Normally I provide an excerpt from just one news story, but due to the significance and gravity of incidents on Friday - as well as some disparate details - I'm excerpting three different articles:
"At least 23 people killed in Mexican border city as victims hanged, decapitate," FOX News (via Associated Press) -
"The bodies of 23 people were found hanging from a bridge or decapitated and dumped near city hall Friday in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, where drug cartels are fighting a bloody and escalating turf war. Authorities found nine of the victims, including four women, hanging from an overpass leading to a main highway, said a Tamaulipas state official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide information on the case. Hours later, police found 14 human heads inside coolers outside city hall along with a threatening note. The 14 bodies were found in black plastic bags inside a car abandoned near an international bridge, the official said. The official didn't release the contents of the note, or give a motive for the killings. But the city across the border from Laredo, Texas has recently been torn by a renewed turf war between the Zetas cartel, a gang of former Mexican special-forces soldiers, and the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which has joined forces with the Gulf cartel, former allies of the Zetas... Last month, 14 mutilated bodies were found in a vehicle left in the city center. Some media outlets reported that the Sinaloa cartel took responsibility for those bodies and in a message allegedly signed by its leader, Guzman, said the group was now back in Nuevo Laredo "to clean" the city." Link to Full Article
"New violence in Nuevo Laredo sparks worry over gang wars," Dudley Althaus and Dane Schiller in The Houston Chronicle -
"Gangland killers hanged nine people side-by-side from an overpass at a busy interchange in Nuevo Laredo on Friday, and stuffed 14 decapitated bodies into a minivan left in the heart of the busiest trade route on the U.S.-Mexico border. 'This is how I am going to finish off all the fools you send to heat up the plaza," read a banner on the overpass addressed to the Gulf Cartel, which is waging war with the Zetas gang that controls the city. "We'll see you around, you bunch of parasites.' It was not immediately clear if the killers who hanged the five men and four women early Friday also decapitated the 14 other victims. Some of those hanged were bloodied and battered, and appeared to have been tortured... The banner left with the bodies on April 18, purportedly signed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, vowed that the gangster - considered Mexico's most powerful crime boss - was taking back Nuevo Laredo from the Zetas, and was now aligned with their Gulf Cartel enemies... Peter Hanna, a retired FBI agent who spent much of his career investigating the Gulf Cartel, speculates that Guzman may be hoping to gain control of Nuevo Laredo before the July 1 presidential elections in Mexico." Link to Full Article
"The Cleansing by El Chapo in Zeta Turf," on the U.S. Open Borders blog (via original source Blog del Narco) -
"Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman proclaimed his presence in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas and said to be cleaning the region of Zetas when he displayed 14 dismembered bodies of alleged Zeta members. El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, demonstrated in this brutal action his presence in this border city along with other criminal groups that fall within the domain of his organization who are said to be working in keeping the area clean of Zetas and sent a message to Zeta leaders by displaying the horrific dismember bodies of several men alleged to have affilliation to Los Zetas. El Chapo Guzman also left a picture to show evidence of their presence in Nuevo Laredo where a large number of members belonging to the Sinaloa cartel pose next to a narco banner. In the narco banner, left next to a pile of dismembered bodies belonging to Los Zetas, El Chapo calls into question the lack of courage of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, alias El Z-40, for being afraid to face him personally and sent a message by throwing the bodies of his group in his own turf. The banner appears next to at least fourteen dismembered bodies where El Chapo promises the public that he will continue to cleanup of the area of Los Zetas, so that the people of Nuevo Laredo can live free and in peace." Link to Full Article (CAUTION: Very graphic images)
Analysis: It seems like déja vu, as this isn't the first time control of the Nuevo Laredo plaza has been dramatically contested. Before I get into my analysis of the current situation, I just want to provide a bit of history regarding Nuevo Laredo.
Back in 2004, Nuevo Laredo was one of the hottest narco hot spots in Mexico. Back then, the battle was between the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa Federation; the irony that these two are allies now in the very same plaza isn't lost. Los Zetas were the enforcement arm of the CDG at the time, but the sands were shifting. Then-head of the CDG, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, had been arrested the previous year, and was trying (rather successfully) to run the CDG from a Mexican prison. Los Zetas were given the green light to go all out against the Federation, and this was when beheadings and dismemberments began in earnest. Ioan Grillo points out astutely in his book El Narco that Nuevo Laredo in 2004 - not the beginning of President Calderón's term in December 2006 - was the true start of the modern drug war in Mexico.
The Nuevo Laredo-Laredo plaza is very lucrative because of the large volume of trucks that pass through the area, and the multiple (exploitable) ports of entry. It's the same reason why Tijuana-San Ysidro and Ciudad Juárez-El Paso are so valuable to TCOs, and why the cities to the south are often epicenters of violence.
After the battle ended, the Gulf cartel emerged victorious and things in Nuevo Laredo quieted down for several years. Then in 2010, Los Zetas officially split off from the CDG to form their own TCO, and the turf war began again along the Texas-Mexico border. It was originally the most heated in Matamoros and Reynosa, but spread west to Nuevo Laredo. The Gulf cartel is a shadow of its former self, due partly to Mexican government/military actions, but mostly due to these battles with an ever-strenghtening Zetas corps. The CDG has since aligned with its old enemy, El Chapo's Federation, to fight off Los Zetas in Nuevo Laredo and elsewhere.
Speaking of which, the two "megacartels" of the Federation and Los Zetas have several battlefronts open at the moment, including Veracruz and Guadalajara. The Federation could use the CDG's help - as limited as it may be - and both groups have much to gain from the expulsion of Los Zetas from Nuevo Laredo. El Chapo can chalk up a significant victory against Los Zetas and expand his empire further eastward, and the CDG could enter into a potentially lucrative trafficking arrangement with the Federation to move product through the plaza.
I don't know that I necessarily buy Peter Hanna's speculation that El Chapo may want to win control of Nuevo Laredo before the election in July. I've always contended that the TCOs don't really care who's president, compared to their interest in who sits in the state governors', mayors', and chiefs of police seats. Yes, the president can determine where the army goes and how many soldiers are sent, but military deployments don't always have the intended effect of quieting things down. Also, the newly elected president doesn't take office until December anyway, so both TCOs have some time to carry out their strategies.
Bottom line, this is just one of many major conflicts we can expect between the Federation and Los Zetas, as they've emerged as the two power players of 2012. All the other TCOs have pretty much picked sides and aligned with one or the other, so the narco hot spots in Mexico will shift as one TCO or the other decides where they want to expand - or encroach. El Chapo made a brilliant move by bringing so much media and government attention to Nuevo Laredo with the intention of disrupting Zetas operations there, and I imagine we'll keep seeing more of these gruesome "disruptions." We can also expect Nuevo Laredo to stay hot for the next several months, unless we see something like the death or arrest of major Zetas leaders, like Miguel "Z-40" Treviño Morales.