Up to 50 people are missing after starting three-hour car trips this year between the Mexican industrial city of Monterrey and the city of Nuevo Laredo, on the border with the United States, on a well-traveled stretch of highway that local media have dubbed “the highway of death.”
Relatives claim that they simply vanished. Such disappearances, and last week’s shooting of 15 seemingly innocent bystanders in Reynosa, indicate that Mexico is reverting to the dark days of the drug war from 2006 to 2012 when cartel gunmen used to attack innocent people.
“It is no longer between them, the cartels are attacking citizens,” said activist Angélica Orozco.
Up to half a dozen of those missing on the road are believed to be US citizens or residents, although the US embassy in Mexico could not confirm their status. One of them, José de Jesús Gómez, a resident of Irving, Texas, allegedly disappeared on that highway on June 3.
On Saturday, the FBI office in San Antonio, Texas, published a bulletin requesting information about the disappearance of Gladys Pérez Sánchez, a woman from Laredo, Texas, her 16-year-old son, and her 9-year-old daughter, who were last seen. on June 13 when they drive the highway. They had visited relatives in Sabinas Hidalgo, a town on the highway, and were returning to Texas when they disappeared.
Most of the victims are believed to have disappeared while approaching or leaving Nuevo Laredo, a city dominated by the cartels and bordering Laredo, Texas. About half a dozen men have reappeared alive, savagely beaten, and all they said is that armed men forced them to stop on the road and took their vehicles.
What happened to the rest, including a woman and her two young children, remains a mystery. Most were residents of the state of Nuevo León, where Monterrey is located. Desperate for answers, relatives of the disappeared took to the streets of Monterrey on Thursday to protest, demanding answers.
Orozco, a member of the United Forces for Our Disappeared organizations, said the kidnappings seem to mark a return to the worst days of Mexico’s drug war, such as in 2011, when gunmen from a cartel in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas took out innocent bus passengers and beat them with sledgehammers.
Then, as now, politicians and prosecutors have given few answers to the families of the disappeared.
“After the 2010-2011 disappearances, they cannot continue with the same excuses as 10 years ago,” Orozco said. However, he added, “they continue with the same discourse.”
“They are supposed to have created institutions, procedures, but the story repeats itself that the authorities do nothing,” he continued.
United Forces for Our Disappeared issued a press release on May 19 warning of the dangers on the highway between Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo, when by mid-May the group had only received about 10 reports of missing persons there. More reports came in in June and now number about 50.
The Nuevo León state government acknowledged 10 days later that it had received reports of 14 people missing on the highway so far in 2021, along with five more in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas, where Nuevo Laredo is located.
However, Nuevo León did not warn people traveling on the highway until June 23, almost a month later.
The warning came too late for Gómez and Javier Toto Cagal, a 36-year-old truck driver and father of five who disappeared on June 3 along with three other employees of the same transport company on the 220-kilometer (135-mile) stretch.
“Until now, they don’t know anything about them … It’s very murky,” said Erma Fiscal Jara, Toto Cagal’s wife. “It was until June 5 that the company informed me that my husband is missing. With the authorities, so far nothing. I ask and they say ‘we don’t know’ ”.
Even after acknowledging the kidnappings, the Nuevo León state government hinted that it was the problem of neighboring Tamaulipas. The Nuevo León government also released confusing information, first saying that they had rescued 17 people after the highway kidnappings, but then acknowledging that those people had come home on their own.
It wasn’t until Friday that the two governments announced a joint program to increase vigilance and safety on the road, a measure that, had it been implemented a month earlier, would likely have saved dozens of lives.
“The National Guard is hardly going to patrol the road. I don’t know why they waited so long,” asked Karla Moreno, whose husband, truck driver Artemio Moreno, disappeared on April 13 on the highway.
She, too, is terrified that northern Mexico will repeat the experiences of a decade ago.
“How can this be happening? Right now it is assumed that there are more resources (police) ”, she commented.
Nuevo Laredo has been dominated by the cartel in the Northeast, a remnant of the old Zetas cartel, whose members were known for their violence.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst for Mexico, said the highway disappearances and the June 19 events in Reynosa – when gunmen from rival cartels drove through the streets, randomly killing 15 bystanders – were reminiscent of attacks on civilians during the war on drugs from 2006 to 2012.
Due to the increase in violence registered in the last days in Tamaulipas, the United States government issued a travel alert and restricted the operations of its official personnel in the border state.
The statement issued by the US Consulate General, on June 25, assured that this decision was due to “cartel violence”, in addition to the risk of “crimes and kidnappings.”
“In light of the violence that occurred in Reynosa on June 19, United States government personnel in Reynosa are temporarily restricted from field operations and official movements other than from home to work,” the statement read.
People who choose to travel to the entities of Reynosa, Río Bravo, and surrounding areas, must remain vigilant and maintain a greater state of consciousness, due to the “possibility of violence between the rival factions of the cartel.”
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