Susana Gonzalez / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Terror in Coahuila: Gas reserves beneath turf war in northern Mexico?

Texas researchers link spike in murders and disappearances to land grab in energy-rich Burgos Basin

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series, “Terror in Coahuila.” In light of the 43 Mexican students who went missing in the southern state of Guerrero last year, Al Jazeera is investigating earlier atrocities that occurred in the northern state of Coahuila but escaped the world’s attention. Part one of this series explores links between organized crime and local authorities that resulted in as many as 300 people disappeared, and part three will look at how violence and corruption in the state’s prisons mirrored what was happening on the streets.   

ALLENDE, Mexico — Mexico’s northern border area is full of semidesert lands with small cities, towns and ranches dedicated to livestock and forage crops. Under this inhospitable surface lies the world’s fourth-largest reserves of shale gas and 95 percent of Mexico’s coal.

The cycle of great violence began here — as in the nearby states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Veracruz — in 2009. From 2005 to 2009, there were 788 homicides in the state. In 2010 and 2011, Coahuila reported 1,067 homicides, according to the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System.

The prevailing explanation for the violence is that the ruthless Zetas cartel established control of the area while overwhelmed authorities did little to oppose them. But growing analysis links the violence to a corrupt group of government officials in whose jurisdiction lie millions of pesos in hydrocarbons.

“Energy Reform and Security in Northeastern Mexico,” a report published by the Mexico Center at Rice University, places the regional violence in the context of powerful economic interests. It is not the government’s version, that of a war among cartels for routes to the U.S., nor is it the concept of la plaza, or territorial control by criminal organizations. Rather, the struggle is for control of the more than 70,000 square miles of the Burgos Basin and its enormous gas reserves.

GATE forces at a checkpoint in Piedras Negras, Mexico, in 2012.
Adriana Alvarado / AP

“[In Coahuila] we have become aware of a new criminal system that involves organized crime working together in a systemic way with federal, state and municipal authorities and law enforcement,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor and the director of the department of government at the University of Texas at Brownsville. She and fellow Texas academic Tony Payan co-authored the Mexico Center report.

She has concluded that violence was used as a strategy to strip landowners and ranchers of large tracts of land in areas rich in gas, coal and water.

“A military practice was used to control not only the territory but the media. So under the pretext of a war between drug cartels, there was excessive violence — little or none of which was covered by the press. And what was achieved at the end of these months was that many of these lands were left vacant, ready to be acquired by big businessmen and other powerful men,” said Correa.

‘Los Zetas established a system of terror that was allowed.’

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

professor, University of Texas at Brownsville

Thanks to Mexico’s energy sector reforms passed in August 2014, the Mexican northeast is preparing to become a more influential region whose enormous semidesert expanses shared by Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila will put stratospheric earnings into the pockets of the owners of the land surface as well as those who control the exploitation of underground hydrocarbon deposits.

In December 2013, the federal government inaugurated a superhighway from Mazatlan to Durango that will soon extend to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico. This route from the Pacific to the Gulf crosses states that are home to 19 million Mexicans and generate wealth equivalent to 23 percent of the gross domestic product. Mazatlan will become not only the Pacific port of entry to the U.S. but also the gateway to Asia, currently the greatest market for hydrocarbons, according to the report by Correa and Payan.

“What seems curious to me is that there is a close relationship between the disputed regions — that is, those with higher levels of violence, confrontations between [assassins] and between them and the armed forces as well as the subsequent displacement of people from their lands and businesses — and those areas rich in hydrocarbons, particularly in the Sabinas Basin and the Burgos Basin,” said Correa.

“Los Zetas established a system of terror that was allowed,” she explained. An early result of this campaign of violence was that many ranchers and temporary tenants sold their land or simply abandoned it, although a formal count was never done.

“What I can say is what I saw,” said a former close associate of Humberto Moreira, governor of Coahuila from 2005 to 2010. The associate spoke with Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

“On one occasion I arrived at a Moreira family reunion, where some of his closest collaborators were. They displayed a large map that identified the lands they wanted to buy,” he said. “They were lands of the northern region. Whether they did or not — that’s something I don’t know. But the intention was there since 2010.”

Photos and belongings of missing people on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Saltillo, Mexico, in 2013.
Daniel Becerril / Reuters / Landov

The cycle of great violence — rampant assassinations, kidnappings and extortion —went into decline in mid-2013, a few months before Mexico’s Congress approved landmark reforms opening the energy industry to private capital for the first time in over 80 years.

“No one has yet dared to link one thing with the other, but when they do, they will realize that nothing was spontaneous,” said the former official in Moreira’s government. “The opening of the doors to this cartel carries very specific signals that impact the everyday lives of everyone.”

Moreira left his position as governor to lead the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2011. He resigned from that position in January 2011 after a scandal erupted over Coahuila’s debt ballooning from $27 million to nearly $3 billion while he was governor; his treasurer landed in prison on charges of conspiracy, money laundering and fraud. Forbes cited Moreira as one the 10 most corrupt Mexicans of 2013. Today Coahuila is governed by one of his brothers, Rubén Moreira.

In addition to the skyrocketing rate of homicides, perhaps the most terrible legacy of the spike in violence were forced disappearances — some 8,000 people from 2009 to 2014, according to the United Forces for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, an organization of victims’ family members. However the group cannot confirm which disappearances were carried out by state forces and which by narcotrafficking groups.

An an elite police force, ruthless and brutal, the Special Weapons Tactical Group (GATE), was formed in 2009 and really became operational in 2011 while Rubén Moreira was governor. GATE was created to respond to high-impact crimes.

Before sunrise on July 10, 2013, Victor Manuel Guajardo, 36, was at home with his wife and two younger children in their working-class neighborhood of Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

Around 3 a.m., they awoke startled after officers in uniform and black masks broke down the door with their rifles. Guajardo was severely beaten in front of his family and forced to climb into a black pickup truck.

Guajardo’s wife, Midiam Icelda Valdez, called her mother-in-law, a former federal agent, María Hortencia Rivas. The two women rushed to the GATE base in Piedras Negras, where they saw Guajardo with his hands and feet tied in the back of a truck. However, the official in charge denied having him, and while the women were distracted, GATE got rid of Guajardo.

In the following days, Rivas met with other mothers who shared similar stories. Together they formed Families United in the Search and Location of Missing People.

In six months the association documented 49 cases of forced disappearances carried out by GATE. The number of cases, which grows by two or three each week, led the mothers to seek legal advice from former prosecutor Ariana García Bosque, who discovered that GATE had acted without legal foundation since its formation.

"Before June 10, 2014, there was no legally existing State Security Coordination, which, according to the documentation submitted by the government, is the entity to which the GATE belongs. This means that all operations conducted by this elite body were illegal. What they did was commit simple homicide," García said.

GATE not only operates in practice as a clandestine group; it moves clandestinely. Its members use all-black vans without license plates and often drive with the lights off, with six or more members on board dressed in black or camouflage, body armor, helmets and masks. All their equipment, García said, is illegal and does not meet public safety rules.

On Dec. 6, García attended a meeting called by Rubén Moreira with the families of the disappeared. The event was promoted as a demonstration of institutional commitment to locating the missing people. But when García referred to the irregularities and crimes committed by GATE, Moreira interrupted her. “I’ll listen to you, but I’m not necessarily going to believe you,” he said.

“Clearly the elements of this corporation are protected,” she told Al Jazeera of the meeting. “And what is the reading that I have of this? Well, you have to send a message to their northern neighbors that violence in the state is controlled, that there is no longer the threat of organized crime if you come to invest, because there’s a highly effective police force able to defend them.”

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