The “Northeastern Cartel” and its false positives:
A case study
On the morning of September 5, 2019, news about gunfire in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, allegedly between drug traffickers from the “Northeastern Cartel” and official armed forces, circulated in local news channels. According to the Tamaulipas authorities, eight “sicarios,” five men and three women, first attacked state police agents who defended themselves and ultimately killed them inside an armored pick-up truck. In the following images made available by the police and then disseminated in social media, the alleged “sicarios” are seen in military-grade uniforms with the acronym “CDN,” identifying themselves as members of the “Cártel del Noreste,” the "Northeastern Cartel”. Police said that the group was part of a unit known as the “Troop from Hell”, the “armed branch” of the CDN (Infobae).
Three days later, Kassandra Trevino, the 18-year-old daughter of one of the men executed, denounced that her father Severiano was in fact taken from their home by state police agents, who brutally beat him and forced him, in his own
• Fl Extra Tamaulipas v
EN #NuevoLaredo @SEDENAmx Y GPO DE
OPERACIONES ESPECIALES DE frTAMAULIPAS AL REPELER AGRESION DAN MUERTE A 8 SICARIOS DEL CDN "TROPA DEL INFIERNO"
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Figure 17.1 Images circulated in social media about the killing of eight alleged “sicarios” of the “Troop from Hell”, an armed group link to the “Northeastern Cartel”, later identified as civilians forced by state police agents to wear tire militarystyle uniforms attributed to the group.
bedroom, to change his clothes into the military uniform that he was still wearing hours later when he and the other “sicarios” were found dead. Holding her infant child in arms, Kassandra was also beaten but then released. She was told to walk away and not look back or she and her child would be shot. The Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, a civil organization, interviewed witnesses with similar claims regarding the other victims and denounced that the entire massacre was staged to manufacture another episode of Mexico’s “war on drugs”. A week later, the High Commissioner of Human Rights of the United Nations decided to hear and investigate the case, that some in the media already called a "false positive” (Zerega), referring to a recurrent tactic of the Colombian army, which reportedly murdered about 10,000 civilians between 2002 and 2010, disguising the extrajudicial killings as the result of confrontations with guerrilla combatants (Daniels).
In rapid response, the majority in the Senate from Morena - the ruling political party - referred to the killing of eight “citizens” and not “sicarios,” denouncing the incident as an "extrajudicial execution,” in consequence with the federal government’s new security policy (Mercado). On January 30, 2019, about eight weeks after the inauguration of his presidency, President López Obrador announced the end to the "drug war,” that is, the immediate cease of all antidrug militarized efforts. Then on February 28, he achieved his most important political victory so far with almost unanimous congressional approval for the creation of a National Guard under civil command that is scheduled to replace all military security tasks within five years. Acting on campaign promises to demilitarize all anti-drug efforts, the AMLO government proposed the decriminalization of illegal dings and a judicial process of amnesty for those who committed non-aggravated crimes under the current prohibitionist laws.
There was, as expected, a strong reaction among governors, federal and state police, and even certain sectors of the Mexican army. Proceso magazine reported that the simulated "narco” confrontation in Nuevo Laredo took place nine days after Tamaulipas governor, Francisco Javier García Cabeza de Vaca, called on López Obrador to pledge a “joint strategy to end violence and insecurity” (Diaz). The notion of the “joint strategy” carries here a key significance in Mexico’s recent history. In 2006, then president Calderón followed a substantial expansion in public spending in security by militarizing his government to carry a “war against drugs” consisting of a national operation with 13 “joint strategies” between the federal government and those states most affected by the drug trade, according to combined US-Mexico military intelligence. There is now clear evidence, based on official data, that the deployment of thousands of soldiers and police agents broke a decade-long descent of homicides nationwide and in fact coincided with a dramatic surge in violence in those same regions occupied by federal armed forces.2
By pleading for yet another "joint strategy”, the governor of Tamaulipas seemed to be instigating a renewal of the logic of the federal government's “war on drugs.” Let us briefly assess the numbers in the case in point: the simulated narco confrontation took place in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Tamaulipas. As most of the states now associated with the “drug war”, Tamaulipas showed a steady decline in its homicide rate until the anti-drug strategy began. The most violent year before the militarization in nearly two decades had been 1992, with a total of 407 murders. The homicide rate fluctuated in the following years but with a descent in 2007 to a total of 189 murders, the least violent 12 months in 15 years (Escalante Gonzalbo, El homicidio, 27). The homicide rate then was 8.78 per 100 thousand inhabitants, below the national average of 8.78. When the militarized “joint strategy” began on February 18, 2007, it did not respond to a particularly violent scenario in Tamaulipas, but in fact occupied a state with significant less violence than, for example, the state of Mexico, where a historical homicide rate six times higher than Tamaulipas did not provoke military action. By 2010 there were a total of 721 homicides in Tamaulipas. That figure increased again in 2012 to a total of 1,562, a homicide rate of29.75 per 100 thousand inhabitants. The only other state with such violence surge was Chihuahua. After a similar steady decline in murders from 1997 to 2007, Ciudad Juárez alone recorded a historic homicide rate of 250 per 100 thousand inhabitants in 2010, with a total of 3,622 killings, all while the militarization was supposed to be fighting drug cartels
Dispossession by militarization 229 precisely to curb the violence (Fierro). In this discussion, as I argue in the following section, the phenomenon of forced displacement has been overlooked as most scholarship resorts to conventional approaches to the country’s high murder rates and the resulting waves of migration to the United States.