, Los Zetas.
Ahead of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Mexico City this week, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, wrote him a letter asking him to let his Mexican counterparts know that the American government “strongly supports their increased efforts to bring security to Tamaulipas.” The plan calls for four regional commanders to be dispersed across the state, increased surveillance and checkpoints, and the use of technology and intelligence sharing to target criminal groups, according to a statement the Mexican government issued last week.
“In order for this strategy to succeed, coordination at all levels of government in both the United States and Mexico is necessary,” Vela, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote Kerry on Monday. “If successful, communities on both sides of the Tamaulipas border can look forward to a peaceful and prosperous future.”
Mexico’s plan divides the northeastern state into four regions: the border, which includes Reynosa and Matamoros; the coast, which includes the port city of Tampico; the central zone, which includes Victoria, the state capital; and the southern region.
“Many of my constituents have family members who have been victimized by crimes perpetrated on the Mexican side of the border,” Vela wrote, adding that the kidnapping rate in Tamaulipas has more than doubled since 2011, with the number of Americans kidnapped increasing by 75 percent since 2012. “Simply put, this is not just a Mexican crisis, but an American crisis.”
But the Mexican government’s effort lacks planning beyond the immediate challenges of stemming violence, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, the chairwoman of the government department at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
“You can have federal forces, but after that, who is going to be in charge? Local authorities, state authorities or will we always rely on federal forces,” said Correa-Cabrera, whose areas of expertise include immigration, border security and U.S.-Mexico relations. “And that might be a problem in the long term because if this happens, then the state or local authorities will say, ‘This is not my problem.’”
After increased bloodshed in the border state of Chihuahua about seven years ago, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of military troops to cities like Ciudad Juárez as the local Juárez cartel fought the Sinaloa Cartel for control of that territory. The violence has since ebbed in Ciudad Juárez, and the city has witnessed a slow but gradual return of businesses, museums and nightlife that were all but forgotten a few years ago.
But the military's presence in Chihuahua years ago is still condemned by many observers, including rights activists, attorneys and scholars. Its presence actually escalated the situation, some argue, and peace has come slowly only because the Juárez Cartel was eventually defeated. Authorities counter that peace was a result of the increased security.
Several journalists and activists have sought asylum in the U.S., alleging the Mexican government should be as feared as the gangs themselves. In one high-profile example of alleged abuse in Chihuahua, a case pending before the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights accuses the military as being solely behind the 2009 disappearance of a mother of three and her cousins.
Correa-Cabrera also warns that Tamaulipas is a unique state with challenges different from other border areas. Matamoros, for example, is a Gulf Cartel stronghold and sits on the coast, while places like Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo are inland and controlled by other factions of organized crime whose tactics are different. Correa-Cabrera also says there is widespread corruption among local and state leaders that the plan does not address.
“You are never going to finish with violence without a plan that strengthens the rule of law,” she said.
Vela concedes that there is no perfect solution, but he argues that some plan of action is better than the status quo.
“We have a situation where the Mexican business class from Matamoros largely lives in Brownsville, and that’s the same situation they saw over there [in Chihuahua],” he told The Texas Tribune. “I am mindful of the fact that … it’s going to be difficult for every response to be 100 percent right, that part I get. But the problem is that things are so bad that if we don’t do anything, they’re only going to get worse.”
Vela added that according to briefings, the American government appears confident in the plan.
“They have every reason to believe that this announcement is for real and we should expect a robust presence from Mexico City,” he said.
The Mexican government has had successes. The most notable was this year’s capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, which battled the Zetas and the Gulf for control over the Nuevo Laredo plaza several years ago. Last year’s capture of Miguel Treviño Morales, then the leader of the Zetas, was also hailed as a coup for the Mexican government.
Correa-Cabrera agrees there has been progress, but she says that it’s come largely in the aftermath of the cartels’ internal struggles and that the government needs to better prepare for the situation at hand.
“You leave a situation where these organized crime groups are disorganized. Why? Because you have these cells that at some point” battle one another, she said, which adds more hurdles for a military-style police force.
Some in Tamaulipas are welcoming the federal government’s response to the violence. As he walked toward the U.S. port of entry from Matamoros last week, Miguel Garcia, 23, said he appreciated the move by the government.
“We’re living in a very insecure place,” he said. “People say the Mexican government doesn’t do anything to fight organized crime, but this shows that they are.”