The Bad Ones came to town around eight o’clock on a cold February evening, and no one was prepared. When the gunfire and the explosions began, panic coursed through the narrow streets and spilled into the small cement and cinder-block homes where families were warming their dinners. Children cried, doors and windows slammed shut, people dropped to the ground. They closed their eyes and felt their hearts race. Outside they could hear the ceaseless spitting of AK-47’s and .50-caliber sniper rifles, the thunder of blasting grenades. Just three miles south of the Rio Grande, the Mexican town of Ciudad Mier would never be the same.
It’s not like the Bad Ones—this is what the Mierenses would come to call them—hadn’t been there already. It’s not like they hadn’t been running their operations out of Mier and the surrounding towns, carrying their loads of cocaine and marijuana through the surrounding brushland and up to the lip of the river, where they placed them on boats or rafts or inner tubes and floated them across into Texas. Even if no one spoke of them by name, they were already deeply woven into the social fabric. But on this day, they came like an invading army. The following morning, on February 23, the onslaught resumed before the sun had even risen. Forty SUVs swarmed the local police station. Armed to the teeth, dozens of men descended and forced their way in, taking every one of the officers, confiscating files, radios, and weapons. Then they scattered about town, setting houses on fire. Word spread that they were kidnapping dozens of people, perhaps entire families. It took more than three hours for the military to respond, and when soldiers finally confronted the men, bodies fell on both sides.
As people would come to tell it, that was the day, one year ago this month, “when the war began.” Thirty-five days before, 63 miles away, one man had killed another in the border city of Reynosa, and now it was raining fire. The murder was the culmination of more than a year of tension between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. Although the Zetas, originally a group of deserters from the Mexican army’s special forces, had begun as the enforcement arm of the Gulf, they gradually gained clout after 2003, when the Gulf’s leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, was arrested. By 2008, they were an organization in their own right, operating alongside the Gulf in an alliance known as the Company. While both groups held ground in the larger cities, the area around Mier became more tightly controlled by the Zetas. Then the tension exploded. The man who had been killed in Reynosa was a plaza boss for the Zetas, managing the flow of drugs through the city. The Zetas demanded the killer, but the Gulf refused. That is how the war began.
After the explosions subsided, Mayor José Iván Mancillas Hinojosa phoned the governor of Tamaulipas and begged for help. But the reinforcements would take nine months to arrive. The state had been embroiled in conflict ever since President Felipe Calderón, who had declared war on the cartels immediately following his inauguration, in 2006, had unleashed the marines on the Gulf and the Zetas. But now it became a three-way battle that would bring Tamaulipas to its knees. The same days that Mier was attacked by the Gulf last February, the cities of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo and the towns of Valle Hermoso, Díaz Ordaz, Camargo, and Miguel Alemán all experienced terrifying gun battles. Over the next months, decapitated and dismembered bodies appeared hanging from trees and utility poles. The severed head of a state police commander was delivered to a military post. Banners were strung in which the Gulf cartel exhorted the government to step aside and allow them to wipe out the Zetas, since “poison can only be combated with poison.”
For the average resident in Mier whose life was not directly touched by the drug trade, the Zetas and the Gulf cartel were one and the same: Los Malos, “the Bad Ones.” But now Mier became a battleground between the two. Throughout that spring, summer, and fall, the townspeople would have to withstand more gunfights, each lasting six, seven, eight hours at a time. The police station was bombed. The buildings became so severely scarred by repeated rounds from AK-47’s and heavy-caliber rifles that they began to look like sieves. Then, on November 5, in Matamoros, marines tracked down one of the Gulf’s top leaders, Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, a.k.a. Tony Tormenta, and killed him. The Zetas saw an opportunity to regain the upper hand in Mier. The same day that Cárdenas fell, word spread that the Bad Ones were out in the streets, shouting for all Mierenses to leave town or be killed. Of the families who remained, hundreds panicked and fled, leaving behind only those who were too frail to move.
Those who had visas crossed into Texas. Others crowded in with friends in nearby Miguel Alemán, where the mayor set up a temporary shelter in the Lions Club for some five hundred people who had no place to go. Relief aid trickled in. Then the journalists came, Mexican and American, and wrote stories that described the shelter as the first for drug war “refugees” in Mexico. On November 20 the Wall Street Journal suggested that Tamaulipas was a failed state.
This was a public relations disaster for the federal government, which was still reveling in the killing of Cárdenas. Its strategy of targeting cartel leaders had once again unleashed a wave of violence, and it had no plan for containing the resulting unrest in Mier and across Tamaulipas. So four days later, officials announced a new mission, dubbed Coordinated Operation Northeast, which would finally send additional troops and federal police to the state (and to neighboring Nuevo León, where the Gulf and Zetas were also fighting). It had taken them three weeks to respond to the mass exodus of Mier, a town of 6,500