The pastor had just arrived at the shelter with sweetbread when the messages started. As he walked past migrants receiving haircuts and others waiting for services, his phone began to ring.
The pastor stepped outside. A punishing midday sun glistened on his forehead. He opened his phone, tapped on its screen, then pressed it to his ear. As he listened to the messages, he sighed.
By then, the pastor had gotten used to threats from members of the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste - CDN), an offshoot of the Zetas and the dominant group in Nuevo Laredo, a dusty, industrial city on the US-Mexico border in northern Tamaulipas. So the latest threats were more heart-wrenching than surprising.
“They’re monitoring all the shelters here,” he told InSight Crime, as we tried to escape the sun. “They’re extorting us and the migrants.”
Nearly all the migrant shelter directors in the city are under similar pressure. The Northeast Cartel operates unimpeded by rival groups or local authorities who are at times complicit in their criminal activity. The group has even kidnapped, in broad daylight, some migrant advocates who they see as cutting into their own illicit operations.
Their influence doesn’t stop at the migrant shelters. Along the banks of the Rio Grande, paid lookouts monitor all movement on both sides of the river. Other members survey parks and plazas where migrants are known to congregate. There are also those at bus stations looking to see who’s arrived from major cities like Monterrey.
In recent years, Mexico’s organized crime groups have become more directly involved in profiting from migrant smuggling. And in Nuevo Laredo, the Northeast Cartel has for years operated sophisticated kidnapping cells that abduct migrants en route or returned to the border city.
Since the pandemic, it has gotten worse for migrants. Policies like Title 42 dramatically expanded the potential pool of victims for predatory groups like the CDN. The so-called public health order, which is still active after first being implemented under former US President Donald Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, effectively closed the ports of entry to asylum seekers. This forced many to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities like Nuevo Laredo.
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The policy played right into the ever-expanding portfolios of Mexico’s criminal groups. Alongside extortion and drug trafficking, the many migrants present in this city of almost half a million people have become “el pan de cada día,” or “the daily bread,” for the Northeast Cartel, according to one human rights defender.
However, systematically controlling the movement of migrants and kidnapping those who resist is just one expression of the group’s criminal hegemony here. As we found out during our recent visit to the area, the CDN has a widespread portfolio, all of it contingent on its near total control of this space.
Hyper-local, Family Business
The Northeast Cartel draws much of its power in Nuevo Laredo from its hyper-local makeup and deep-seated historical roots in the city. The CDN formed about a decade ago from the ashes of the murderous Zetas, which also got its start in Nuevo Laredo. But the Zetas atomized after several deaths and the capture of key leaders like Miguel Treviño Morales, alias "Z40,” and Omar Treviño Morales, alias "Z42.”
What emerged were two competing splinter groups: the Northeast Cartel and the Old School Zetas. In Nuevo Laredo, the Northeast Cartel managed to wrestle control away from other Zetas and Gulf Cartel factions, which spread further east across the state’s Frontera Chica region.
That victory, in part, can be explained by the fact that the Northeast Cartel has always been a family affair. Juan Francisco Treviño Chávez, alias “El Kiko” and the nephew of Omar and Miguel, initially assumed leadership of the group. After his 2016 arrest, control of the group passed to yet another relative, Juan Gerardo Treviño Chávez, alias "El Huevo,” and the CDN largely consolidated under the family’s influence with local tentacles that gave it a competitive advantage.
This is very different from other parts of the border. In cities like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, and in the Sonoran desert, the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) migrated from their base to take advantage of the lucrative criminal opportunities available. In many cases, they’ve had to rely on alliances with local gangs to operate.
The Northeast Cartel, on the other hand, does not. Across the city, the letters “CDN” provide a snapshot of just how far the group’s reach extends. During our visit, we could see the letters spray painted on walls in several of the city’s most marginalized communities, on businesses in the heart of the main market, as well as on homes tucked just off major avenues.
“The [Northeast Cartel] decides what’s permitted and what isn’t,” said one government official who works with at-risk youth in a neighborhood controlled by the group.
This includes a total ban on robberies, carjackings, and assaults, according to local sources, as well as consumption and sales of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine. Local drug dealing and petty crimes still happen, of course, but sources said the Northeast Cartel is the “law and order.”
Members settle disputes as small as local neighborhood disagreements and hand down punishments, while at the same time overseeing the flow of drugs, people, and other contraband across the busiest land crossing on the US-Mexico border.
It’s a tense reality for residents of Nuevo Laredo. But sources said it’s nowhere near as bad as the period of intense fighting between the Sinaloa Cartel and Zetas, which peaked around 2012. In one particularly gruesome incident that year, nearly two dozen bodies were found either hanging from a bridge or decapitated and dumped near city hall.
With just one dominant group, these extraordinary displays of violence are far less common today, even if the consequences of disobeying the CDN’s rules are not.
“If you don’t obey the rules, they’ll kidnap you or sometimes kill those who have created problems,” the official explained.
An Arrest and a Tense Calm
In March 2022, the Mexican military arrested Treviño Chávez, sparking an extreme outbreak of violence marked by an hours-long firefight, burned-out vehicles, and shots fired at the United States Consulate.
Treviño Chávez had for years been a high-profile target for both the US and Mexican governments, and, as has happened in other places, some expected the arrest to lead to a power vacuum. But on our recent visit to Nuevo Laredo, sources said the group hadn’t lost any strength in the aftermath of the CDN leader’s capture, and no other groups appeared to be challenging its control.
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“It didn’t impact their operations at all,” the pastor explained. “They’ve still got everything tightly controlled.”
Part of the evidence for this is in the data. State authorities recorded less than 500 homicides in 2022, and the murder rate of about 13 per 100,000 citizens put Tamaulipas among the least homicidal states in the country. Both data points speak to continued CDN criminal hegemony.
However, a simmering conflict between organized crime and security forces remains, and tensions boiled over again last month. In the early morning hours of February 26, a military convoy pursued several individuals riding in a pickup truck after leaving a nightclub. The vehicles crashed and the soldiers eventually fired more than 60 bullets at the passengers, killing five of them. Neighbors alleged these were extrajudicial killings, that two of the victims were shot in the head execution-style while lying on the ground.
“It’s a fictional peace,” said one religious leader who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.
These days, there’s an ominous calm in Nuevo Laredo with just the Northeast Cartel. Locals still rely on a basic survival guide. The recommendations are simple. Don’t leave your house after 9 p.m. If there’s a military patrol or a convoy of pickups, keep a safe distance, monitor the direction they are headed, and go the opposite way.
*Victoria Dittmar contributed reporting to this article.