Mother’s Day Massacre: Los Zetas and Sinaloa Behead, Hack and Taunt

By Jamie Dettmer

The struggle between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel for control of north-east Mexico took another macabre turn during Mother’s Day weekend with the discovery of dozens decapitated bodies on the highway east of Cadereyta.

The bodies were found on May 13. Initially, the authorities said they had found 49 bodies in garbage bags with their heads, hands and feet cut off. But officials said the death toll could reach 70.

Investigators are working to match the parts and identify the victims. At least six of the victims were women.

A narco-message left near the bodies was signed by Los Zetas but police believe that the Gulf cartel, a Sinaloa Federation ally, may have been responsible and have arrested eight Gulf members. The bodies were found near the 47 km marker on Highway 40. That road leads to Reynosa, an area that Los Zetas have been challenging the Gulf Cartel for control.

Officials from the Mexican Defense Department said the men were captured in the Nuevo Leon municipality of China and that soldiers seized a kilo of cocaine, four rifles, a handgun, ammunition, and three hand grenades.

Los Zetas in the wake of the dumping of the bodies posted banners denying any part in the incident. One the of the banners stated, “[W]hen we hang banners we say ‘Las Golfas,’ and they say ‘Golfo.’”

Mexico’s interior and justice ministries are scrambling to provide beefed-up federal assistance to state authorities in Tamaulipas following the discovery of another 23 bodies in the embattled border city of Nuevo Laredo on May 4.

The escalation of cartel-related violence in the city has prompted federal and state forces assigned to a joint Regional Coordination Group to be placed on maximum alert. The Army took over a year ago security work in Nuevo Laredo after the municipal police force was disbanded.

The Secretary of the Interior, Alejandro Poiré Romero, held meetings on May 5 with the governor of Tamaulipas, Egidio Torre Cantú, and said he would have the full support of federal forces “to assist in the security of the state.”

In a statement released by the Interior Ministry, Poiré said federal and state authorities would “continue fighting in close collaboration and coordination, the criminals responsible for the violence that has occurred in Nuevo Laredo.”

The bodies dangling from a bridge or dismembered and stuffed in ice chests and trash bags marks a further gruesome escalation in the struggle between the country’s two largest cartels, the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas, for dominance of lucrative drug trafficking routes in northeast Mexico into the U.S.

Nine of the bodies – five men and four women—were found hanging from a highway overpass at the junction of National Road and Boulevard Luis Donaldo Colosio and bore clear signs of torture.

The State prosecutor, Victor Almanza, told Agora that most of the victims wore jeans, shirts and but had no shoes on and “all had their hands tied behind their backs and had bullet wounds in different parts of their bodies.” Some were blindfolded and the victims had no identification on them but appeared to be between 25 and 30 years old.

The bodies were accompanied by a crude, profanity-filled narco-banner draped nearby and apparently from Los Zetas. Addressed to the Gulf cartel, an ally of the Sinaloa Federation, it warned: “F******(Golfas) whores, this is how I’m going to finish off every f*****you send to heat up the plaza. You have to f*** up sometime and that’s when I’m gonna put you in your place…See you around f******.”

Just hours after police found 14 decapitated bodies in black trash bags in a parked truck behind a government customs building. The missing heads were stuffed in three ice chests and left near the office of the city mayor. All 14 victims were men and in their twenties, said state prosecutors.

A narco-message was placed near the ice coolers, this time apparently from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Federation’s boss, consisting of threats against the mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Benjamin Galvan, and state and municipal public safety officials.

The mayor was likened to the character Willy Wonka from the film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the message was a direct response to a claim Galvan made on April 24 that the Sinaloa Federation doesn’t have a presence in the city. “They want credibility that I work here (?),” the message mockingly enquired.

The message promised that while the mayor continued to live in a world of chocolate “saying that nothing is happening here and all is well” heads will keep rolling. The message signed off: “All who died in Nuevo Laredo is pure scum or Z!! Attn: Your father Joaquin El Chapo Guzman.”

This is the second time that El Chapo has responded to the mayor’s insistence on April 24 that the Sinaloa Federation isn’t operational in Nuevo Laredo. The day after Galvan made the claim a car bomb was exploded outside the city’s Ministry of Public Security.

The narco-message left by Los Zetas with the nine bodies hanging from the overpass on May 4 blamed the Sinaloa Federation for the bombing, according to El Norte newspaper.

The Attorney General of Tamaulipas state, Bolivar Hernandez Garza, says investigators are having “difficulties in identifying the bodies”. He added: “The identification and investigations of events of this nature are very demanding work for the experts,” he said. “In 14 cases the bodies were separated from the head, and this makes the work on identification even more challenging,” he added.

The federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) dispatched a team of prosecutors, forensic experts and crime of scene coordinators from Mexico City to assist state authorities in the investigation as well as to help to identify the victims. The prosecutors from the Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime are being charged with opening an organized crime case. “The goal is to work collaboratively to expedite the investigation and to trace the perpetrators,” says a PGR spokesman.

The increased tempo and brutality of tit-for-tat slayings in the confrontation between El Chapo and Los Zetas has prompted widespread horror in Mexico. The killings have ranged across the north of the country.

At least 20 suspected drug gang members, a police officer and a soldier have been killed in six confrontations in Sinaloa since April 28, a spokesman for local prosecutors there said.

But the worst of the violence since April has taken place in the states of Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.

The two cartels have been trading insults via narco-banners, goading and taunting each other as the bodies have piled up. The worst incidents in April included:

  • The discovery on April 10 of the dismembered bodies of five young men near a primary school in Culiacan. A narco-banner nearby accused the Sinaloa cartel leader of being in league with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and was signed “Los Zetas”.
  • The butchering on April 17 in Nuevo Laredo of 14 alleged Zetas by the Sinaloa Federation. The mangled and mutilated corpses were grouped in two rows underneath a banner proclaiming that “El Chapo” will clean out Los Zetas. The banner also boasted: “We have begun to clear Nuevo Laredo of Zetas.” and
  • The killing of 17 people on April 20 by gunmen dressed in black tactical gear with skull patches on their sleeves who burst into a neighborhood bar in the city of Chihuahua and opened fire, according to state and city authorities.

According to international consultancy, Stratfor, El Chapo is relying on an allied cartel for many of the Sinaloa Federation attacks in Tamaulipas. The consultancy said in an April report that New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) has become a real force within El Chapo’s Sinaloa Federation and that the group has developed tactical capabilities that make it a “formidable opponent” for the well-trained and armed Los Zetas.

The Arrest of El Jaguar

Another serious law-enforcement blow delivered against the Sinaloa cartel in the state of Chihuahua has prompted confidence among Mexican officials that it is only a matter time before they manage to catch the transnational crime group’s elusive leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The arrest in February of Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo, the alleged leader of the Gente Nueva gang, an enforcement group within the Sinaloa drug cartel, came just days after the fatal shooting by an army special-forces unit of another aide to Guzman, Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia.  Cabrera’s brother, Felipe, thought to be one of the most trusted of Guzman lieutenants, was arrested in December.

All three fulfilled major roles for the Sinaloa cartel in Chihuahua and the neighboring state of Durango. Their collective loss to the cartel represents the biggest setback Guzman has experienced in years, say Mexican law-enforcement officials.

Marrufo was arrested in Leon, in central Guanajuato state, along with his bodyguard, Manuel Alonso Magaña Barajas, a 26-year-old native of Mazatlan, Sinaloa. The two were traveling in a Land Rover and weapons, crystal meth and communications equipment were seized by police. Mexico’s counter-narcotics police chief, Ramon Eduardo Pequeno, said at a press conference during which Torres was presented to the media: “This arrest represents a strong blow to the Cartel del Pacifico.”

Torres Marrufo, nicknamed El Jaguar, was wanted in connection with numerous crimes, including murder, extortion, kidnapping and the sale and distribution of drugs, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office, who offered a $150,000 reward for his capture.

He is subject also of an arrest warrant issued by U.S. authorities in El Paso, Texas. The U.S. federal indictment in El Paso charges him with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine, distribution of cocaine, money laundering and supplying drug traffickers with firearms.

His most infamous alleged crime was masterminding the September 2009 massacre of 18 people at Casa Aliviane, a drug rehabilitation clinic in Ciudad Juarez —  a massacre thought at the time to be connected to a settling of scores between rival cartels. The mass slaying was surgical and methodical in nature: masked gunmen raised the clinic, ordered patients to line up in a corridor and shot them.

According to a statement to the press released by the federal police, Torres was the mastermind of the operation.

He has also been linked by Mexican and U.S. authorities to the slayings of a New Mexico bridegroom, Morales Valencia, and several of his relatives during a wedding in Juarez. In that incident, gunmen burst into the wedding ceremony at Senor de la Misericordia Catholic church, abducted the bridegroom, his brother and uncle.

In the arrest of Torres Marrufo, intelligence was crucial – as it was in the fatal shooting in January of Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia, and of his brother, Felipe, in December. In all three cases, federal chose in their statements to stress the importance of intelligence and of intelligence sharing between federal and state law-enforcement agencies.

Federal police said in their statement after the arrest of Torres Marrufo that the operation to seize him was “based on intelligence work, placing him in the city of Leon.” In its statement, the Public Safety Secretariat said the arrest “followed an intelligence operation and the exchange of information with law enforcement agencies.”

According to Milenio magazine, Torres Marrufo had only recently moved to Leon on the orders of his boss, Guzman. During his time in the city he visited frequently a golf club, El Bosque Golf Club, but never played a round of golf. At the clubhouse he met regularly a woman with dark skin and who spoke with a northern accent. They arrived and left the clubhouse separately, workers at El Bosque told the magazine.

He used to arrive at the club casually dressed but always wore brand-name clothing, including shirts and other clothing from GAP, Lacoste and Polo. When paraded before the media after his arrest, El Jaguar wore designer jeans and a burgundy T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Armani.”

Federal police say that Torres Marrufo confessed to having been recruited by the Sinaloa cartel in 2002 and oversaw the elimination of rivals to the Sinaloa cartel in Chihuahua state and Juarez, especially the Juarez cartel and La Linea. He worked initially under the command of Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, the alleged number two of the Sinaloa cartel.

At the press conference, Pequeno Garcia said Marrufo had been the leader of an assassination group known as the Murdering Artists (Artistas Asesinos) since 2009 and was made the head of Sinaloa’s Gente Nueva after the arrest in October 2011 of Noel Salgueiro Nevarez, nicknamed “El Falco”, in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state.

Other rivals Marrufo targeted included Barrio Azteca, a gang linked to the Juarez drug cartel. Barrio Azteca is allegedly headed by Eduardo Ravelo, alias “El Tablas.”

Last April, a raid by Mexican police on a property owned by Marrufo in Juarez turned up 40 high-powered assault weapons linked with Operation Fast and Furious, the controversial Phoenix-based operation run by the Arizona field office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which allowed illegal gun purchases to be made in Arizona for tracing purposes.

According to the Mexican police, the basement of the house had been converted into a gym with a wall covered with built-in mirrors and in a hidden room there the Fast and Furious weapons were discovered along with an antiaircraft machine gun, a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher. After the seizure, Chihuahua state Governor Cesar Duarte said: “We have seized the most important cache of weapons in the history of Ciudad Juarez.”

Guzman, who was born in 1957, in La Tuna, Sinaloa, has eluded authorities since escaping from the Puente Grande maximum security prison in the western state of Jalisco in 2001 in a laundry truck. He had been arrested in 1993 in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico. Forbes magazine has ranked him as one of the world’s richest men and there is a $7m bounty on his head.

In the autumn, Mexican President Felipe Calderon indicated in a press interview that Mexican authorities were close on his heels and that the “Mexican army probably a couple of times has been in the place where hours before Chapo was.”

The recent setbacks being experienced by the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico are not, though, apparently impacting the transnational crime group’s efforts to expand operations to other countries in the region. Days before the arrest of Marrufo, authorities in the Dominican Republic said they had detected in the north of the island the presence of the Sinaloa cartel.

Anibal de Castro, the Caribbean country’s ambassador to the United States, told a U.S. Senate hearing that a Mexican named Luis Fernando Castillo Bertolucci confessed after his capture that the Sinaloa cartel “seeks to create a route to Europe via the Dominican Republic.”

The diplomat said that there was evidence that the Sinaloa cartel is now operating in the Dominican towns of Santiago, La Vega and Jarabacoa and that the cartel may “be getting help from Dominican criminal groups in the Cibao region to acquire chemicals used in the manufacture of narcotics.”