Does the Governor of Tamaulipas put STC, RGV and US security at risk?
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
Groundbreaking ceremony for South Texas College's Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence.
By Únete 956
The governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, has been aggressively promoting opportunities for Mexican state police and the city police of Reynosa (of which he was once mayor) to coordinate activities with US law enforcement, including the training of Mexican police in the U.S.
Local and state leaders, as well as The Monitor newspaper, have been on board with the idea from the start, since early 2016, before Mr. Cabeza de Vaca was elected governor. The proposal was first introduced in April 2016 by Gerardo Alejandro Treviño, from the Tamaulipas state attorney general’s office under then governor Ejidio Torre Cantú. Invited by Lower Rio Grande Valley leaders to discuss the matter, Mr. Treviño spoke about the opportunities for training Mexican law enforcement officers at South Texas College’s new Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence.
During the same week, Mr. Cabeza de Vaca, then a senator on the Mexican federal Commission on National Defense, was invited by U.S. Homeland Security officials in McAllen to discuss human trafficking and other illegal border activities, as well as the collaboration and exchange of information between U.S. and Mexican authorities for facilitating law enforcement, border security, commerce, and tourism.
The common training ground, scheduled to open June 2018, would provide specialist training to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as PSJA high school and STC students pursuing police and other first-responder careers. A collaborative effort by STC, PSJA Independent School District and the City of Pharr and STC President Shirley Reed, also envisions making the facility a training ground for Homeland Security.
The center was given legislative approval through House Bill 1887, authored by Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr. (McAllen), which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on June 3, 2015. At the time, the Rio Grande Guardian quoted Dr. Reed, saying that a principle advantage of the center being built into state law is that it would “provide access to local, state, and federal funding opportunities, particularly from the Department of Homeland Security.” Mention of training Mexican police, however, is not addressed in the law.
However, the prospect of our immediate neighbor to the south—home to the Gulf Cartel and its adversarial offshoot, Los Zetas—potentially enrolling young, low- to mid-level police cadets into the public safety center alongside STC students should give pause and raise serious concerns.
Fort Benning, Georgia should come to mind. It was there in the early 1990s that the U.S. Army trained a group of Mexican special forces that returned home, deserted, and created the first disciplined, paramilitary-style drug cartel and most feared criminal network in Mexico — the Zetas, who began as assassins for the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros, Tamaulipas and today operate on both sides of the border and the wall. Fort Benning is about 1,100 miles from Reynosa and it’s not a community college. Could STC be at risk of training a new generation of potential, cartel recruits?
What types of opportunities can be envisioned with a community college getting involved with a government and its law enforcement units that have enduring records of being bought or coerced by two of the deadliest (and most creatively brutal) criminal organizations in the world? The joint international training idea at STC could provide drug cartels with enormous opportunities at the peril of American citizens and taxpayers.
We are living at a time when corruption and violence in Mexico are on the increase and cartels are morphing into something different and more dangerous than ever before. Despite $2.5 billion that American taxpayers have pumped into the Mérida Initiative (begun by George W. Bush in 2008 and continued under Barack Obama) to help fight the cartels and cut corruption in Mexico over the last ten years, things are not getting better.
Drug-related violence across the country in 2017 claimed over 29,000 lives, the highest recorded numbers ever. The total cost of Mexico’s militarized crackdown on drug cartels to date includes more than 200,000 lives and more than 30,000 missing. Should this not give us additional pause in thinking about the relationship between our local officials and controversial officials from a country currently undergoing crisis and emergency?
In November, Senator Ron Johnson (R.-Wisconsin), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to the U.S. State Department expressing deep concerns about crime and corruption in Mexico. “Violent crime is now at the highest rate in 20 years,” Johnson wrote, “and the amount of drug trafficking in the United States has doubled.” This, Johnson added, is happening “as drug cartels exert increased influence over other government officials. A large number of Mexicans are defecting from law-enforcement units to join cartels, and department officials acknowledge that the U.S. has likely trained some cartel members through the [Mérida] Initiative.”
At the time Johnson penned his concerns, witnesses testified in three Texas courtrooms about the Zetas pouring huge sums into Mexican electoral campaigns and bribing politicians and police at all levels of government and law enforcement in the state of Coahuila, adjacent to Tamaulipas.
The State Department began 2018 by issuing a travel advisory for Mexico, listing Tamaulipas as one of the five deadliest states in Mexico. The advisory urges Americans to completely avoid travel in the state, which is now at the same level of danger as in Syria and Afghanistan. It states in part, “Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common. Gang activity, including gun battles, is widespread. Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments.” Everybody in the Valley knows somebody who’s experienced this first-hand. For this reason, those of us who travel to Mexico do so only during the day, and even that’s not entirely safe any longer.
Tamaulipas governors and their administrations have associated with cartels for decades
The New York Times reported in April 2017 that during the six years (1999-2005) former governor Tomás Yarrington Ruvalcaba ran Tamaulipas, “the Gulf Cartel and its brutal armed enforcement wing, the Zetas, established their hold over the state.” A 2013 federal indictment in the U.S. accused Mr. Yarrington of taking millions of dollars in bribes from cartels, as well as being involved in racketeering, drug trafficking, money laundering, bank fraud, and tax evasion.
On the run since 2012, Yarrington was arrested in Florence, Italy last year. He faces charges of money laundering and organized crime in Mexico. The U.S. is seeking his extradition.
Eugenio Hernández Flores succeeded Yarrington, serving as governor from 2005 to 2010. In 2015, Mr. Hernández was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of corruption involving money laundering. The charges concern bribes by Zetas and others to the sum of US $30 million, plus $1.7 million invested in three houses in McAllen and an Austin home assessed at $2.7 million. U.S. authorities are in the process of extraditing him.
Egidio Torre Cantú followed Hernández as governor in 2010. While Mr. Torre Cantú has not been charged for crimes, the civil engineer from humble roots turned politician now owns a home valued at 340 million pesos (US $18.4 million). He has close ties to previous Tamaulipas governors and has wined, dined, and publicly honored Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, the father of the Gulf Cartel, after whom Torre Cantú named a street in Reynosa. It was Mr. Torre Cantú’s administration that first proposed the vision of training Mexican police at STC’s new center for public safety.
While Mr. Cabeza de Vaca was campaigning for governor in 2015, a witness in one of Yarrington’s trials informed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency that he had participated in an exchange involving Cabeza de Vaca accepting a $500,000 bribe from the Gulf Cartel in 2004 when he was then running his campaign for mayor of Reynosa. The governor denies the allegations.
Experts who study cartel activity highlight their evolution and experimentation with various forms of business opportunities. In recent years, cartels have invested much effort and money into “legitimate” businesses: laundering drug money through real estate, the international finance system, trucking, the energy industry and American quarter horse racing.
Factions of the Gulf Cartel dominate the border from Matamoros to Reynosa. Cells of the Zetas span from Piedras Negras and Nuevo Laredo to Reynosa, the latter of which has been a battleground between the two cartels, police, and the military for years. Today, Reynosa — with a population of about one million — is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, with 144 homicides last year through September, a 167% increase over the same time the previous year. In a survey last September, more than 90% of Reynosa residents said they don’t feel safe.
Last September, Gov. Cabeza de Vaca introduced the state’s United Plan for Reynosa, providing $7.6 million for anti-crime, infrastructure and development programs involving civil society and the commercial sector of the city. This will supplement what he wants the U.S. government (using the controversial Mérida Initiative) to pay for, which include training Mexican law enforcement personnel in STC’s Center for Public Safety Excellence.
Developing economic opportunities between Texas and the states of northeastern Mexico makes practical sense, but those opportunities should be carefully vetted and monitored. While the business and political class of the RGV advertise a narrative of cooperation and friendship with the Mexican state, many Mexican workers and the middle class have fled the country due to the longstanding issues with lawlessness, criminal impunity, and corruption at all levels of the government and law enforcement, particularly in Tamaulipas.
Does it make sense and would it be reckless to accept the governor’s plan to train Mexican law enforcement personnel in the U.S.? Training them in the same facility as Homeland Security, local and state police, STC college students and dual credit high school students, could really be a recipe for disaster.
Such arrangements could also create a seamless conduit for cartel activity between the two countries. “Silver or lead?” (money or death?) is the usual offer from a cartel to a politician, businessman, or police officer, the offer that can’t be refused.
What need is there to worry about a big wall or cutting-edge, high-tech electronic surveillance systems when a cartel can control elements of law enforcement on both sides of a port of entry?
Too much is at stake to justify, once again, the placing of naïve trust in a vision for cooperation with Mexican law enforcement that has demonstrated colossal, tragic failures rooted in drug trafficking, big money, endemic corruption and horrific, militarized mass murder. The plan to train Mexican law enforcement in our community college could seriously undermine our national security. It puts STC and PSJA students, faculty and staff, law enforcement departments and agencies, our community and our nation at great risk.
Texas State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa recently extolled the benefits of higher education as establishing and building upon the “foundation of the community,” informed Valley citizens who contribute to the cultural and civic pride, the economic prosperity and educational aspirations, and the creativity and democratic principles of our community. “When our colleges are threatened,” Hinojosa writes, “our communities are ready to unite and raise arms to protect and defend these institutions.”
We, too, believe STC has played a pivotal role in the Valley’s economic and intellectual growth, and we should unite and protect it from dangerous forces that would abuse its good powers and services.
*Update: The original version of this story encouraged readers to call their state and federal representatives in order to speak against South Texas College facilitating the training of Mexican state police forces at the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence. Individuals who did so informed Ûnete that State Senator Hinojosa and Representative Gonzalez were receptive and interested in their concerns. In August 2018, Ûnete learned that this ambition had been abandoned.
*Correction: An earlier version of this report stated that Tomás Yarrington was awaiting extradition in Italy. In fact, Mr. Yarrington was extradited to the United States in April 2018. His trial is set to begin January 14, 2020 in Houston, Texas.