EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — As gun battles raged on the streets of Nuevo Laredo for a third consecutive day, Mexican authorities seemed to finally be getting the upper hand over those who started the violence.
However, the fighting continued and the risk of collateral damage to civilians — including any Americans still in the city — remained high.
“The Consulate continues to monitor reports of ongoing violence and blockades on major highways in Nuevo Laredo. U.S. government personnel remain subject to enhanced restrictions on their movements and are under curfew,” the U.S. Consulate tweeted.
According to analysts, a drug cartel that’s been a recent target of police forces is responsible for launching a retaliatory, all-out attack on New Year’s Eve. Officers patrolling the San Rafael neighborhood were the first to be fired upon.
Later, the fighting centered around the Villarreal Hotel, where the elite CAIET Tamaulipas state police force is based. At least eight people — most of them CDN members — have been killed in three days of gun battles. An undetermined number of officers, drug traffickers and civilians have been wounded as well.
CAIET in the past year has been aggressively engaging the Cartel Del Noreste, or CDN, a splinter group of the once-powerful Zetas drug cartel, analysts said. Mexican press reports in August documented a firefight in which state forces killed seven cartel gunmen; in November, two state officers were arrested for alleged unauthorized killings of CDN members. Social media accounts under the hashtag #furianegra (the Black Fury, the unit’s nickname) constantly mock CDN and post photos of dead traffickers.
In turn, the cartel has been targeting CAIET members and anyone who assists them. In September, gas station and restaurant owners were threatened with arson if they served police officers or the military.
“They (CDN) really have drawn a lot of heat on themselves by declaring war on the state police special forces,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of analysis at Stratfor, an Austin-based global intelligence company. “From my perspective, it’s going very poorly for them. They seem to be taking disproportionate loses. […] It’s almost illogical why they keep pushing because they’re taking a beating so badly.”
Stewart said the attack is reminiscent of how the old Juarez cartel, mortally wounded by the Sinaloa cartel years ago, launched attacks and made car-bomb threats at the government, whom they perceived to be helping their rivals.
“There could be a perception among CDN that perhaps the government is favoring their rivals, so they don’t have much choice but to go after the government this way,” he said.
Even though the CDN offensive has had little tactical success, the attacks have frightened people on both sides of the border and danger persists for anyone who is in Nuevo Laredo.
“Americans are not directly targeted, but certainly with the weapons these guys are using — grenades, automatic weapons — there is a huge possibility of collateral damage,” Stewart said. “Think about driving your vehicle, whether it’s a cargo truck, a bus, a car, and being carjacked or having it used for a blockade and set on fire in the middle of the road. All those things could happen to regular citizens.”
The state turned up the heat against the CDN since Francisco Javier Garcia Cabeza de Vaca took over as governor of Tamaulipas. In late 2017, the governor made it clear there would be no collusion — nor mercy — with organized criminal groups.
“We are going forth, we are going against the enemies of peace in Tamaulipas. There will be no quarter against those who use violence. We are going to reestablish peace, order and the rule of law in the state,” Cabeza de Vaca said as he delivered armored cars and new weapons to the state police.
Stewart said Mexican authorities have a “huge opportunity” to weaken the cartel and recoup Nuevo Laredo. However, he fears that other groups will step in quickly to fill the void.
“We could see other actors attempt to muscle in because the ‘plaza’ (Nuevo Laredo) is really lucrative. It leads to the I-35 corridor, the NAFTA highway (in Texas) that feeds into the heart of the United States, and it’s just a gold mine for any organization that owns it,” he said.