IN A five-year struggle with Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel, the city of Torreon has suffered a 16-fold increase in murders, fired its police department and lost control of its main prison to the gang.
The Zetas cartel arrived in Torreon in 2007, and this centre of manufacturing, mining and farming, once seen as a model for progress, has become one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities.
Many in the arid metropolis about 275 miles from the US believe if Torreon cannot defeat the Zetas cartel soon, it may need to reach some kind of agreement with their arch rival, the Sinaloa cartel, and let them do the job.
Widely seen as the most brutal Mexican drug gang, the Zetas have so terrorised Torreon and the surrounding state of Coahuila that some officials make a clear distinction between them and the Sinaloa cartel, for years the dominant outfit in the city. “They [the Zetas] act without any kind of principles,” Torreon’s police chief, Adelaido Flores, said. “The ones from Sinaloa don’t mess with the population.”
Local politicians tacitly admit that deals with cartels, often unspoken, helped keep the peace in the past, before a surge in violence prompted president Felipe Calderon to mount a military-led crackdown six years ago.
In Torreon, the Zetas took control of the police, and in March 2010 they invaded city hall to demand mayor Eduardo Olmos sack the army general he had hired to clean up the force.
“You can’t say that the police was infiltrated by organised crime – the police was organised crime,” Mr Olmos said.
Subsequently, all but one of the 1,000-strong force was fired or deserted. At first, the city behaved “marvellously,” Mr Olmos said. Then the shootings, armed robberies and kidnappings took off as the gangs turned Torreon into a killing factory.
According to local newspaper El Siglo de Torreon, there were 830 homicides in the first nine months of 2012 in a city home to just over one million people.
Mr Flores insists better days lie ahead, saying the Zetas have been weakened by security forces and by the Sinaloa cartel, run by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman.
More than 90 per cent of the hundreds of suspected gang members killed or arrested in Torreon this year have been Zetas. “They’re nearly being finished off here,” said the softly spoken Mr Flores.
Lying at the crossroads between Mexico’s Pacific states and Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, and linking the south to the US border, Torreon has long been a strategic hub for drug runners. Locals say traffickers co-existed peacefully with legitimate businesses when Guzman’s gang dominated here. At the very least, senior politicians in Coahuila have looked the other way, while some actively colluded with gangs, local leaders say.
“They’re up to their necks in it, from the top down,” one local business executive said of the politicians. “But don’t put my name down or they’ll be sending flowers to my grave.”
President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who takes office on 1 December, has rejected negotiating with the gangs, mindful of his Institutional Revolutionary Party’s past reputation for cutting deals. But he stresses his priority is reducing the violence, then taking on the drug traffickers.
In private, some officials say it may be impossible to avoid tacit deals with the cartels in certain areas unless the violence is curbed quickly. That means hammering the Zetas.