While Mexico’s drug war has left much of its frontier with the United States threatened by cartel violence, a fine-tuned criminal strategy has allowed the border’s eastern extremity to remain both a quiet backwater and a key crossing point for cocaine.
The region is known as Playa Bagdad (Baghdad Beach) - a long, sandy isthmus stretching along the coast of the northeast Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Here, the Gulf Cartel enjoys undisputed control of both a key maritime entry point for illegal drugs, and an easy border crossing with minimal presence of security forces, the AP reported.
This is despite the fact that Tamaulipas has historically been one of the most violent states in Mexico. Cities including Matamoros, only 40 kilometers from Playa Bagdad, have seen open warfare over the last decade between the Gulf Cartel and their former enforcement wing, the Zetas.
Although these groupings have fragmented in recent years, their splinter groups continue to fiercely contest trafficking routes in the state, producing a homicide rate of 21.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018.
InSight Crime Analysis
Given the bloodshed that cartel competition has inflicted on the Mexican border region, a relatively peaceful and unpoliced criminal enclave such as Playa Bagdad presents a striking anomaly. Below, InSight Crime considers how this criminal haven could have survived.
1. Permeation of Local Society
Mike Vigil, the former operations chief of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), describes Playa Bagdad as a region well-suited to the Gulf Cartel’s modus operandi of permeating local society and institutions.
“The Zetas prefer to bring in cocaine via aircraft,” he told InSight Crime. “The traffickers of the Gulf Cartel are like a little ant army. They go through the area of least resistance.”
Cocaine arrives at Playa Bagdad in go-fast boats directly from Colombia, or air-dropped into coastal waters, Vigil said. The traffickers then contract local fishermen to bring it into shore.
The same fishermen sometimes carry shipments up the coastline by night, unloading in the settlements of Corpus Christi or Padre Island in Texas. More commonly, the drugs are loaded into trucks at Playa Bagdad, and taken across the border over land.
Vigil confirms that Playa Bagdad’s few police are on the cartel’s payroll. The Mexican government admits that nearby border customs posts are directly controlled by the traffickers, according to the AP.
The Gulf Cartel’s grip on Playa Bagdad is facilitated by its long history in the area dating back to the early 1990s, and the fact that the cartel has not diversified into other drugs, but rather focused on cocaine.
2. The Zetas’ War on Two Fronts
Vigil emphasized that the Zetas expended huge resources on fighting the Sinaloa Cartel for regional expansion. By contrast, the Gulf Cartel have focused more narrowly on their areas of influence in eastern Mexico.
In this context of war on two fronts, Vigil suggested that it was not in the Zetas’ interest to contest a transshipment point that strongly favored the Gulf Cartel’s trafficking expertise over their own.
More recent developments have compounded this dynamic. The Zetas have been crippled by high-profile arrests and are now fragmented into splinter groups vying for control, while continuing to clash with the more powerful Sinaloa Cartel.
Although the Gulf Cartel has also suffered some fragmentation, their beleaguered rivals in Tamaulipas do not currently have the capacity to challenge them in the heart of their territory.
3. Federal Forces Are Distracted
Rather than address weaknesses in local law enforcement directly, the current Mexican government has attempted to compensate by deploying troops from the newly-created National Guard. These federal forces, however, are under pressure to prioritize hotspots of violence and illegal migration.
There are currently 1,215 National Guard members deployed in Tamaulipas, but none are to be seen around Playa Bagdad.
“The National Guard don’t have the resources or watercraft to patrol a beach area that’s so long,” Vigil explained. “They feel they can get the biggest bang for their buck operating in the cities.”
Although Tamaulipas’ governor has requested more National Guard troops to combat organized crime in the state, he was reportedly told that no elements were available, as the force is concentrated on containing migration over Mexico’s southern border.
The Gulf Cartel’s tight control over Playa Bagdad and use of the dunes as a clandestine cemetery has been an effective deterrent to migrants. In a political climate focused on illegal migration, this ensures that neither Mexican nor US forces have prioritized policing this section of the border.
As Tamaulipas’ rates of violence are currently falling, deploying the National Guard in larger regions of the state may not be a priority.