A cloud of uncertainty remains over Matamoros as threats of violence continue to disrupt everyday life, four days after the Mexican military killed the head of the Gulf Cartel after a lengthy firefight.
Officials say that southbound traffic into the Mexican city had slowed to a trickle after widespread gunfire over the weekend left an unknown death toll that is still creating controversy.
As a result of the shootouts, the Mexican military announced Friday night the death of Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, the man they considered the head of the Gulf Cartel.
Since then, the residents of Matamoros have been living in fear, expecting additional violence and with some of them fleeing the city.
The reluctance of people on the U.S. side of the border to venture into Matamoros can be seen by the diminished lines to cross the bridges.
Traffic figures from the weekend through Tuesday were not readily available, but reports from the three international bridges in Brownsville indicated that few vehicles were going across.
Despite the lack of people crossing, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers remained vigilant at their posts, Eduardo Perez, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said.
“Our officers use their behavioral analysis and training at all times and if they detect anything out of the ordinary either in the behavior of the traveler or in the vehicle being used, they will take appropriate action,” Perez said.
Rumors of future violence have been circulating around Matamoros, creating fear among residents. On Tuesday morning, the Universidad Autonoma de Tamaulipas, a local university in Matamoros, canceled classes after receiving a bomb threat. On Monday morning, at least 15 schools had canceled classes because of bomb threats.
“This is real scary,” said a Matamoros mother who picked up her children from school and is currently staying in Brownsville. “We don’t know if the threats are real, but the ‘marina’ (navy) helicopters are in the sky all the time, and then I hear screeching tires. This is no way to live. I don’t care if my children get held back a year. I’m staying over here.”
A source with firsthand knowledge of criminal activity in Mexico stated that the Gulf Cartel is preparing for a push by the rival Zetas sometime this week.
The source said that a large contingent of Zetas is amassing forces in San Fernando apparently trying to take advantage of the blows sustained by the Gulf Cartel. He added that both sides are preparing for the push but didn’t know when or if they would clash.
The perceived threats of violence have taken a toll on locals who say their businesses have suffered. While sources reported a confrontation along Alvaro Obregon Street, Emigdio Garcia, one of the owners of Hotel Residencial, stated that his hotel didn’t suffer any attack but the fear of violence has scared his customers. On Friday, Garcia reported receiving various cancellations at some of his other businesses.
“The fear of fighting keeps (customers) away,” Garcia said. “My businesses are safe, but the customers fear the violence. Those people don’t say when a battle will happen. It just does. ... (Customers) can come to my businesses and see that it’s safe and nothing happened here.”
There have been conflicting reports as to funeral services for Cardenas Guillen, known as “Tony Tormenta.”
One source stated that funeral services for the deceased drug lord were held Sunday night in Matamoros at a small private ceremony, and that Cardenas Guillen was buried Tuesday morning at a local cemetery. But a Mexican law enforcement official, who asked that his name not be released, stated that the body of Cardenas Guillen was still in the possession of authorities and had yet to be claimed.
Over the weekend, the body of Carlos Alberto Guajardo, a reporter for El Expreso newspaper in Matamoros, was laid to rest. It was reported that Guajardo was killed Friday morning in the crossfire during a firefight between the Mexican military and cartel gunmen, but details of his work and his death were not known. The newspaper said it had registered a complaint with the Mexican Human Rights Commission asking for a thorough investigation into his death.
Controversy surrounds the weekend death toll in Tamaulipas, with Mexican authorities claiming that only 10 people were killed, including Cardenas Guillen, four of his bodyguards, four military troops and the reporter.
But a Mexican law enforcement official who asked that his name not be released stated on Saturday that the two-day toll was “easily more than 100,” including some civilians.
According to a press release from the Mexican navy, for the operation that killed Cardenas Guillen, the Navy deployed more than 660 marines, three helicopters and 17 vehicles.
In a later interview over the weekend, the military announced that the Escorpiones, the personal guard of Cardenas Guillen, had deployed snipers to balconies in the downtown area of Matamoros who tried to rescue their leader during a three-hour firefight.
For the death toll, the Mexican navy said it included only Cardenas Guillen and his bodyguards Sergio Antonio Fuentes (known as “El Tyson” or “Escorpion 1”), Raul Marmolejo Gomez (“Escorpion 18”), Hugo Lira (“Escorpion 26”) and Refugio Adalberto Vargas Cortez (“Escorpion 42”).
Naval officials, who also confirmed the death of three marines, wouldn’t comment on reports of a high death toll. In a separate press release, the Mexican army announced the death of one of its soldiers. Authorities have also acknowledged the death of the reporter.