Author: Alison Gregor and Bonnie Pfister
VIOLENCE INCREASES ON BORDER
MATAMOROS, Mexico - Mexican officials called him a model officer, the best of the brass, leader of the state's homicide unit.
He solved murders, slapped handcuffs on hundreds of criminals and was known on the street as the Assassin Hunter.
During his three months in this border city, Mexican officials say he helped arrest three members of the Gulf drug cartel.
And now he's dead, the apparent victim of another in a series of drug-related homicides that have occurred along the Texas-Tamaulipas border region in recent months.
Jaime Yanez Cantu was executed in broad daylight last Monday with several shots to his head, along with his assistant, Gerardo Gascon. Their bodies were found in a car only blocks from state police headquarters in Matamoros.
Mexican officials say Yanez had received death threats only days before the double homicide.
"We knew this was going to happen," Tamaulipas state Attorney General Francisco Cayuela Villarreal said. "It's one of the risks we have to take when we begin to combat organized crime."
The killings coincide with stepped-up Mexican law enforcement efforts that include an effort to capture alleged Gulf cartel leader Oziel Cardenas Guillen; the apprehension of one of his key lieutenants, Gilberto Garcia Mena; and the arrests of dozens of people as part of "Operation Marquis," a joint U.S.-Mexico anti-drug operation centered on Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
The violence is no doubt linked to the crackdown, law enforcement officials say.
"The arrest of Mena, the pursuit of Oziel Cardenas and the recent Operation Marquis have all struck a nerve in this area," a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. "So, yes, you can say that the surge of violence is related. It is a response to increased pressure from Mexican law enforcement efforts against the cartel."
As of Friday, more than two dozen homicides have been recorded in Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, most of them drug related, police say.
The victims include a young Laredo couple whose bodies were found buried in the back yard of a suspected drug dealer in Nuevo Laredo on June 20. Two more bodies were found July 5 at a nearby ranch owned by the family of a man suspected of carrying out drug-related killings.
"This kind of violence is generally associated with a struggle between different groups for the ( drug ) market," said Oscar Rocha, a member of a Mexico City think tank, the Joaquin Amaro Foundation For Strategic Studies.
Rocha, a national defense specialist at the Mexican Embassy in Washington during the Zedillo administration, said the slaying of a high-ranking police officer could mean he was getting in the way of drug traffickers.
Or he could have been in collusion with a particular gang and thus became a target of that group's rivals.
Some in Tamaulipas wondered about the latter possibility.
Arturo Solis, director of the Center for Border Studies and Human Rights Promotion in Reynosa, said it is hard to believe the police chief's assassination was a reprisal from the Gulf cartel.
Money in Briefcase
A briefcase containing almost $20,000 was found in the car with Yanez, an indication, Solis says, that the officer had been corrupted.
"He's a police chief who had, in the past, been accused publicly of protecting drug traffickers, homicides, extortion, robberies and abuse of authority," Solis said. "We went to the ( attorney general's ) office about this, but they ignored us, and they kept him on the payroll."
But Mexican officials say they suspect the assassination was in response to Yanez's aggressive effort to combat organized crime in Matamoros.
The June 19 kidnapping of a couple who have a money-changing business in Matamoros - and a home in Brownsville - may have unleashed a chain of crimes that led to Yanez's death.
Shortly after the daylight abductions, Mexican police traded gunfire with at least one of the kidnappers, and a suspect was arrested. One officer was wounded, and the abducted couple have not been seen since.
Later that day, 20 heavily armed men stormed the state police headquarters in Matamoros, where the suspect was being held. They whisked him away amid gunfire that injured one woman and left about a dozen bullet holes in the building.
Two men believed to have participated in the shootout were detained the next day, and a third, Hugo Ponce Salazar, was arrested July 6 near state police headquarters.
Mexican law enforcement officials allege Ponce, who remains in custody, may be high up in the Gulf drug cartel.
Solis is skeptical, saying that the state's own reports about Ponce accuse him of being a minor player in the drug operation.
It's not so easy to keep tabs on who's who in northern Mexican drug trafficking these days.
In the early 1990s, Cuidad Juarez belonged to Amado Carillo Fuentes. He was called the Lord of the Skies for using airplanes to ship cocaine from Colombia to his northern Mexico headquarters.
In the Gulf Coast region, Juan Garcia Abrego was king.
Both men were leaders in the evolution of Mexican drug smuggling from merely moving product for the Colombians to trading in cocaine themselves.
Carillo Fuentes died in 1997 during a botched plastic surgery in which he was trying to change his appearance.
Garcia Abrego, born in the South Texas town of Las Palomas, was captured outside of Monterrey in 1996 and packed off to Houston for trial. He was convicted of drug smuggling and is serving 11 life sentences.
Knitting together the pieces left behind, some law enforcement authorities say, was Cardenas, whom Mexican police have been tracking for years.
In one of his boldest moves, police say Cardenas and a dozen armed men surrounded a car containing an FBI agent and a DEA agent in November 1999 and demanded that they surrender an informant who was with them. The tense standoff, which occurred as they drove on a busy downtown Matamoros street at midday, ended after about 20 minutes when the attackers retreated.
The FBI still is offering a $2 million reward for information that leads to the arrest of Cardenas.
In April, Mexican officials thought they were closing in on him.
Raid Nabs 20
More than 200 military and federal police officers descended on the village of Guardados de Abajo, just east of Camargo. With helicopters and humvees churning up dust, authorities rounded up 20 people who worked for Cardenas, including Garcia Mena, who is known as "El June."
After nine days, Garcia Mena was found in a compartment built behind the wardrobe in the bedroom of his luxury home. Supplies of food, an oxygen tank, a radio, cell phone and a machine gun were at his side. He did not resist arrest.
"It would be very difficult ( for the recent violence ) not to be linked in some way to the detention of El June," Rocha said. "There's a clear pattern that when a leader is taken away, that does not kill the trafficking. They simply regroup according to new ways."
Since the removal of Carillo Fuentes and Garcia Abrego, "no new equilibrium has been reached," Rocha said.
Meanwhile, U.S. prosecutors in Laredo and San Antonio say they see much more of a connection among drug "cells," sharing the same suppliers, employees and even clients.
While law-abiding citizens may want the police to make their presence felt, the paradox is that law enforcement aggression can prompt further instability.
"The goal of law enforcement is to make it so risky that it's not worth it," Rocha said. "If there is no real reduction in demand ( of drugs ), unfortunately, you will find a level of violence that people will have to take for granted."
Picking up the pieces left behind in the wake of such violence are more police officers - still human, full of limitations and still corruptible.
State Police Chief Adolfo Velazco Ramirez sat uncomfortably in his new Matamoros office Wednesday, surrounded by framed American eagle pictures favored by his dead predecessor, piled up and ready to be shipped out.
He said there could be more deaths before the dust settles.
"I hope not, but it's possible," Velazco said. "We're fighting against criminals who are organized. We haven't lost the battle. We've unified, and we're working with the police chiefs of different border cities to create a force worthy of combat with these criminals."