It took the dramatic killing of two US citizens in early March to put Matamoros on the criminal map, but it is a place the Mexican border city has long occupied.
In the most recent manifestation of this newfound attention, Mexican and United States authorities have taken steps against the Scorpions, a splinter group of the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo – CDG), blamed for kidnapping and murdering two US citizens and a Mexican woman on March 3 in Matamoros.
The resulting pressure and diplomatic tension led the Scorpions to leave five of their men, allegedly responsible for the act, handcuffed on the street with a letter of apology. Officials from the city’s emergency services are also being investigated for alleged complicity in the crime, including allowing the Scorpions to transport the victims in a public ambulance.
But Matamoros and neighboring cities have seen regular acts of violence, which do not always receive such attention. The town sits across the border from Brownsville, Texas, making it a busy crossing point for cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamine, weapons, and contraband.
And while the same could be said for any significant US-Mexico border crossing, Matamoros is part of one of Mexico’s most complex criminal landscapes in northern Tamaulipas.
Violent Spiral of the Gulf Cartel
The CDG’s control of the Brownsville-Matamoros crossing to the key criminal economies outlined above stretches back to the 1930s and a whisky runner named Juan Nepomuceno Guerra. Guerra’s relatives kept control of contraband across the Rio Grande for decades, although the CDG name was only established in the 1980s.
This enviable criminal legacy has now been broken. The Gulf Cartel is no longer united. The capture and killing of several key leaders, and long-running feuds with the Zetas and their descendants, the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste – CDN), have seen the CDG become more of a franchise. Colorfully named splinter groups, each based in a different part of Tamaulipas and neighboring states, waver between alliances and shootouts.
Matamoros has not escaped this cycle of violence. According to a document by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) identifying Gulf Cartel leaders, Matamoros was under the leadership of José Alfredo Cárdenas Martínez, alias “El Contador” (The Accountant), who was arrested in February 2022.
Cárdenas Martínez was one of the last connections to the traditional leadership of the CDG as the nephew of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. The latter was one of Mexico’s most-wanted drug lords and was arrested in Matamoros in 2003 before being extradited to the United States in 2007.
Cárdenas Martínez had been the CDG leader in Matamoros since 2015, according to the DEA, and is wanted in the US Southern District of Texas for trafficking cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl.
It is speculated that his replacement is José Alberto García Villano, alias “Kena” o “Ciclón 19,” Tamaulipas’ most-wanted man who has been directly linked to the kidnapping of the US citizens.
García Villano allegedly controls the Scorpions and their allies, the Cyclones, in Matamoros. If true, this would be typical of the broad but limited geographical power that each CDG cell enjoys. According to an InSight Crime investigation in 2021, a separate faction, the Metros, controls the border city of Reynosa to the west and has violently clashed with the Scorpions in the past.
Two smaller groups, the Panteras and the Rojos, control the movement of migrants and drugs through the center and south of Tamaulipas. CDG factions in other states include the Pelones in Quintana Roo and Grupo Sombra in San Luis Potosí and Veracruz.
“While [these factions] do belong to transnational groups, they have their local interest, criminal priorities, and agenda…which creates new conflicts,” said Marisol Ochoa, a Tamaulipas security analyst at the Ibero-American University, told InSight Crime.
In June 2021, a feud between the Matamoros and Reynosa factions, reportedly for control of the Pharr International Bridge, led to 15 deaths in a single day. But a truce between them appears to be holding.
For Ochoa, this instability has become cyclical. Smaller groups mean frequent changes of leadership, which in turn lead to constant adjustments in the way criminal economies are run.
Incursions by the CDN, which is more united and controls the important border city of Nuevo Laredo, have only increased the pressure on the CDG.
The alleged involvement of emergency services in Matamoros in the kidnapping of American citizens is the tip of the iceberg.
“That is a very local and daily example, which is representative of more secretive situations, such as the cooptation of the political and security field,” said Ochoa.
Even for Mexico’s long history of corruption, Tamaulipas stands out.
In 2021, Matamoros’ Mayor Mario López Hernández allegedly paid a monthly salary of over $500 to a senior CDG figure, Evaristo Cruz Sánchez, alias “El Vaquero,” according to the Mexican newspaper, El Universal, citing data from Mexico’s National Transparency Platform. The mayor denied this accusation.
Two of the state’s four last governors — Tomás Yarrington and Francisco Cabeza de Vaca — face accusations of connections to the CDG and Zetas. Both allegedly took bribes in exchange for allowing the criminal groups to expand in the state.
“Tamaulipas is a state where there is no justice…all its former governors have faced legal procedures,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a Mexican criminal investigator, in a recent interview with Mexico’s Radio Fórmula.
Security forces have also been involved. After Matamoros’ municipal police force was suspected of extensive connections to organized crime, it passed under the supervision of the state government in September 2020.
“While the town of Matamoros is small, there is a high degree of complicity [between criminal networks and the state],” said Ochoa.
No New Strategies
In 2018, the cities of Tamaulipas dominated the rankings of Mexico’s most violent places. Homicides there have calmed down since. But this may likely be due to groups such as the CDG and CDN implementing localized criminal hegemonies instead of innovative security strategies.
And outbreaks of violence, such as the Reynosa rampage in 2021 or the recent Matamoros killings, show these gains remain fragile.
As Ochoa pointed out, a change in ordinarily stable political or security dynamics can provoke a backlash.
Tamaulipas saw an example of this in Nuevo Laredo in March 2022. After the arrest and immediate extradition of CDN leader Juan Gerardo Treviño Chávez, alias “El Huevo,” the city was paralyzed by gang members opening fire on security forces, burning vehicles, and shooting at buildings, including the local US consulate.
A few months later, the arrest of CDG lieutenant Víctor Hugo Téllez, alias “El Chaparro,” saw similar acts of violence in Matamoros.
This puts the Scorpions’ unusual act of contrition — writing an apology and handing over their own men — into perspective. Doing so may have been an attempt to lessen the chances of a security backlash and a manhunt for their leaders.
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