Take an imperious mayor. Throw in a rogue police unit. Find dead bodies dumped in a remote location.
It’s a fatal pattern in Mexico.
It happened in Iguala in Guerrero state along the Pacific Coast, where a crooked mayor allegedly ordered police to round up 43 student teachers in late September. They vanished, and authorities now say the police turned them over to gang members who killed and burned them. Street protests over the killings have rocked Mexico, hurting its international image.
Another case happened far more quietly here along the border with Texas.
The victims were three U.S. citizens, a woman and her two younger brothers. A fourth man, a Mexican, was also killed. Each was executed with a shot to the head.
The killings, which drew scant attention in U.S. media when they occurred in October, reveal how easily autocratic mayors can create abusive paramilitary units that seem to answer to no one. Are the units fighting organized crime? Or are they criminals themselves, using badges to combat rival groups?
Those questions swirl in Matamoros, a Mexican city of half a million people across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, that’s home to scores of assembly plants. It’s also a hub of the offshore oil industry that’s set to grow rapidly.
For the last 15 months, the mayor of Matamoros has been Leticia Salazar Vázquez. At 37, she’s an up-and-coming face in Mexican politics. A lawyer who exudes an easy manner, she has braces on her teeth and wears her long dark hair tucked behind each ear, like a schoolgirl, or with a headband.
But Salazar has a core of steel. She surrounded herself with heavily armed guards, some of whom wore hoods, as she led raids to shut bars, lap-dance joints and brothels that many citizens believed were operated by the Gulf Cartel, a gang that a decade ago was among the two most powerful criminal groups in Mexico. The cartel’s historic stronghold remains the northeast corner of Mexico.
In early September, on her first anniversary as mayor, Salazar donned a black beret and uniform and introduced a new tactical security unit, Grupo Hercules. The city police force had been disbanded years earlier, because of criminal infiltration, and state and federal police and soldiers had assumed most security functions.
“We are all Hercules, because each one of us from our trench must defend the city,” Salazar said at the Sept. 7 ceremony without explaining the unit’s mission.
Almost as soon as commandos, their faces smeared with black grease, began patrols aboard Grupo Hercules vehicles, business owners were complaining.
“There’s a great feeling of fear of the paramilitary unit dubbed Hercules among the members of our business group,” Enrique Mena Sainz, the head of 3,500 businesses in Matamoros under the umbrella of the National Chamber of Commerce, Service and Tourism, wrote in a letter Oct. 30 to President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Mena told the president that business owners feared Matamoros might be hit with an “Igualazo” – a brutal blow like the one in Iguala – in which corrupt authorities and criminals orchestrated a mass killing.
Something of a similar but lesser nature had already happened.
Shortly after noon on Oct. 13 at a roadside eatery called La Curva Texas, assailants wearing Grupo Hercules uniforms wrestled with Erica Alvarado, 26, her two younger brothers, Alex, 22, and José Ángel, 21, and her 32-year-old boyfriend, José Guadalupe Castañeda Benítez, a Mexican.
The assailants bound the victims and put plastic bags over their heads, sealing them with tape. They drove off in vehicles that bore the logos of Grupo Hercules and the Mexican navy, according to Pedro Alvarado, the father of the three Americans, who said witnesses had described the events to him.
Alvarado, a 49-year-old mechanic, took a break at his small repair garage on a recent day to recount his desperate search for his offspring.
“I went to the prosecutors’ office, to the army base, to the navy and to the city jail, where they lock up drunks,” Alvarado said. “There was no record of them.”
He tried to see the mayor. She’d been in his hometown of El Control, 30 miles west of Matamoros, to give out backpacks and shoes to schoolkids on the morning of the disappearances. Grupo Hercules personnel were guarding her there, he said.
“She wouldn’t see me,” Alvarado said.
Then Alvarado received a phone call from a friend who’d spotted the gray Chevy Tahoe and black Jeep Cherokee that his children had parked at the eatery before their abduction. The vehicles were in an auto lot in Matamoros.
The lot belonged to Mayor Salazar’s right-hand man, Luis Alfredo Biasi, who likes to call himself Comandante Alpha. Biasi, who’s in his 30s, has amassed a fortune importing used American cars and trucks. His title is social development director of the city, but he appeared in a Grupo Hercules uniform next to Salazar when the unit was inaugurated in September.
Alvarado demanded the vehicles from attendants at Biasi’s lot. Soon, members of Grupo Hercules and naval personnel showed up.
“They were angry,” Alvarado said, adding that they’d agreed to turn over the vehicles but declined to give their names or acknowledge anything about what had happened to his children.
Their fate became clear Oct. 29, when an anonymous call to the state prosecutor tipped investigators to search a rural area 25 miles east of Matamoros, known as Ejido El Cuervo, where they found the decomposed bodies of the three Alvarado siblings and Castañeda.
The father seethes over the killings.
Of the mayor, he said, “I think she is involved. But I think Biasi is the one who is more involved.” Of Grupo Hercules, he added: “They are criminals with badges.”
After a public event concluded last week, this reporter approached Salazar, handed her a business card and asked whether Grupo Hercules had anything to do with the deaths of the U.S. citizens. She took the card, ignored the question and a second one, and slipped through a door. An aide said she wouldn’t talk about the topic while a criminal investigation unfolded.
Biasi didn’t respond to a query left on his website. The head of the City Hall press office didn’t respond to an email or numerous phone messages.
Salazar has offered two interviews, both to prominent Mexican journalists, since the bodies of the U.S. citizens were recovered. In one, she denied involvement.
“Truly, I don’t have anything to do with this,” she told radio and television host Adela Micha on Nov. 4. “I want it to be cleared up.”
Salazar told the radio host that she neither had created Grupo Hercules nor controlled it, saying it was under the command of the public security director of the state of Tamaulipas, a charge that he denies. The unit seems to have disbanded amid publicity over the killings.
The case has another twist.
Erica Alvarado, the slain sister, had her own brush with the law a year before her death. Breitbart Texas, part of a conservative news and opinion website, obtained an intelligence note written within the Department of Homeland Security that said Alvarado was riding in a Dodge Ram on Oct. 7, 2013, when she tried to cross from Mexico into Falfurrias, Texas. It wasn’t clear from the document who was driving. Inside the vehicle, U.S. inspectors found nearly 48 pounds of marijuana stashed in a spare tire, the report said.
U.S. prosecutors declined to press the case, it said.
Alvarado’s mother, Raquel Alvarado, speaking in her modest brick home in Progreso, Texas, said a cousin had lent the vehicle to her daughter so that she could drive members of the family to migrant jobs in cotton fields in Missouri.
The daughter, who has four children of her own, was terrified and agents believed her story, the mother said.
“They didn’t find her guilty of anything. That’s why she went free that night,” Raquel Alvarado said.
U.S. authorities have been surprisingly muted about the killings of the three American siblings. An FBI spokeswoman for the bureau’s San Antonio office, Michelle Lee, said the bureau’s “role in this investigation is to assist the Mexican authorities with any U.S.-based leads.”
Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 18, Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat whose district includes the Alvarado family home at the southern tip of Texas, called on the State Department “to ensure that the Mexican government thoroughly investigates these heinous crimes and that those responsible be brought to justice and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Drug trafficking remains rampant in the Rio Grande Valley, although perhaps less organized than in the past. Mexican counternarcotics teams working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have arrested or killed numerous key leaders of the Gulf Cartel, leaving it splintered into separate factions operating in Matamoros, Reynosa and Tampico.
“The breakdown in central leadership through arrests, conflict with other cartels and the deaths of key leaders has given way to the current factions operating in a less structured manner and at a higher degree of independence,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Joseph M. Arabit, the head of the Houston Division.
Separate factions, he said, “are still operating independent of one another.”
Local analysts note that many versions of the killings float in the rumor mill. In one, assailants of the Gulf Cartel wore stolen Grupo Hercules uniforms. Another says the Alvarado siblings were involved in trafficking themselves and had enemies, possibly including Biasi and Grupo Hercules.
A border expert at the University of Texas at Brownsville, Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, said she had little doubt that members of Grupo Hercules were involved, even if the motive for the killings remained unclear.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Hercules were never linked to organized crime. But when you create a force without legal underpinnings, that’s when these extrajudicial murders take place,” Correa-Cabrera said.
She said the mayor held responsibility as well.
“The mayors now act like feudal lords. That’s how Leticia Salazar behaves,” she said.