Federal troops in north Mexico recently discovered a luxury ranch where 200 gunmen from the Zetas gang lived, trained, and launched attacks, offering a vivid illustration of the impunity with which such groups operate in much of the country.

The authorities came across the property earlier this month, in the aftermath of a series of gun battles in a remote region in the state of Nuevo Leon, news agency EFE reports.

Authorities said that the ranch, known as Las Aguilas and located on the outskirts of small town called Vallecillo, was the largest facility that the group operated, and served both as a training ground and a launching pad for attacks. The town is just 75 miles north of Monterrey, one of Mexico’s largest cities and the site of an ongoing struggle for control between the Zetas and their rivals in the Gulf Cartel.

Las Aguilas was reportedly filled with items like pool tables, expensive liquors, and stuffed heads of animals, and decorated with trendy furniture and accessories. Authorities also found more than a hundred livestock and other farm animals on the property, as well as various trucks and heavy machinery.

The fighting between the government and the Zetas in Vallecillo began with an ambush of a federal police convoy on October 11, which precipitated a flood of federal troops — both police and army — into the area. A series of confrontations led to the death of 21 alleged Zetas and the arrest of 12 more, including the man authorities say served as the group’s local leader: Marco Garza de Leon, alias “El Chabelo.”

Authorities say that some 150 Zetas managed to escape arrest, and have now fled the region. Two federal police and one soldier were killed in various shootouts.

The Zetas began to put down roots in Vallecillo and its surrounding communities about a year ago, according to locals. In addition to establishing a base at Las Aguilas, the group began to extort local businesses and harass residents of Vallecillo, which caused many to flee the area. Only 2,000 or so residents remain today, and reporters from various media outlets said they found the streets virtually deserted.

The group’s operation in Vallecillo offers another demonstration of the extreme vulnerability of Mexico’s rural areas. While bigger cities can often fall back on federal troop deployments in the event of an upsurge in violence, thousands of smaller cities typically lie far from the administration’s radar screen. This, of course, encourages gangs like the Zetas to set up shop in smaller cities, where there is little impediment to them operating openly.

Local governments have few resources, and are generally incapable of standing up to the larger criminal groups. In Vallecillo, for instance, there were just 11 municipal officers earlier this month, and nine of them resigned after the outbreak of violence. Today, is patrolled by just two local police, though federal troops remains in the area.

Other examples of small cities’ vulnerability are legion in northern Mexico. In Ciudad Mier, which lies along the Texas border in Tamaulipas, virtually all of the town’s 5,000 residents fled in fall 2010 as a result of fighting between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Many small towns in the state of Chihuahua, which has been Mexico’s most violent for the past several years, have suffered a similar fate; according to a further report from EFE, Guadalupe’s population has dropped by 30 percent from 2005 through 2010, while the number of residents in Praxedis G. Guerrero has declined by 43 percent.

Ranches used by drug traffickers, labelled “narcoranchos,” have been uncovered with regularity during the past several years. The gangs’ appropriation of property for criminal activities often leads to conflicts with their new neighbors. In one of the more famous episodes, the Zetas’ attempts to wrest control of a ranch in Tamaulipas in November, 2010 led to a shootout between gunmen and the ranch’s owner, who refused to cede ownership.

The owner, 77-year-old Alejo Garza, killed four alleged Zetas and wounded another two before being killed himself.

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