One day in late December, a group of gunmen wreaked a trail of destruction through the highways of Veracruz, seemingly killing at random. Their motives are still unknown, but the area was one of strategic publicity value for the Mexican government.
Reynosa ticket lines were spilling out the terminal door. In the crowd were five travelers making border connections, beaming in group photos they snapped. Maria Hartsell and her four children had had a long day’s bus journey from greater Ft. Worth to the border. And they were still a long way from the deep hill country of the Huasteca. Maria Hartsell Sanchez, 39, had been born in those storied hills amid lingering traces of old-style pistoleros and robber barons (as opposed to new-style cartels like the zetas). By 2011 she was a middle-aged mom in working-class Texas, married into a circle of affection and religious devotion in the Hartsell family, and working in a school cafeteria. That road, too, had been long. Her Cleburne husband, Michael Hartsell, suffered from Huntington’s disease and its tragic mental side-effects, which, the family said, lay behind his history of domestic flare-ups, severe enough for prison time. The strains had climaxed in early December. Maria sought a change of scene.
Relatives pleaded. Did she really want to drag four adolescents on a nostalgic holiday trip into Mexico’s drug war? But her own aging mother, nearly a thousand miles south in the Huasteca, had health problems. And the children seemed to relish the adventure: Facebook-posting Karla, a high-school senior, 18; beaming Angie, 15; impish Cristina, an eighth-grade library aide, 13; and bubbly, teasing Mike, 10. Logistics were eased by Maria’s brother, who lived at the border in Reynosa. There, at least two cousins joined the trip for the last leg, down through Veracruz to the flank of the Sierra Madre, into the mountain state of Hidalgo. They were now a hopeful group of at least seven.
The logistics were not small. Angie suffered from Down syndrome -- so severely that she would later be exempt as a witness to the horrors at the end of the road. Any lapse in her daily medication was said to be life-threatening -- yet she was riding into an environment that would leave her younger brother, Mike, with infection from the water, a sore throat and a skin rash -- aside from the final nightmares.
SEE ALSO: Profile of the Zetas
Two hours south of Reynosa they slid past a northern Mexican town called San Fernando. In March 2011, this “town of death” had hosted “the bus massacres,” becoming world famous. Bus after bus was stopped by unexplaining cartel gunmen; passengers were picked out, lined up in lonely acacia scrub and many were killed–not with guns but slaughterhouse-style, with a sledgehammer. This almost indescribable horror made news but not a proportional mark on continental consciousness -- not least because the Mexican government hid many of the particulars. In both that spree in March and in a still larger San Fernando atrocity in 2010, when 72 immigrants were massacred, the killers proved to be Zetas.
By May 2011, the government response had placed more than 80 alleged local Zetas behind bars for the San Fernando episodes. The town’s Zeta headquarters, at a hunting lodge just east, was taken over by Mexican Marines. The flashpoints moved to greener pastures.
In darkness bridging December 21 to 22, the Transportes Frontera bus rumbled south beyond San Fernando, then finally across the Panuco River into Veracruz. A day later and just east, this state-line area would produce 10 dumped corpses, said to be Zetas killed by the rival Gulf Cartel. In two more days, 13 more corpses were said to represent Gulf Cartel personnel killed by Zetas. No play-by-play told why, exactly, the Panuco basin was burning. The Zetas had apparently been hijacking vehicles there for a long time, with barely a peep of publicity.
In the port of Veracruz, the big city of Veracruz state, December 21 was fateful. The entire metro police force, more than 800 personnel, was disbanded by Mexico’s exasperated central government, to be replaced by soldiers and federales–in order to root out Zeta influence. Twelve days earlier, state Zeta commander Raul Lucio Hernandez, “El Lucky,” was arrested. Also caught, on November 14, was the Zeta boss of adjoining San Luis Potosi state. If the Zetas wanted to send a back-off message, they had plenty of reasons.
The holiday rush was pushing a flood of buses down cracked old thoroughfares like Highway 105. The strain showed. Ten minutes after midnight as December 22 arrived, a bus a few hours ahead of the Hartsells, belonging to the Estrella Blanca line, “spectacularly” caught fire, apparently having been rushed out of the shop after repairs.
News items on Estrella Blanca, with its nationwide fleet, suggest the vulnerability of bus traffic. December 7: dispatch rejects a driver because he looks drunk, then he is found dead outside. December 7 on the other side of Mexico: bus stopped by armed men resembling soldiers; two passengers disappear. December 17: bus hijacked, not by cartel gunmen but by student protesters, one of at least 16 buses thus taken. Not as much news dogged the Frontera line, though in February a sleeping driver had hit the back of a semi-trailer, then leaped out and fled, leaving 38 passengers to break out windows for escape. The vast majority of bus trips in Mexico are safe and uneventful, but the heavy traffic can bring the unforeseen, and can attract those who are seeking targets
Thirty miles from where the Estrella Blanca bus caught fire and at about the same time, according to local rumors, some mysterious men were on a drinking binge. Their subsequent behavior first manifested outside the town of El Higo around 5:00 a.m. On an entry road from El Higo to Highway 105 they made their presence known by spraying gunfire at three locals loading a vegetable truck–killing all three, for no apparent reason, and leaving them spread-eagled on the pavement. Before getting to the highway they hit a second cargo truck with a tossed grenade, causing another death. They reached the highway at a junction called “the Y,” and didn’t have to wait long for a bus -- though the bright green motorcoach they stopped, belonging to the Vencedor line, was not the one carrying the Hartsells.
It was a logical place to stop buses. “The Y” was an old chokepoint for roadblocks, run not by outlaws but by the Mexican military. Bygone bunkers and sentries there can still be seen in file photos on Google Maps. Where these sentinels were on December 22, 2011, has not been revealed.
The Vencedor bus was boarded. Some accounts said there were not five attackers but eight. A young couple on the bus was going home to the sierra from job-hunting in the city of Monterrey, carrying a three-month-old baby. Florentino Hernandez and Ericka Cortes were both 19, drawing the gunmen’s attention because their baby was crying, according to vague reports. They were told to shut the baby up. Apparently they couldn’t. Then they were sprayed with automatic weapons fire. Both were killed -- at such close range that the baby had powder burns, but somehow survived. The death toll in the strange spree was now six. The number of wounded was not announced.
The gunmen drove up the highway from the Y, soon meeting a white bus with red markings, apparently still in the darkness around dawn. This was the Hartsell bus. Again at least one of the attackers boarded. And again the seeming search for provocation. This time the irritating factor, seized upon by a shooter as an excuse to fire, was an outcry from a child-like 15-year-old, disoriented Angie Hartsell, the sufferer of Down syndrome. A gunman slapped her and said to shut up. Her mother and sisters rushed in. Maria Hartsell tried to explain Angie’s handicap, then reportedly threw herself against the attacker as he kept slapping. All were machine-gunned.
The 10-year-old, Mike Hartsell, was in another seat, restrained by an older cousin. But a second cousin, Emmanuel Sanchez, 14, of Reynosa, was with Maria. Emmanuel was killed. Beside him, Maria, Karla and Cristina Hartsell also lay lifeless.
Angie and Mike survived. In Texas their grandmother Margaret Schneider heard media suppositions that all this must have been due to a robbery. She was unconvinced. Her voice trembled as she said: ““I just don’t understand why they would kill those girls. I just don’t understand.”
In quick succession a third bus stopped to offer aid. Reportedly the driver’s coming down the steps was provocation enough for the heated shooters, and he was killed. A tightly compressed rush of violence was now complete. Total fatalities: 11. When soldiers, mobilizing on the same day, December 22, reported killing five perpetrators (leaving stories about a total of eight lost in the shuffle), the final reported death toll was 16.
In the media furor back in Texas, grandmother Margaret Schneider insisted on airing a telling clue, pointing out that after it was all over, Maria Hartsell was found to have been carrying nearly a thousand dollars on her person -- which the “robbers” didn’t seem to search for or touch. Interviewer Randy McIlwain of DFW5 News said of Schneider: “She rejects reports that this was just a robbery. She says the gunmen were out for blood, the only reason for killing women and children.”
There was a tapestry of clues: the drive-by at the vegetable truck, scarcely a robbery. The grenade tossed almost incidentally but fatally at the other cargo truck -- revealing an arsenal a bit heavy for robbers. And then the two bus invasions with their similar themes, as if seeking out incidental provocation to jump-start execution that was really random. If cartel gunmen had been instructed by higher-ups to create a blood trail of a certain size, the face-to-face execution of innocents might not have been entirely effortless. On both boarded buses, remarkably similar small irritants helped to nudge the trigger: the crying of an infant, the outcry of a handicapped girl.
And then there was location. Only 50 miles away lay the magnificent Huasteca grotto called El Sotano de las Golondrinas, publicized internationally just four months earlier by a lofty pitchman: President Calderon himself, as he sought to boost violence-eroded tourism in Mexico. Calderon was filmed dashingly rappelling down into the cavern on a spelunker’s hoist, for a Public Broadcasting System travel show in September. If anyone had sought maximum affront to Calderon during his push for a safe Christmas holiday, Highway 105 offered certain attractions.
The Zetas are known in Mexico for extortion perhaps as much as for drug smuggling. The emergent question can only be viewed as a possibility, not a certainty -- one more loose end in the shadows: Were orders sent to lower-level, expendable Zeta grunts, saying that a whole nation was to be pressured by sacrificing a few random pawns?
There are always the other possibilities: that another cartel -- or other shadowy players -- staged a false-flag massacre to pin it on the Zetas. Or that some ordinary thugs had found a drug-alcohol mix that blew their stack. But the evidence doesn’t point that way. Moreover, a history of other atrocities, originally wreathed in such questions but later proved to the Zetas, reinforces the picture.
Did Zeta leaders decide to send a message a little bloodier than their we-didn’t-do-it banner in Tantoyuca?
And did a government then suppress the implications because they might help spread a message of fear?
See Gary Moore's blog.