This story originally appeared in VICE Mexico.
Over the course of 10 days — between Sunday, January 26, and Wednesday, February 5, 2014 — nearly 100 government officials in Coahuila state, northern Mexico, left their desks to execute some unusual fieldwork. They were investigating what exactly happened to dozens of people who disappeared in a region known as Los Cinco Manantiales, or the Five Springs.
The ambitious operation included forensic inspections of 50 homes, businesses, prisons, ranches, and abandoned properties, as well as interrogations of the former mayors, municipal council members, and public secretaries of 11 towns and cities near the border with Texas.
The government's crusade, however, ended in a cloud of confusion. It was marked by criticism from the press and doubts — raised by local organizations on behalf of the families of the missing people — about its effectiveness.
Although it involved state and federal police, as well as soldiers and marines, the operation was conducted by a Coahuila government body created in 2012. The agency's laborious name sums up the tragedy that this state has suffered. It is called the Sub-Prosecutor for the Investigation and Search of Missing Persons, Attention to Victims, the Offended, and Witnesses of Coahuila.
We'll just keep it simple and call it the sub-prosecutor.
The efforts were focused primarily on Allende, a town in Los Cinco Manantiales, named for the vast water springs that sprout up across the plains. In March 2011, Allende (pop. 22,000) suffered a massacre that now, three years later, is finally being investigated by the authorities. Commandos working for the Zetas cartel looted and destroyed dozens of buildings, while kidnapping an estimated 300 people who were never seen again.
The incident was cloaked in secrecy for three years and authorities have yet to disclose exactly what happened.
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One of the ranches. Photo by Gabriel Nuncio.
Along the Way
The first thing to the west of the border town of Colombia is a navy security post, which is strange because there is no sea here. Navy marines have reinforced their presence in the region since 2012, setting up dozens of tents along the edge of La Ribereña, a wide highway that runs along the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Marine infantry keep guard or camp in trenches in the mountains. Others inspect the few motorists who take this route, known as one of Mexico's most dangerous.
Between 2010 and 2013, dozens of encounters between narco convoys and government armed forces were reported here, but those are assumed to be only a fraction of the real number of confrontations, a number that has yet to be publicly recorded.
The harsh sun pounds against the yuccas and vegetation all year round. Occasionally, signs to ranches appear on the road — La Dueña, San Isidro, Los Apaches, La Burra, Arroyo Seco, and Don ?"scar. Other constructions have been left in ruins, some with bullet holes adorning their sides.
The events in question took place three years ago, and few people I interviewed had faith in the investigation's credibility. The predominant opinion on the matter was one of disgust.
If La Ribereña is occasionally a battlefield, the ranches surrounding it can be considered its water supply, training grounds, pick-up and drop-off space, and clandestine graveyards. They are rarely used for farming and raising cattle.
During the special operation, the sub-prosecutor found four industrial drums and weather-ruined clothes in plain sight, on land near the edge of La Ribereña, close to the town of Guerrero. The region's mafia uses these casks as improvised crematoriums, to vanish their victims' bodies. The cartel soldiers enjoy using culinary euphemisms in their narrative. If in Sarajevo they spoke of "butchers," orchestrated by Radovan Karadzic, here we refer to the Zetas' rudimentary incinerators as "kitchens."
No one lives in the area now and in its current state it resembles the surface of Mars. The only humans that are occasionally seen are the guys in orange jumpsuits that work for Geokinetics, a shale gas exploration and testing company based in Houston.
Since 2010, shale gas has been touted as the "gas of the future." The hydrocarbon is abundant here yet it remains hidden below the rocks, until it is released through fracking. In order to exploit its potential, two things are needed: permission from the Mexican government and lots of water. With the recent reforms in Mexico, which allow foreign companies to invest in the country's energy supply, permits are on their way. And, in the Five Springs, water is as abundant as fear.
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Photo by Gabriel Nuncio.
Investigations in Piedras Negras
Coahuila is devastated. The thick dust from this incident has yet to settle and the mood has not yet lifted enough for locals to believe that the worst is over.
On the way to Allende, I spoke to several people in the city of Piedras Negras, 90 miles west of Colombia, who witnessed the government's special operation. Some said that it was all just for show, while others considered it a noteworthy effort, if a bit late. The events in question took place three years ago, and not many of the people I interviewed had faith in the investigation's credibility. With just a few exceptions, the predominant opinion on the matter was one of disgust.
Critics of the special operation did, however, notice the advanced-looking GPS equipment that was in use, as well as the presence of a mobile lab to process information in real-time. While the marines seized the towns, and the army watched all exits, the federal and state police searched for functionaries and ex-functionaries, in order to take their statements.
One of the spots that the sub-prosecutor inspected in Piedras Negras was the prison that is known across Mexico thanks to an incident in 2012 when 129 inmates escaped. According to witnesses, there were several Zeta "kitchens" inside this jail.
Some officials have speculated that the use of the "kitchen" extermination method has increased steadily since 2010, when 72 migrants, mostly Central and South Americans, were found shot to death and abandoned in a shed in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. The remains of dozens of others were discovered while excavating other secret burial sites. The San Fernando massacre put this region under international scrutiny and criminal organizations began increasing their use of diesel-filled drums to leave less evidence of killings, and avoid any resulting scandals.
'So, if you were to say to me "There are 50,000 official deaths," I would believe that we are actually talking about, easily, a quarter of a million murders.'
Businessman Mauricio Fernández Garza, who twice served as mayor of San Pedro, Nuevo Leon, became one of the first people in politics to speak out about what was happening. In an interview he gave me at the end of 2011, he explained:
"I hear about events occurring — through mayors, through friends of mine with cattle ranches, through people who say: 'Well, they came, and landed in helicopters, and killed everyone.' And none of this ever comes out in the press. According to many stories I have heard, they have also killed a savage amount of people in Nuevo Leon. I don't know if it is true or not, but one mayor said to me: 'Hey, they ordered a bulldozer, from who knows where — to bury the bodies left from one of the federal government's special operations.' I don't know if this is true — and I am not questioning it — I am just telling you what I have heard.
Or, on my friend's ranch where, again, helicopters came in and basically massacred everyone. Additionally, there are many murders within the criminal organizations — victims of internal arguments — who get dissolved in vats of acid, or buried, or disappeared by some other method. You don't hear about those either. So, if you were to say to me, 'There are 50,000 official deaths,' I would believe that we are actually talking about, easily, a quarter of a million deaths. I believe that for every murder — whether committed by criminal organizations or by the government — that does get reported, there are five that do not.
Although I have no material to cite, I can say this, just based on the numbers that I hear — 30 killed here, 40 killed there — and according to what the mayors [of Nuevo Leon] say, from here to the border. So, whether we are talking about 50 deaths or a quarter of a million — which is more my estimate — it doesn't really matter. It takes more than a death count to change a country."
Other mayors in the region also told me similar stories, but requested that I do not release their testimony until after their deaths, or until northern Mexico has returned to safety — a future that still appears quite distant.
As Fernández Garza said, these massacres have not appeared in the news, but this is not because local journalists are ignoring the issue. They had an idea of what was going on, but initiating an investigation — or worse, releasing the information — would have involved going into exile or certain death.
Against everyone's recommendations, we left Piedras Negras, accompanied by two armored vehicles from GATE (the state's special weapons tactical group). This controversial elite corps — created by the governor of Coahuila and a coalition of local businessmen — is a group of anonymous, masked agents who have the privilege of acting in the same callous fashion as the illegal groups they are fighting.
GATE agents accompanied us to three local ranches that were seized by the Zetas in 2011.
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Map by Francisco Gómez.
Mexico's Bright-Yellow 'Springfield'
Allende is now sometimes nicknamed "Springfield" because the administration that took office there on January 1 promptly painted all of the main public buildings — including the town square, the cultural center, and the municipal presidential office — a shade of bright yellow that reminds people of The Simpsons.
The town's mayor, Reynaldo Tapia, told me that he does not like The Simpsons nor is he a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, whose official color is the same shade of yellow. Tapia owns more 20 pawnshops and is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico's current ruling power. He said that the town was painted this color because "yellow is the color of strength."
Yellow is also typically the color of tractors — like those used by the Zetas to tear down large mansions in the heart of the town. On Friday, March 18, 2011, around 50 pickup trucks, manned by narco-soldiers, burst into Allende. According to testimony provided to the sub-prosecutor, the armed men had lists of the homes, businesses, and ranches that they were going to raid and destroy. The documents state that they warned the mayor at the time, Sergio Lozano Rodríguez, prior to the event. One of the demolished homes is right in front of the municipal palace and another destroyed property lies right in front of the politician's private home.
Lozano Rodríguez's administration apparently did nothing while the massacre took place.
The commandos arrived at the residences and detained everyone who was inside, also taking valuables, cash, and jewels, the sub-prosecutor's report says. Later, they allowed neighbors and other townspeople to loot whatever was left. Some took everything from potted plants to refrigerators. A laborer reportedly took an elegant leather living room set and had to put it outside his tiny house, under a mesquite tree, because he could not fit it indoors.
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Photo by Gabriel Nuncio.
Once the collective looting was complete, the Zetas demolished the homes, witnesses told investigators. In some cases they used grenades, and in others they did the dirty work themselves, using sledgehammers and heavy construction equipment. This attack lasted for several days and the municipal police participated in the assault and the subsequent pillaging, witnesses said. "I also saw well-dressed men operating the machinery," recalled one.
By the end of the week, homes all over downtown Allende were left as piles of rubble. Now, three years later, grey cement blocks and bent steel beams — blackened by flames — can still be seen.
It appears there was no resistance in any of the destroyed homes and no one seems to remember having witnessed an execution.
"The truth is that you could only hear the grenades and explosions, but we didn't see bodies or hear any shots. Everyone they took was alive at the time, and afterwards they were just never heard from again," a witness, whose testimony was also taken by the sub-prosecutor, explained to me.
"Who can tell me about their missing family members?" I asked.
"Anyone you ask around here will tell you that they have a friend or family member who has been missing since then," the witness said. "It is a small town."
How many people disappeared?" I questioned.
"They say around 300, but I believe there were more. It was very chaotic. The people around here don't want to remember what happened."
"What caused the vicious attack?" I asked.
"Two men — Luis Garza and Héctor Moreno — who stole money from the Zetas," the witness said. "The worst part is that they are both calmly living in the US now as protected witnesses."
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Inside one of the abandoned ranch houses. Photo by Diego Enrique Osorno.
José Luis Garza Gaytán belongs to the Garza family that arrived in Allende from Lampazos, Nuevo Leon, roughly a century ago. They were not wealthy, but they made a good living off the land they owned.
Héctor Manuel Moreno Villanueva's family made most of its money by producing ice, and later with a small, regional transport service. About five miles off the main road — between Allende and the small town of Villa Unión — sits the main entrance to the men's estates.
The hundreds of detained Allende townspeople were herded to this group of properties in March 2011, slaughtered, and then disappeared.
Since at least 2008, Garza Gaytán and Moreno Villanueva were both working with the Zetas. By 2011, they had both reached important ranks within the drug-trafficking world, smuggling cocaine into the US through Eagle Pass, Texas, the US border town that adjoins Piedras Negras. But, by early March 2011, both men had severed ties with the organization. The reasons remain unclear.
'Piece by piece, you cease to exist. It takes about half an hour to vanish someone, completely.'
On March 18, their former Zeta associates picked up dozens of people named Garza, Gaytán, Moreno, and Villanueva in Allende and took them the ranches outside of the town. They also took night watchmen, cooks, maids, and chicken-coop caretakers — all of whom worked for the families. The ranches, according to the sub-prosecutor's official investigation, were turned into an extermination camp, used by the Zetas to kill all the people they had captured by depositing their bodies in drums of diesel and incinerating them.
Anyone who shared any of these last names was in danger. Even the local public prosecutor, Blanca Garza, who bears no relation to the Garza Gaytán family, was forced to flee for a time. Some of the Garza Gaytán and Villanueva family members managed to escape and currently live in the US. A year and a half later, one of them, Sergio Garza, decided to return to Allende, where he opened a clothing store. He was executed two weeks later, along with his son.
From March 2011 to the current day, the people of Allende have lived among the ruins of the destroyed mansions. A couple of guys saw a business opportunity in the tragedy and started to offer "the destroyed homes tour" and detailing the events for outsiders. This enterprise was short-lived and the young people were found soon after with bullets in their heads. The death machine has not stopped milling.
"But, why did this happen? How could this have been allowed?" I asked one of the residents.
"If these people had decided to kill all the inhabitants, it wouldn't have been a problem. That is how defenseless we were," came the reply.
The sub-prosecutor took a census to calculate the damage. As of February 2014, the official tally of destroyed homes in the heart of Allende — not including ranches and houses in the outskirts — is 29 properties. In some cases, the people who appeared to have been the homeowners were actually just renters or the victims lived in buildings with a variation of Garza Gaytán or Moreno Villanueva on the door.
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Five-gallon buckets used to transport diesel fuel. Photo by Diego Enrique Osorno.
We left the heart of Allende to take the road to Villa Unión. A few miles in, we turned onto a back route. From this moment on, we were on the Garza family's land. A few miles ahead we found the first building, a home belonging to a man named Luis Garza Garza, and a half-ruined, five-bedroom, green and beige structure.
Inside we saw a dust-covered light fixture lying in the rubble and broken glass, and weeds growing among strewn documents bearing the Garza Garza family name (meaning in this case that both patriarch and matriarch are named Garza). In the backyard, a filthy swimming pool sat in an empty field. I tried to imagine its former extravagance.
Prior to being demolished, this place was home to seven adults and three children — all of them missing since March 2011. Behind the destroyed home is a ruined shed, the aluminum roofing of which has been stolen.
The next house we arrived at belonged to a man named Jesus Garza Garza. This rancher's home had giant holes knocked into its walls. Only half of the adjacent barn remained standing. A GATE inspector investigated the site and told me that it appeared to have been taken down with a missile.
"A rocket?" I asked.
"Yes, we have had missiles fired upon us before, but, even so, they have not been able to take us out."
"Was there an encounter?" I said.
"No. We were ambushed near the entrance to Allende, near the point we passed by earlier."
We continued to walk. The GATE agent wore desert camouflage, a bulletproof vest and carried an AR-15 rifle. He suddenly bent down to closely inspect some ashes. "I believe that this is where they were cooking them," the agent said, pointing to the edge of the barn. "That is why they burned it all down, to remove any trace of evidence — blood and everything."
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Photo by Diego Enrique Osorno.
However, the ranch that the sub-prosecutor focused on most was the third one, which was Rodolfo Garza Garza's property. As we approached, the persistent buzz of high-tension wires from nearby towers — which appear to rise up from nothing — generated an even greater sense of eeriness.
About 100 feet from the main building, I saw piles of empty five-gallon diesel containers and dozens of tires, which are used to facilitate combustion. These are the materials that are typically used by criminals to vanish their victims.
In 2013, a Zeta soldier sat down for an interview with war correspondent Jon Lee Anderson and told him how the victims are soaked with diesel and then burnt gradually, "piece by piece, until you cease to exist."
The Zeta member explained that: "It takes about half an hour to vanish someone, completely... They keep adding diesel until the flames have devoured you. When you see the fire start to die out, you just throw in another jug of fuel and off you go.
"The first time I was involved in this, I went a month without eating chicken or meat, because it smells exactly the same as when you walk past a restaurant or a place selling fried chicken. I realized that your average human smells exactly like roast chicken."
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An old ID card found among the ruins of a ranch. Photo by Gabriel Nuncio.
Exporting 800 Kilos of Cocaine a Month
The regional correspondent for the Mexican magazine Proceso, Juan Alberto Cedillo, was the first to report on rumors that the Zetas had suffered an internal rupture, which led to the destruction of Allende, in the spring 2011. It wasn't until April 2013 that he confirmed what had happened.
On April 18, 2013, Cedillo travelled to Austin, to sit in on the trial of several Zeta members. Mario Alfonso Cuéllar — who had been one of the cartel's main operators in the region — declared in court that Miguel Ángel Treviño, a.k.a. Z-40, had ordered his execution because he believed Cuéllar was informing to the DEA about cocaine trafficking through Piedras Negras.
In reality, Héctor Moreno Villanueva and José Luis Garza Gaytán were responsible for the disclosures to US authorities.
Moreno Villanueva and Garza Gaytán helped Cuéllar move between 500 and 800 kilos of cocaine a month through Eagle Pass into the US, the most cocaine-addicted country in the world. The price of a kilo in this region fluctuates at around $20,000, which places the estimated profit at around $16 million dollars per month — of which $10 million went toward paying back Colombian providers, transportation costs, and bribing officials in several countries, primarily in Mexico.
So the organization's net gain was $6 million dollars a month in this border region alone. Piedras Negras was one of the few stable points, since in other cities along the route — such as Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros — the work was complicated by constant fighting with rival gangs and by the few authorities they had been unable to bribe.
In March 2011, and probably in other months, Cuéllar, Moreno, and Garza left the Zetas without this income. This happened at the height of the Zetas' war against the Gulf Cartel over control of Mexico's north-east border cities — a war that demanded that the Zetas have access to liquid assets. In revenge, the Zetas launched this attack against family members, friends, and employees of Garza Gaytán and Moreno Villanueva, primarily in Allende, but also in Piedras Negras and other municipalities in the Five Springs region.
And the men whose actions sparked the Zetas' brutal campaign are now protected witnesses in the US — two high-ranking officials in the state confirmed this to me. Today, Moreno Villanueva confronts his former associates — who finished off his properties and a large part of his family in Coahuila — from the US and his Facebook account. He writes things like: "Long life to my enemies, so that they can see my glory." The day that Ángel Treviño, or Z-40, was detained he wrote: "The little tree has fallen."
Moreno Villanueva also shared a Proceso article by Cedillo, entitled "Coahuila: searching for missing" with this comment: "It was the governor of Coahuila Humberto Moreira who allowed it and never sent help to the Five Springs leaving it in the hands of organized crime and their kidnapping ways."
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Photo by Diego Enrique Osorno.
A week after the sub-prosecutor's special operation, the municipal administration of Allende decided to move the local observation of the Day of the Soldier from February 19 to February 14, Valentine's Day.
The 300 soldiers from the 14th Military Region conducted a short march in front of the (no longer yellow) municipal palace in Allende's main square, listened to some speeches, and were back at their headquarters in under an hour.
Yet in 2011, during the town's massacre, these troops arrived too late. At the time, the soldiers occupied the town's gymnasium as provisional headquarters. Now that building has been adapted into an industrial warehouse, where the orange jumpsuits — worn by the guys who search the edge of La Ribereña — are made, as well as the fire-proof overalls that will likely soon be worn by the workers extracting shale gas in the region.
'In a broader sense, this is not over. They are still here.'
In a local flower shop — as she assembles rose bouquets and sophisticated arrangements — a victim of the attack seemed unimpressed by the operation. Her husband was one of the construction workers who built Garza Gaytán's home and, for this sole reason, he was picked up and vanished on March 18, 2011.
"I suppose he is dead. Around the time we heard that they had been killed on the Garza ranch. The people who passed by there said that it smelled awful," she said and began to cry.
The florist told me she has never submitted a formal report, just like many other family members of missing people in the area. In reality, few in north-east Mexico ever formally report disappearances. The fear of criminal organizations, as well as fear of the authorities, prevents them from doing so. Those who do, seek help through NGOs such as the United Forces for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, or Fuundec.
"It's good that they [the sub-prosecutor functionaries] came, but honestly, I don't care either way," said the florist.
"Why?" I asked.
"In a broader sense, this is not over. They are still here."
According to corroborating testimonies, the man who directed the Five Springs massacre was named Gabriel Zaragoza, and known as Commander Flacaman. In 2012, Commander Flacaman was assassinated by his associates during an internal cartel battle in San Luis Potosí.
Nothing is known about the other executioners, or the local authorities who were complicit in allowing this massacre to occur.
After the initial publication of this report in VICE Mexico, the governor of Coahuila, Rubén Moreira, requested a meeting with writer Diego Enrique Osorno. Osorno said the governor promised that his administration would aid the victims and seek justice for those involved. Nearly five months later, that hasn't happened. At the federal level, a new human-rights sub-prosecutor in the attorney general's office, Eliana García Laguna, has promised a special investigation. The Coahuila state sub-prosecutor has yet to publicly release the results of its investigation. Meanwhile, in Allende, the remaining ruins of the March 2011 attack are being demolished.