It was so simple once. The Gulf Cartel and its ancestors maintained control of Tamaulipas for eight decades.
In the 1930s, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra smuggled whisky across the Rio Grande during Prohibition. The enterprise swiftly grew to all types of contraband. By the 1980s, this business had been formalized in the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo – CDG).
Federal prosecutors. Border agents. Police officers. All of them answered to the group’s leader, Juan García Abrego. Guerra’s nephew, Abrego, was the first Mexican drug trafficker to be included in the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted List in 1985.
This marked the birth of the US-Mexico border cartels.
It couldn’t last.
In the 1990s, the Zetas, a paramilitary-style group of former Mexican special forces, were hired to guard CDG leadership. The story of how the Zetas grew in influence and membership until outsizing the CDG – as well as the war that ensued and its ongoing impact on violence in Mexico today – has been well documented.
The Zetas’ betrayal began a pattern of units created as bodyguards or enforcers eventually trying to supplant their own leaders. As the Cárdenas Guillén family, which led the CDG and had recruited the Zetas, fractured and struggled to maintain control, different “units” were created across Tamaulipas, ostensibly to guard specific leaders or cities. In Reynosa, the Metros; in Camargo and Mier, the Rojos. In later years, the Ciclones (Cyclones) arose in Matamoros. The Escorpiones (Scorpions) were the private guard of Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, alias “Tony Tormenta.” After he was killed in 2010, the Scorpions went to ground in Matamoros and are now allied to the Cyclones.
Over time, the Zetas would also split, only worsening Mexico’s criminal fragmentation. But their successors have been fewer, with the Old School Zetas (Zetas Vieja Escuela) and Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste) emerging as the main groups.
These names continue to haunt Tamaulipas to this day, engaging in a cycle of alliances and internecine warfare for control of what’s left of the united Gulf Cartel. Parts of Tamaulipas may seem calm for a while, only to fall into violence once again. Attempts to stop the violence are Sisyphean, with constant reporting of security forces arresting a leader of one faction or gunning down a commander of one another.
In recent months, Tamaulipas has been dealing with the aftermath of a June massacre that left 19 people dead in the city of Reynosa. The fallout has been confusing. The killings were allegedly carried out by the Cyclones and Scorpions to dislodge the Metros. One of those believed to be responsible was found murdered. The leader of the Metros was arrested by police, rescued in spectacular fashion by a commando of his own men and found dead weeks later. Then, the various warring CDG factions even signed a truce in July 2021.
Here, InSight Crime profiles the current status of the main players in the conflict with Tamaulipas:
Gulf Cartel Factions
Scorpions and Cyclones
The Cyclones are the Matamoros-based faction of the CDG. They have fought a long-running battle with the Metros in Reynosa, with both sides attacking each other’s strongholds at least since 2015. The Cyclones draw much of their influence from their control of the border crossing between Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas, along which drugs, weapons and contraband all flow, according to Borderland Beat. Since a flare-up of violence in 2015, the Cyclones seemed to have been pretty quiet until mounting the consorted attack, backed up by the Scorpions, on Reynosa in 2021. Five alleged members of this alliance have been charged with carrying out the Reynosa killings.
The Cyclones are also engaged in a war with the Northeast Cartel, a splinter Zetas group, for control of the municipalities of San Fernando, El Mante, Ocampo, Mendez, San Carlos and Ciudad Tula.
The Scorpions were founded after a fallout between two of the foremost CDG leaders, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, and his brother, Antonio Ezequiel. Created to stand up to the Zetas founded by Osiel, they were made up of former police and military personnel and stood out early on for their brutality and use of military-style tactics. After Antonio Ezequiel’s death in 2010, the group was believed to have been disbanded. But in 2015, in Matamoros and Tampico, a faction of the CDG emerged, calling themselves Scorpions Group (Grupo Escorpiones). They maintained their police connections as their leader was the former head of police of Madero, a city in Tamaulipas, before he too was killed.
Today, the Scorpions act very much in concert with the Cyclones. Some analysts describe the Scorpions as the armed wing of the Cyclones, viewing them as a single criminal threat. Their base is in Matamoros but messages left next to bodies confirm they have a presence in much of Tamaulipas. The June massacre, blamed on the two groups, marked the high point of a long and drawn-out conflict with the Metros, the CDG offshoot in Reynosa. This conflict has centred around control of the Pharr-Reynosa Bridge, an essential thoroughfare for drug trafficking between Tamaulipas and Texas.
However, the flurry of national attention and increased military operations in Tamaulipas seems to have contributed to a truce between the Scorpions, Metros and Rojos.
While the Metros were formed in Matamoros by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén back in the 1990s, their power base is now firmly in Reynosa and along Tamaulipas’ northern border in the towns of Camargo, Mier and Miguel Alemán. This control has lasted across several rivalries, as the Metros have been at the center of the CDG’s continued fragmentation. First, after the deaths and arrests of several Cárdenas Guillén family members, the Metros sided with Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, who assumed much of the control of the cartel. The Rojos, a rival faction that supported the Cárdenas Guillén clan were driven out of the border area toward the south of Tamaulipas in 2011.
In 2021, the Metros were the target of a campaign of violence by the Cyclones and Scorpions, culminating in the killing of 19 people in Reynosa last June. They signed a truce with the Cyclones, Scorpions and Rojos in July 2021 but alleged Metros leader, José Alfredo Hernández Campos, alias Comandante Calamardo, was found dead in September.
The Metros have also battled the Northeast Cartel for control of small municipalities between Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. However, these appear to now be firmly in the hands of the Northeast Cartel.
The split between the Metros and the Rojos in 2011 saw the latter come off worse. While their origins lie with the Cárdenas Guillén family, today they control less territory than their rivals in Tamaulipas. Their power base is in the very south of the state, along the border with Veracruz, centered in Altamira, Ciudad Madero and most importantly, Tampico.
They have engaged in sporadic violence but have seemed to mainly stay out of the recent violence focused on Reynosa. They were part of the Gulf Cartel truce in July 2021.
Little has been reported of late on the Panthers (Panteras), a smaller CDG offshoot based in southeastern Tamaulipas. They were formed and led by Eleno Salazar Flores, alias “Pantera 6,” and were also made up of former police officers used mainly for assassinations. Following Salazar Flores’ arrest in 2014, the group went quiet. Their area of control currently covers the municipalities of Abasolo, Soto la Marina, Aldama and González. These form a crucial corridor to move drugs from Veracruz up to the border.
As few outbreaks of violence have been reported there, it can be assumed the Panthers maintain a neutral collaboration with other CDG factions in the state.
Zetas Splinter Groups
The legitimacy of the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste – CDN) as the heirs to the Zetas is unimpeachable. When Zetas founder Omar Treviño Morales, alias “Z-42,” was captured in 2015, his brother Juan Francisco, pounced on the opportunity. The newly minted Northeast Cartel has become one of Mexico’s prime criminal threats, with a presence in key northern and central Mexican states where it is fighting prominent enemies, including the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
But the core of the Northeast Cartel’s power and revenue comes from its control of Nuevo Laredo, a key crossing into the United States, where eye-watering quantities of drugs are regularly seized. To the southeast, it has a presence in Mier, Camargo and Ciudad Alemán, where it has taken on the Metros.
The CDN’s armed wing, known as Tropa del Infierno (Hell Troop), rose to notoriety in 2019 and 2020 for a number of violent attacks on the CJNG and clashes with authorities.
However, drawing so much attention has not been a good thing. In 2021, Mexican security forces have hammered the CDN, killing a number of its members and arresting the leader of Tropa del Infierno in August.
It will also likely now come under pressure from more united CDG factions, which signed a truce in July and may choose to face off with a common enemy, the CDN.
Old School Zetas
While none of the Zetas splinter groups can hold a candle to the ferocity and membership of the originals, the Old School Zetas (Zetas Vieja Escuela) have tried their best. Beginning from a base in northern Veracruz, they have gradually spread across much of central and eastern Mexico in recent years, with operations in as Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Quintana Roo.
But one of their main objectives, much like their rivals from CDG, has been the control of Tamaulipas border towns. The Old School Zetas have been operating in the municipalities of Rio Bravo, Valle Hermoso, San Fernando, all of which area a straight shot up the Pacific coast from their Veracruz headquarters.
Their presence in Tamaulipas, to date, has been somewhat understated compared to their rivals. The Northeast Cartel, another Zetas splinter group, has been more proactive in carving out territory in the northern tip of Tamaulipas, especially in Nuevo Laredo.
However, that may change as it appears the Old School Zetas may have crossed the aisle and allied themselves with the Cyclones to take the fight to the CDN.
It is uncertain how the Old School Zetas will be affected by the truce between CDG splinter groups, which also seems focused on ousting the CDN