The north Mexico city of Torreon came under the media spotlight when a gun battle interrupted a first-division soccer game — InSight Crime looks at the recent history of a city that serves as a microcosm of the country’s conflict.
A Calmer Drug Trade, A More Peaceful Past
Torreon city has long been popular for drug traffickers, for a number of reasons. Geographically, it lies along a major transportation hub. Torreon is the site of the divide of a major highway coming up from Mexico City and the Central Valley: Monterrey, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo are just a few hours to the east, while Juarez is half a day’s drive west. Torreon is also located on one of the principal eastbound routes out of the Sierra Madre mountain range, the notorious drug-producing region where Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” is rumored to be holed up.
At the same time, as the center of an economically vibrant region of more than a million people, Torreon is also attractive for money launderers. The export-driven growth in Torreon — along with neighboring Gomez Palacio and Lerdo, which together form the metro region known as La Laguna — has brought a welter of international companies like John Deere and Delphi into the area, which in turn has fueled an upsurge in high-end restaurants, luxury car dealerships, and casinos, all of them cash-dependent businesses ideal for hiding the proceeds of the drug trade.
The city’s path over the past several years is reflective of the broader changes in Mexican security. Five years ago, Torreon was one of the more tranquil cities in the north, with only 33 total murders in 2006 in a population of well over half a million, according to statistics agency INEGI. This put Torreon’s murder rate beneath the Mexican average and far below that of the most violent U.S. cities. There was certainly evidence of the drug trade in Torreon, but the area was far better known for money-laundering than shootouts. In short, the local underworld bosses, who were operating with the backing of Sinaloa Cartel bosses like Guzman, managed to live in relative harmony with the population.
Other than a handful of hotspots, life in Torreon reflected the environment in much of the north of Mexico: while ever-present, the drug trade was easy enough to ignore, if you wanted to.
Zetas Come to Town
The arrival of the Zetas in 2007 upset the prevailing dynamic, as in many parts of Mexico. After fending off a play by Sinaloa for the stretch of border in Tamaulipas, their home territory, the Zetas returned the favor by moving into several regions where Sinaloa was dominant, Torreon among them. As Ricardo Ravelo documented in the magazine Proceso and the book Cronicas de Sangre, the gang embarked on an aggressive strategy to rip the cities from Sinaloa and its local representatives.
First, the Zetas attempted to assassinate Carlos Herrera, the former Gomez Palacio mayor and reputed boss of the local underworld, riddling his armored car wth hundreds of bullets in May 2007. He survived, but he went into hiding thereafter. Then, they kidnapped a high-ranking state police official who operated in the region, and videotaped him talking about all the local businesses that collaborated with the ruling drug baron. Then, they organized a meeting with local business leaders, in which they played the video, and threatened the lives of anyone who continued to work with Sinaloa. The battle for the Laguna had begun in earnest.
The fight has not let up since then. According to media sources, the number of murders tripled to almost 100 in 2008, and leaped up again the following year. Some 316 people were killed in Torreon in 2010, and the violence has shown no sign of letting up in 2011. And it’s not just the killings of one gang or another that have terrified the locals: kidnappings and extortion have forced many business owners and wealthy locals to alter their lifestyle. The once-vibrant nightlife is almost entirely disappeared, with nightclubs that were packed five years ago now covered in graffiti and closed indefinitely. A wave of bank robberies and car thefts demonstrate how petty criminals can exploit the climate of insecurity. A wave of decapitations has added a new element of horror to the violence.
Torreon has also been the site of some of the most brazen attacks on civilians anywhere in Mexico. On three occasions in 2010, trucks full of armed men opened fire on crowded bars, killing scores of people. According to a video uploaded after one of the massacres, the bars were targeted merely because of the owners’ links to the Zetas. In other words, the victims were killed for drinking at the wrong bar.
The attacks were later blamed on a jailhouse gang connected to Sinaloa, whose members were periodically let out of jail for the night so as to perpetrate massacres. While such mass killings are rare in Mexico, they are no longer unheard of. Furthermore, they seem to be growing; Monterrey, for instance, has witnessed two mass killings in recent weeks, thought to have been perpetrated by the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, which together killed almost 80 people.
Local Government not Effective, Federal Government not Interested
Local police have been powerless to stop the deterioration of Torreon’s security, and indeed may have contributed to it. In 2008, a shootout between local police and federal personnel in Torreon led to the arrest of dozens of local officers accused of supporting the Zetas.
In an effort to revitalize the local government’s capacity, Torreon joined the trend by appointing a former army officer, General Bibiano Villa Castillo, to head its police department in 2010. However, the cavalier attitude toward extrajudicial killings that Villa expressed in an interview with La Jornada demonstrated the downside of handing police functions over to someone with a military mindset:
Villa Castillo: The other day we were sent out to kill six bastards and we killed them. What’s the problem?
Reporter: There are laws, General. You decide who ought to live or die… Don’t you think that God decides that?
Villa Castillo: Well, yeah, but you have to give him a little help.
Reporter: If one of these guys were to approach you to talk…
Villa Castillo: I’d kill him right there. I’d f— him myself.
Reporter: Kill, and ask questions later?
Villa Castillo: That’s how it ought to be. It’s a code of honor.
Though Villa was never conclusively linked to any instances of abuse, his philosophy — much like that of a Julian Leyzaola, another former military officer and the current chief of the Juarez police department, recognized with a 2010 profile in the New Yorker — straddled the line of illegality. It was also nonsensical: rather than attempt to flip criminals and use them as moles, or interrogate them and learn more about their organizations, the leader of the local police preferred, at least according to his rhetoric, to summarily execute them.
While the local authorities have been useless in the face of soaring crime, the response at higher levels of government has also been uneven and largely ineffective. The Federal Police and the army have been sporadically deployed in Torreon, but waves of relief when they arrive have dissipated when the federal troops are redeployed elsewhere months later, without ensuring any lasting security improvements. Furthermore, federal officials have made no effort to respond to many of the more notorious incidents by deploying troops, which has led to local complaints that the Calderon administration·is throwing·Torreon and La Laguna to the wolves.
Indeed, in a sign of the growing frustration from the private sector, a group of local businessmen threatened non-payment of their taxes in February, absent a marked improvement in the government’s security policies.
Torreon also stands as a warning of the federal government’s haphazard approach to setting security priorities. Rather than an objective assessment of the risks and level of violence in a given region, the government seems to deploy troops largely according to the whims of certain officials and the media attention on a given day.
But the media is fickle, and Torreon has never garnered much of the spotlight. Consequently, the federal response has been tame, in spite of the worsening climate of violence — significantly worse than Monterrey, for example, which has received mountains of coverage — and a few of the most notorious episodes of violence in recent years. The shootout outside the local soccer stadium will likely focus more federal attention on Torreon, but it remains to be seen what they will accomplish.