PROGRESO, Mexico (AP) — Every Sunday, some 100 people gather for pick-up baseball games in a dusty open field marked only by a dirt mound and rusted bleachers. It’s the event of the week for this small northern Mexico town of 800 people where there is just one gas station and no supermarket, bank or high school.
Despite the crowd, nobody is willing to admit they were there the afternoon of Oct. 7 or saw the shootout just outside the ball field in the heart of Coahuila state. Mexican marines gunned down Heriberto Lazcano, a founder and top leader of the Zetas drug cartel and the biggest kingpin netted so far in President Felipe Calderon’s six-year assault on organized crime.
Days later, no one would even admit to playing in the game. “We don’t like sports,” said one teenager waiting for his school bus last week when an Associated Press reporter asked him and his friends if they had played that Sunday. The players in the weekly games are largely in their teens.
Some townspeople do say they heard the explosions from grenades that Lazcano reportedly tossed as he ran for his life, but insist that they were home at the time and that they thought it was fireworks.
The reluctance to speak isn’t surprising.
Cartel wars in neighboring states have made Coahuila a hideout for the Zetas, much like the remote “Golden Triangle” area of northwestern Mexico, where the world’s most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is rumored to seek cover.
“Coahuila is for the Zetas what the Sierra Madre is for El Chapo … easily defensible, sparsely populated and relatively easy to get in and out of,” said security expert Samuel Logan, co-author of a recent book on the Zetas.
Silence and fear govern Coahuila’s rugged mining and agricultural terrain, home to 95 percent of Mexico’s coal reserves.
The state provides the latest snapshot of a bloody drug war that’s killed well over 50,000 people since 2006 and the nation’s uncertainty as President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto brings Mexico’s old ruling party back to power when he takes office Dec. 1.
“It used to be really quiet here. The women would bring out their rocking chairs and stay up late, talking and playing bingo,” said a 31-year-old local television reporter, who didn’t want to be quoted by name because he has received threats. “Nobody does that anymore.”
Drug cartels have always operated in Coahuila. But its mountainous terrain made large-scale smuggling difficult and unattractive to cartels warring for major transport arteries through Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa.
As recently as 2006, the biggest narco news in Coahuila was a kiddie party in the town of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas, allegedly sponsored by Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who sent bicycles, toys and a cake with “Happy Children’s Day, from your friend Osiel” written in icing.
Lazcano started out in organized crime working for Cardenas, with his band of former army special forces serving as assassins for the Gulf Cartel.
The two gangs didn’t split until 2010. But as early as 2008, residents of Progreso and nearby towns say they started to notice the arrival of very young, strange men, who rode around in caravans of pickups with large-caliber weapons and vests marked “Federal Police.”
From their tattoos and beer drinking, locals knew the men weren’t police, especially when they started extorting used-car dealers, liquor stores, nightclubs and bars. Some farmers were even forced to grow marijuana for them.
Now, the bloody headlines come almost daily.
Earlier this month, a confrontation in Piedras Negras between state officers and suspected cartel members left five suspects dead, including the nephew of another top Zetas cartel leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.
Hours later, gunmen shot down state Gov. Ruben Moreira’s nephew, who is the son of Humberto Moreira, a former Coahuila governor and former head of Pena Nieto’s party. He preceded his brother as part of the political dynasty that runs the state, known as “Los Moreira.”
The body of the 25-year-old, Jose Eduardo Moreira, was discovered Oct. 4 inside his pickup truck on a rural road on the outskirts of Ciudad Acuna, a town across the border from Del Rio, Texas. He had been shot twice in the head in what investigators believe was a revenge killing. Several police officers are suspected of involvement.
Lazcano was killed four days later when marines said they happened upon him by accident in Progreso. His body was later stolen by gunmen from a funeral home in the nearby town of Sabinas after marines left it unguarded. The Mexican navy said it didn’t know they had brought down a top capo, even though U.S. law enforcement officials say they had confirmed his identity before the body was stolen.
Before the killing, residents had heard that Lazcano owned a ranch in the next town over from Progreso, with land butting up to the Sierra de Muzquiz mountains, where he could disappear if necessary. Lazcano’s co-leader, Trevino, is also rumored to use Coahuila as a hideout.
When the AP tried to contact a miner who lives near the ranch, a relative replied by email: “Because most people have been threatened or extorted over the phone, and most likely the lines are tapped, he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing any information.”
The violence has only stoked running political turmoil in the state. Humberto Moreira resigned as president of Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party in December because of the $3 billion in state debt racked up during his time as governor. The former state treasurer is on the run, and a close former aide is under investigation for amassing unexplained wealth.
Earlier this year, six state and federal officials working in Coahuila were arrested on charges of protecting the Zetas.
Neither the Moreira brothers nor Coahuila state Attorney General Homero Ramos responded to requests for comment.
Humberto Moreira also often gets blamed for the violence.
“Many people believe when Humberto Moreira became governor, he let the Zetas in,” said a 71-year-old retired movie theater worker in Sabinas. He also declined to be quoted by name out of fear of retaliation.
The Moreira brothers now appear to be estranged, though neither has acknowledged that publicly. While Humberto Moreira said fighting drug cartels was the job of the federal government, his brother has gone after them aggressively with a special state police force. Some people speculate that the crackdown cost his nephew his life.
The governor didn’t attend his nephew’s funeral, though he has said he will run down the killers to the full extent of the law.
Diana Iris Garcia’s knows what it’s like to lose a son. Her 23-year-old disappeared in 2007 with his boss and another man on their way to a marble mine. She has worked since then to find out what happened, and says authorities have done little to investigate. In 2009, she was among the first to join Forces United for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, a group of people seeking justice for relatives that not too long ago had no reason to exist in the state.
“One time in a meeting with Humberto Moreira, we said we didn’t want one more person to suffer the pain we were going through,” said Iris, 55. “Sadly, it happened to him.”
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