What strange nightmare happened in Coahuila?

Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City, from the CIA World Factbook, which states that it is in the public domain
Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City, from the CIA World Factbook, which states that it is in the public domain

In September 2014 there was a tragic event in Mexico when 43 students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico disappeared. Despite some conspiracy theories, it is now clear that all were murdered by a drug cartel, which worked in collaboration with both the local police and the mayor, as well as the mayor’s wife. Mexicans were shocked by this event, which caused a political crisis for President Enrique Pena Nieto.  The world media gave extensive coverage to events, as people were stunned at the brazenness of the crime. The Iguala murders became a symbol of the horror of the Mexican drug war, and the extent to which it has corrupted not only the police, but also political elites. But what happened in Coahuila, in northeastern Mexico, and why have events there not received similar coverage?

It is difficult to find accurate information about the Mexican drug war because newspapers have been infiltrated, and journalists murdered. The government also has an interest in concealing its failures. For this reason, it is hard to judge what actually took place in Coahuila, near the frontier with Texas, but clearly it was horrific. In January 2014 federal agents arrived in northern Mexico and began to search for perhaps 300 dead. Not only were people murdered, even their homes were flattened. Television news showed a long line of police walking with metal rods to probe the ground, while a German shepherd dug into the soil. According to the accounts there was a sudden outburst of violence in which hundreds of people died, and their bodies were then incinerated in barrels of diesel, or dissolved in barrels of acid. The films of the destroyed houses were sickening because of the ordinary items that were smashed to pieces- pieces of dishes, clothes and toys.

The Spanish language news coverage said that the killings took place beginning on March 12, 2011. If so, why did it take so long for news to reach the outside world, if “39 homes and seven ranches” were destroyed? Allegedly the violence targeted particular families in a horrific example of vengeance. One account said that it was the Moreno and Villanueva families, another the Garzas and Villareals. While much of the violence took place in the town of Allende, other communities were also targeted, such as Piedras Negras. There are also various stories about what initiated the violence. Some have stated that los Zetas found informants within their ranks. In their anger, they allegedly killed not only the men’s families, but everyone that they found in their phone records. Others say that two men stole millions from the drug cartel, which then retaliated against their families, and everyone they knew. Even employees of the families were killed. Supposedly the two men who stole the funds had left for safety in the United States. Which version was true?

One account said that 50 trucks filed with los Zetas drove into Allende that spring and began to seize people, who were taken away to nearby rural properties. It seems strange that none of the disappeared were killed in the towns themselves. They were all removed and killed out of sight.Then the narco-traffickers returned and destroyed peoples’ homes with heavy equipment and grenades over the space of three days. Unlike many other cases of violence, the attackers seemed to have wished to keep events silent, which is atypical. Recently, a YouTube video (in a digitized voice) said that five narcococineros (the term used for the people who “cook” the bodies in barrels of flammable liquid) had been arrested. According to one account in Al Jazeera, authorities believed that the kidnapped people had been taken to a local prison to be executed. But much information in the case is still lacking. There are many details that seem incredible. For example, there are allegations that in one case some of the attackers arrived in helicopters. If true, does this suggest military complicity in the event? Perhaps most disconcerting is that the violence lasted for days, yet no outside help was called.  Were people too afraid to call for help, or were they convinced that the police and military were complicit, so there was no point? How much organization and manpower does it take to carry out violence on such a scale?

In the end I am haunted by one question: Why did the missing students in Guerrero draw so much attention, while the dead in this case have received so little? Was it because the dead may have been related to people in the drug trade, even if sometimes tangentially? Is it because the community -although very near the Texas border- was perceived by journalists to be too difficult and dangerous to enter? I don’t know the answer to these questions. What is clear is that one event drew outrage from around the globe, while the other has received little coverage in mainstream English language news within the United States.

Curious to learn more about Mexican drug cartels? You can find my post about blogs covering the drug war here.  My former undergraduate student, Nicole McGee, also has an article on the Mexican drug war from a theoretical perspective, which you can view for free here.

Here is a contemporary map of Mexican drug cartels by my undergraduate student, Matt Andreas. As you can see, Coahuila in the northeast lies in the area controlled by the drug cartel called los Zetas, although in practice the lines are blurred and there is overlap.

Map of Mexican Drug Cartels by Matt Andreas
Map of Mexican Drug Cartels by Matt Andreas



Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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