The powerful drug cartel Los Zetas gained near complete control over the state of Coahuila between 2007 and 2013 through the use of violence and by bribing state authorities — including consecutive governors — with millions of dollars, according to a binational report released yesterday.
Completed by the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas (UT) and the Fray Juan de Lario Human Rights Center in Coahuila, the report called “Control . . . Over the Entire State of Coahuila” is based on an analysis of witness testimonies at federal criminal trials against Zetas members between 2013 and 2016 in three Texas cities.
Both former governor Humberto Moreira Valdés and his brother and current Governor Rubén Moreira Valdés received large cash payments from the notorious criminal organization in exchange for ceding control of the northern border state to it, the report says.
In one testimony, Piedras Negras accountant Rodrigo Uribe Tapia, who worked for Los Zetas, said that he personally delivered two cash payments for the current state governor of US $2 million. One was made via the governor’s secretary, Vicente Chaires, and the other via state Attorney General Jesús Torres Charles.
Suitcases full of cash were used to transport similar payments made during the administration of Humberto Moreira, who held office from 2005 to 2011.
Rubén Moreira, who took office for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2011 and is nearing the end of his term, denies any involvement with the cartel.
The cartel’s bribery payments were not just aimed at the upper echelons of the state’s government, the report concluded.
The director of the UT Human Rights Clinic said that analysis of the court documents found that its corruption was endemic across all areas of the state’s governance apparatus.
“We found connections and collusion between the Zetas and authorities of Coahuila at all levels of government, from municipalities and police chiefs up to the current and previous governors of the state,” Ariel Dulitzky said.
The cartel’s broad penetration of the power structure allowed it to operate freely across the state and there is evidence that police officers were not just paid to look the other way but to actively engage in cartel activities such as fighting its rivals, the report concluded.
The organization particularly focused on municipalities that border the United States, presumably to facilitate the flow of drugs and other contraband including high-caliber firearms at the most critical point.
The only authority that reportedly obstructed its otherwise free rein was the Navy, but the cartel’s use of helicopters belonging to official law enforcement agencies in the state helped it to avoid their patrols, Uribe Tapia said.
Other witnesses recounted that Los Zetas controlled many of the state’s correctional facilities including the Piedras Negras Prison, which it used as an extermination camp between December 2009 and January 2012. At least 150 people were incinerated at the penitentiary and a massive prison break also occurred there in January 2012.
The report also concluded that human rights abuses became common during the cartel’s reign and that authorities were complicit in both the execution of the crimes and the impunity they enjoyed.
Adolescents were forcibly recruited to become sicarios — hired assassins or hitmen — for the cartel, and rates for both homicide and forced disappearance surged, making it one of Coahuila’s most violent periods on record.
Three hundred people were murdered in the town of Allende alone between March and April 2011, homicides that were allegedly revenge attacks on former cartel members who had begun to collaborate with other cartels or the U.S. government. Authorities didn’t start investigating the cases until 2014.
The murders were particularly gruesome with reports of victims being dismembered while still alive before being incinerated or dissolved in acid.
A member of an organization seeking justice for the victims and their families says that the effects of the bloody period are still felt today.
“It was hell, but we’re still suffering from it, day by day, night by night,” María Elena Salazar told BBC Mundo.
Her son disappeared eight years ago during the wave of violence and she hasn’t heard anything about him since.
But according to Ariel Dulitzky, details that emerged in the criminal trials held in Austin, San Antonio and Del Rio could help to solve some of the missing persons cases.
“The United States government has information that it should share with the Mexican government and independent civil society organizations,” he said.
All of the Zetas members who faced trial were found guilty and received sentences for their crimes, which included homicides, the trafficking of drugs and weapons and money laundering.
The joint binational report also concluded that there is clear evidence that Los Zetas are operating across Texas as well as other U.S. cities including Chicago and Atlanta as well as in the states of California, New Mexico and Oklahoma.