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The troubled state of Tamaulipas: 'The narcos rule our lives'

Reynosa barletti la times

Tamaulipas, a state in Mexico's northeast across from Texas, is currently the site of some of the most severe clashes in Mexico's drug war. Fierce fighting between drug gangs and the military in the streets of several cities has been reported, and at least one town emptied out in response to the violence, its residents becoming "refugees" in their own country.

A few weeks ago, a battle in the city of Matamoros ended in the death of the Gulf cartel capo known as "Tony Tormenta." News reports across the border made it sound terrifying.

Tamaulipas' crisis stems mainly from a turf fight between the state's two chief criminal organizations. The Gulf cartel and its splinter group, the Zetas (originally composed of former Mexican special forces soldiers), are battling over routes used to send drugs into the United States.

For people in Tamaulipas attempting to go about their daily lives, the drug war is a source of confusion, fear and helplessness.

Here are two recent in-depth reports from the state by Los Angeles Times correspondents in Mexico, Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson.

Ellingwood writes from the border city of Nuevo Laredo, where a resident speaks in hushed tones about rumors of a recent gunfight. "As usual, details were elusive," Ellingwood writes.

Wilkinson writes from Reynosa, farther south along the Rio Grande, where the dominance of the Gulf cartel is felt almost immediately at the airport. One unnamed Reynosa resident tells Wilkinson about a frightening incident at a highway checkpoint set up by a group of Zetas. The woman sometimes uses roads on the U.S. side to commute from her smaller town to Reynosa, and proclaims with resignation:

"This is out of the government's hands," says the commuter, 46 and wound tightly. "Mexico has been sacrificed and sold to the narcos. It is the narcos who have the power."

"The narcos rule our lives," she says. "They order. We must obey."

Dozens, perhaps hundreds have died in recent weeks, but reliable tolls are hard to come by. Most news organizations in Tamaulipas practice self-censorship, and out-of-town or foreign journalists have been intimidated or threatened upon arrival.

Some people in Tamaulipas use Facebook and Twitter to stay informed on the shootouts, but the social networking sites often generate false rumors. Today, for example, a rumor spread on Twitter that U.S. Marines had entered Nuevo Laredo.

The situation is also grim in other states. This week the federal government warned Mexicans in the United States who plan to drive home to Mexico for the holidays to move in convoys and only in the daytime.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The central plaza in Reynosa, almost deserted, Nov. 2. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson