Friday 12 November 2010 10.55 GMT
Residents leave Ciudad Mier near US border en masse after military kills Gulf cartel leader Tony Tormenta.
Mexican soldiers patrol a dirt road near Ciudad Mier following the killing of druglord Tony Tormenta. Photograph: AP
The death of one of Mexico's most wanted druglords was always likely to lead to reprisals. For the residents of one town in the north-eastern state of Tamaulipas, it has meant fleeing their homes en masse in fear of an explosion of violence following the Mexican authorities' killing of the Gulf cartel leader Tony Tormenta.
Families started leaving Ciudad Mier, a small farming town about 10 miles from the US border, within hours of the major military operation that left Tormenta dead in the frontier city of Matamoros on 5 November. Now there is almost no one left.
"The situation is terrible and sad," one of a handful of people remaining in the town told the Guardian by phone, on condition of anonymity. "The few of us still here only go out if absolutely necessary and only in the morning. People don't even go to mass any more."
The Gulf cartel and their erstwhile allies the Zetas have been fighting each other across Tamaulipas throughout the year, vying for dominance in certain areas of the state. The death of Tormenta, whose real name was Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, has put that territorial division in doubt.
A resident of Ciudad Mier said the Gulf cartel took control of the town about eight months ago, but that Zeta incursions had increased in recent weeks. He said the entrances to town were littered with burned-out vehicles and the tarmac covered in a carpet of shell casings.
"Almost every night we hear convoys of gunmen driving around, and there have been shootouts lasting for hours," he said. The death toll is impossible to estimate because the bodies are removed by the gunmen.
People panicked after the death of Tormenta, he said, because they feared a full-scale Zeta assault. A YouTube video shows a row of vehicles loaded up with washing machines and other valuables wending its way out of town. The government has also said it expected a backlash.
There is a heavy military presence in the state, part of President Felipe Calderón's offensive against the cartels, with the army helping those without their own transport to evacuate. But the Mier resident said federal forces usually only pass through town in the morning. For the rest of the day, he said, "we feel completely abandoned".
Many of Ciudad Mier's refugees have congregated in a shelter set up in Ciudad Aleman, a border town 10 miles away. "We feel a bit more secure now," an unnamed woman told Milenio TV against a backdrop of plastic tables and mattresses. "We spent a quiet night."
The Tamaulipas governor, Eugenio Hernández Flores, told reporters yesterday that he had asked the military to increase its presence in Ciudad Mier and other towns.
The tension is palpable all over the state. Gun battles have been reported during the week, but nothing as yet on the scale of what many fear was almost inevitable.
A reporter from the border city of Reynosa, considered a Gulf cartel stronghold, said that the day after Tormenta's death the city was paralysed by a series of shoot-outs that were largely ignored by the press. "Since then things have been strangely calm," she said, on condition of anonymity. "It's not normal for there to be so few navy and police patrols either. It's a sign of bad things to come. It always happens like that."
The terror is fed by the rumour mill. A message posted on the website of the Reforma newspaper on Wednesday by someone claiming to represent the Gulf cartel warned people in the beleaguered state not to leave their homes. "The cartel is going to take revenge for the death of our leader," the message read. "This is not a lie, this is WAR."
Source 1, 2