Gunfire continued to be reported in Matamoros Saturday, a day after firefights rocked the city and Mexican authorities announced the death of Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, whom they described as a leader of the Gulf Cartel.
Several people reportedly were killed Saturday in Matamoros, and four others died in Valle Hermoso to the south.
Friday’s exact toll is unknown, but well-placed sources put the number of dead at 55 or more. Official statements from the Mexican government acknowledged 10 deaths, while one law enforcement officer, speaking on condition that his name not be used, told The Brownsville Herald that the two-day toll “easily” passed 100.
The death of Cárdenas Guillén, 48, known as “Tony Tormenta” or “Tony the Storm,” came Friday after hours of armed confrontations throughout Matamoros.
On Saturday, sources confirmed more shootouts and grenade explosions with several casualties in Matamoros. Plumes of smoke could be seen from Brownsville. A Mexican law enforcement official confirmed the four deaths in Valle Hermoso.
Since Friday, phone service — both land lines and cellular — in Matamoros has been sporadic, with residents unable to make calls at certain times.
The law enforcement official confirmed that gunfire broke out Saturday in the Ejido Las Rusias neighborhood between members of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. Shootouts between armed civilians were reported on Lauro Villar and Roberto Guerra avenues.
Sources said the Mexican military had surrounded the headquarters of the Tamaulipas State Police.
According to a source with firsthand knowledge of criminal activity in Mexico, the casualties of firefights involving the Gulf Cartel and Zetas are hard to track because the groups typically remove bodies of their fallen members quickly and dispose of them in clandestine cemeteries.
Comments left by readers on the website of The Brownsville Herald and its sister paper El Nuevo placed Friday’s death toll at more than 70.
According to a press release from the Mexican Navy, three marines were killed and four were injured during the shootout that resulted in the death of Cárdenas Guillén and four of his personal bodyguards, who are commonly known in the area as Escorpiones. It did not specifically mention other encounters Friday in Matamoros.
In a separate statement, the Mexican military reported one soldier dead and two injured during the shootout Friday morning that resulted in the death of Carlos Alberto Guajardo Romero, a crime reporter for El Expreso newspaper in Matamoros.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced that he had received a phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama congratulating Mexican authorities on the operation against Cárdenas Guillén.
According to the press release from the Mexican Navy, the cartel leader’s death comes after more than six months of intelligence gathering and operations aimed at cornering him.
For Friday’s operation, the Navy said it deployed 660 marines, 3 helicopters and 17 land vehicles.
Cárdenas Guillén, a native of Matamoros, is the brother of former Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who was arrested by Mexican authorities in 2003 and was later extradited to the U.S. He is currently serving a 25-year sentence in Texas.
After the capture of his brother, Esequiel Cárdenas Guillén reputedly rose to be one of the heads of the Gulf Cartel, along with Jorge Eduardo Costilla.
Cárdenas Guillén is named in a five-count U.S. indictment accusing him and Costilla, along with the two leaders of the Zetas crime group, Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano and Miguel Angel “El 40” Treviño, of narcotics trafficking.
On Saturday morning, at least a dozen banners, allegedly from the Zetas, were placed in various cities in northern Tamaulipas including Matamoros, San Fernando and Valle Hermoso. The banners mocked the death of Cárdenas Guillén and called his brother an informant.
Leaflets were strewn around Matamoros with a message from the Zetas addressed to the public and to the members of the Gulf Cartel.
The message — which was in Spanish and inserted the letter “z” instead of the correct “s” in many words — stated:
“To the general population and orphaned criminals!!! The group of Loz Zetaz is informing you and giving you the opportunity to join with no hard feelingz. Those who join will be welcomed to the Firm. Those who don’t loze their head and their dezcendants!!! To the general population, we are informing you that thoze who have nothing to fear have nothing to worry about. We have alwayz been here and respected the good people and in the upcoming dayz there will be much more activity. We hope you underztand and let us do our job. Let’z get going. As a matter of fact we are already here.”
Various eyewitnesses spoke with The Brownsville Herald and described the terror they felt Friday during the gunfire.
A Texas businesswoman, who was in Matamoros running errands, reported being in the downtown area when a shootout erupted just a block away. The woman reported hearing machine guns and over 20 seconds of continuous grenade explosions. She said she didn’t see any bodies.
Another woman said that while she was walking near the Pumarejo General Hospital in Matamoros, she saw a truck with armed gunmen collide with an SUV carrying a family. The woman stated that the impact rolled the SUV on its side. She said at least two gunmen got out of their vehicle and fired on the SUV as well as on a military helicopter that was chasing them. The woman said she was also fired upon as she ran for cover but was not struck.
“You would think we were in Iraq or in a movie,” she said. “Everyone was scared, gunfire everywhere, panic and chaos.”
A man who was in the downtown area reported seeing a group of armed men take over a “pecera” — a type of bus — and order the driver to park it in a way that would block the street. As soon as the driver stopped the vehicle, the man heard a single shot. After the gunmen left, the man took a closer look and saw that the driver had been shot in the head.
A woman who lives near the Reynosa-Matamoros highway said from her window she saw armed men collecting the bodies of other gunmen and driving off. The woman said she couldn’t tell if the bodies were dead or just wounded, but she called the scene “a bloodbath.”