Early on the morning of January 25 at least seven vans and trucks (reports say up to 14) rolled through Colonia Francisco Villa, the neighborhood just outside the gates of Potrero Chico, a popular winter rock-climbing destination in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. The vehicles stopped at a bar called La Carreta, an establishment that borders several climbers’ campgrounds. La Carreta is familiar to many climbers who, like me, have been rendered sleepless by the double bass, accordion and pig squeals of performing Norteño bands. That night, armed assailants got out and proceeded to kidnap members of the Vallenato band Kombo Kolombia. According to a report provided by a member of the band who managed to escape, the musicians were driven around the area for several hours and tortured. Eventually, each was shot in the head. The bodies (at least 12) were thrown in a well near Mina, a small pueblo a few minutes (6 miles) away from the Potrero, and the closest town and access point to the Culo de Gato, a sport-climbing cave.
On January 29, Rock and Ice received two phone calls from Texas climbers who relayed the story. In the first draft of the story posted on rockandice.com there were two inaccuracies passed on by these informants, which were revised as more facts became known. The first draft stated that the bodies were dumped near a climber’s campground, and that climbers were fleeing the Potrero. These Apparently, to some, the fact that people were abducted near the campgrounds then killed and dumped elsewhere was no cause for alarm. One poster commented that the risk was equivalent to “5.10c PG/R.inaccuracies prompted a fusillade of angry comments with the thrust being that Rock and Ice was irresponsible and that the inaccuracies were potentially damaging to tourism to the area. Apparently, to some, the fact that people were abducted near the campgrounds then killed and dumped elsewhere was no cause for alarm. One poster commented that the risk was equivalent to “5.10c PG/R. Couple small runouts, but nothing you can’t handle if you keep your wits about you.” Many wrote that they weren’t leaving the area because the “media constantly exaggerates the potential danger" and that the violence is wholly confined to the drug cartels and those associated with them.
With the caveat that each person should make an informed decision about where he/she travels, I’d like to present some facts about the present situation in Northern Mexico with regards to the ongoing drug war and its known impacts on travel and innocent bystanders.
The violence occurring in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon—the Mexican states that climbers pass through on their way to El Potrero Chico—stems from an ongoing turf war between rival cartels, namely the allied Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels and the Zetas, an upstart branch of the Gulf Cartel that now controls much of eastern Mexico.
In 1999, the leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cárdenas Gullén, hired a paramilitary unit to be his bodyguards. This unit consisted of between 14 and 31 deserters from the Mexican Army's elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) and was led by a retired army lieutenant named Arturo Guzmán Decena. Decena had been a high-ranking officer, and, as is sometimes the case, he had received his own Federal Judicial Police radio code of Z1, pronounced “Zeta 1.” Subsequently, his force became known as the Zetas.
Soon, Cárdenas Gullén expanded the role of the Zetas within the Gulf Cartel, employing them as kidnappers, extortionists and executioners. In 2010, however, the Zetas broke from the Gulf Cartel and took over numerous “plazas,” or trafficking routes, including one of the most lucrative corridors of all, the U.S. I35/Mexico 85 route from Laredo to Monterrey—the route traveled by climbers heading to the Potrero. The Zetas are now the largest cartel in Mexico and are based in Nuevo Laredo. It’s worth noting that Mexico 53, the highway that connects Monclova to Monterrey, is another important corridor for drug traffickers. Hidalgo and Mina are situated on Mexico 53.
The claim that the violence is wholly confined to members and adjuncts of the cartels is completely erroneous and suggests a grievous level of ignorance that is potentially fatal. The total number of casualties resulting from the drug war is unknowable. Mass graves are still being uncovered and many of the persons abducted, particularly women, are never reported as missing. According to the Washington Post, estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 killed since November 2011. That number includes 318 police, 58 reporters and around 1,000 children with 6.1 million people displaced.
The claim that the violence is wholly confined to members and adjuncts of the cartels is completely erroneous and suggests a grievous level of ignorance that is potentially fatal. Mass graves are still being uncovered and many of the persons abducted, particularly women, are never reported as missing.
Tactics employed by the cartels have expressly targeted innocent victims completely unconnected to the cartels. The 2011 massacre near San Fernando, Tamaulipas, provides a striking example. According to an interview with a Zeta cartel member published in the Houston Chronicle and another interview with a survivor first published in El Informador, a Mexican newspaper, several public buses were hijacked by cartel members and driven to an isolated ranch called La Joya. The male passengers were given bats, clubs and hammers and told to fight to the death with other victims. The winners of these gladiator-style duels were recruited as killers for the Zetas. The female passengers were removed to a room, raped and beaten, their children taken and tortured. According to the survivor, one bus driver was forced to drive over the elderly and was then executed. Most of the 193 victims (including one U.S. citizen) found in the 47 mass graves had features of "blunt force trauma" consistent with the testimony of the two men.
It’s not surprising, however, that people—including climbers—continue to assume that the victims are all connected in some way to the cartels since this misinformation is propagated by the cartels themselves. For example, on April 17, 2012, the dismembered remains of 14 men were found in a car in Nuevo Laredo (the entry port for most climbers driving to Potrero Chico) with the following message allegedly from the head of the Sinaloa Cartel: “We have begun to clear Nuevo Laredo of Zetas because we want a free city and so you can live in peace. We are narcotics traffickers and we don't mess with honest working or business people. I'm going to teach these scums to work Sinaloa style—without kidnapping, without payoffs, without extortion … Don't forget that I'm your true father.”
By April 24, however, forensics had identified 10 of the 14 bodies and Mexican authorities stated that those killed had no relationship with Los Zetas and were, in fact, innocent civilians.
Another example of the continuing disinformation occurred on May 4, 2012 when motorists on the toll road 85D—the favored route for climbers driving to El Potrero—encountered four women and five men hanging from a bridge over the highway. A banner strung up next to the corpses stated that the murdered were members of the Gulf Cartel: “… This is how I'm going to finish off every fucker you send to heat up the turf. But it's okay, here are your guys. The rest went away but I'll get them. Sooner or later. —Los Zetas”
Just a few hours later, 14 decapitated bodies were found in front of the Customs Agency next to the offices where climbers get their passports stamped. The severed heads were placed in ice coolers and dropped off in front of the Palacio Municipal, the mayor's offices, along with another dissembling message: “You want credibility that I am in NL? What will it take, bringing the heads of Zeta leaders? Or yours? … Continue to deny my presence here in Nuevo Laredo and you will continue to see their heads. I do not kill innocent people to submit work as you are accustomed … all dead in Nuevo Laredo are pure scums, in other words, pure Z. Sincerely, your father.”
Unfortunately, these assurances on the part of the cartels that innocents won’t be targeted have been shown again and again to be specious. In 2012, in Nuevo Laredo alone, nine bystanders were injured as the result of car bombs, and a casino and a popular nightclub were set on fire.
Another reason that reliable information concerning the drug war is so difficult to come by is that the cartels target media. Consider these examples, again, all occurring in Nuevo Laredo. In 2004 a journalist reporting on the cartels was stabbed 26 times. In 2006, the newspaper El Mañana was blown up by a grenade. In 2010 the offices of the TV Just a few hours later, 14 decapitated bodies were found in front of the Customs Agency next to the offices where climbers get their passports stamped.station Televisa were attacked. In 2011, María Elizabeth Macías Castro, an editor of La Primera Hora newspaper, was decapitated. A message was left: “For those who don't want to believe this happened to [María Elizabeth Macías Castro] because of [her] actions … Thank you for your attention, respectfully, Los Zetas.” Even bloggers and people who post on social media are targeted. For example, in 2011 a man and a woman in their early 20s were abducted, tortured and hung from a pedestrian bridge along with a sign that said they were killed because of posting web entries critical of the cartels. The sign read: “This is going to happen to all of those posting funny things on the Internet.” Sure enough, within two months four people were killed after posting negative comments about the cartels. El Mañana was attacked again on June 10, 2012, and the paper issued a statement saying that it “will refrain, for as long as needed, from publishing any information related to the violent disputes our city and other regions of the country are suffering.”
The same kind of self-censorship on the part of the press, bloggers and social media is occurring all over Mexico. It’s no wonder some people believe that the violence is confined to those connected to drug trafficking in some way—but that belief is false.
Violence in the Area near Potrero Chico
The metropolitan area of Monterrey, situated adjacent to the Mexico 85/I35 corridor, is an important warehousing center for cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs bound for U.S. consumers. The isolated little towns and ranches of Nuevo Leon are also “treasured,” according to the Houston Chronicle, by drug traffickers as outposts and the region has experienced an uptick in violence concurrent with the ongoing cartel wars. In 2012 alone, according to Reuters, Nuevo Leon had become Mexico’s murder capitol, with 685 drug-related killings as of May.
One gruesome example was discovered on the same day that the editorial board at El Mañana stopped covering the drug violence. Somewhere between 49 and 68 decapitated bodies were found along Mexico 40 just southwest of Monterrey. The bodies are still unidentified because the hands and feet were also cut off and discarded.
Earlier in the year, in February, two U.S. missionaries were killed in the region by cartel members. Also in February, 44 inmates were killed in a riot at Apodaca prison which is close to the Monterrey international airport. Thirty-seven prisoners escaped including the leader of the Monterrey Zetas. On August 14, members of the Gulf Cartel invaded a Monterrey bar and gunned down 10 people.
The list of cartel-related massacres and killings goes on and on. Keep in mind that these examples are confined to 2012 and do not include violence outside of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. If you look at violence occurring in 2011, the situation is even starker. In July 2011, for example, gunmen shot and killed 27, injured 7 and kidnapped 8 people in a bar in Monterrey. On August 25, 2011, gunmen massacred at least 52 people at the Monterrey Casino Royale. According to witnesses, the gunmen stormed the casino and immediately opened fire, killing civilians, then doused the entrances with gasoline and lit them to trap people inside.
Once again, the facts suggest that the cartels act with impunity, and the idea that climbers will be exempt from violence is wishful thinking based on ignorance.
In response to the violence, the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey has issued a traveler's advisory that warns against travel in Nuevo Leon. In addition, the U.S. consulate is "a partially unaccompanied post" with no dependents of government officials allowed. All officials are on a curfew that requires them to remain in the consulate neighborhood between midnight and 6 a.m. For more information check out this Crime and Safety Report for Monterrey. The report is pretty comprehensive. One item that seems pertinent is the kidnapping stats: "The U.S. Consulate General Monterrey was apprised of 17 kidnappings of U.S. citizens in 2011 in its consular district; all of those are unresolved. There were also 11 homicides of U.S. citizens that were the result of a kidnapping. These numbers do not account for unreported kidnappings."
In the case of Kombo Kolombia at the Potrero, it is still unknown why the band was kidnapped and killed. Most reports suggest that they were not involved with the cartels. Once again, the facts suggest that the cartels act with impunity, and the idea that climbers will be exempt from violence is wishful thinking based on ignorance. Foreigners have been targeted and history has shown that climbers are not immune. A parallel might be Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, John Dickey and Jason "Singer" Smith in Kyrgyzstan. The climbing team was abducted and held for a week after traveling to the region despite a U.S. State Department warning advising Americans to stay away. In this case, thankfully, the climbers were able to make a desperate escape.
I started climbing in El Potrero Chico in the late 1980s and I have spent many happy hours drinking beer, eating tacos and socializing with the residents of Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon. As a group, the people of Northern Mexico are perhaps the most hospitable, kind, compassionate and gentle folks I’ve encountered in all my travels. I’ve been welcomed into people’s homes, fed and housed on numerous occasions. In the 1990s and 2000s I wrote several articles extolling the virtues of this multi-pitch limestone paradise and after exploring many other climbing areas across the globe, Potrero Chico remains one of my favorite destinations. The infrastructure that has grown up around the climbing—the campgrounds, restaurants and guide services—have been affected by the drug violence and it makes me very sad to see my friends struggling. However, the idea that we should not report on the situation because it will adversely impact tourism (as some Internet pundits have implied) seems grossly irresponsible bordering on culpable, especially given the cavalier nature of some of the comments on rockandice.com and other climbing websites in response to the Kombo Kolombia story. Reporting on the very real violence and threat of violence to travelers in Northern Mexico is not “sensationalistic” as several posters have suggested. As always, the best way to remain safe while traveling in a hot zone is to educate yourself. I’ve laid out a brief, recent history of the Mexican drug war as it applies to travel in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. What you choose to do with this information is, of course, up to you.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject. Please comment below if you have opinions or information to share.