ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We're going to follow the Rio Grande River now, southeast from Juarez toward the Gulf of Mexico. There, a new front has broken out in Mexico's bloody cartel war. Dozens of people have been killed in gunfights and communities up and down the river in northeast Mexico fear it's just the beginning.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: Cartel is an inaccurate word for Mexican drug mafias. Cartel implies a consortium of organizations that seek to collude to control their business. But in the past decade, Mexico's organized crime groups have been muscling into one another's territories to take over routes and steal market share.
The recent news from the state of Tamaulipas is more proof. What's happened is that two ruthless mafias, the Gulf Cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, have split. For more than two weeks, they've been engaged in a widening gangland war to determine who will control access to balmy south Texas, where the DEA estimates half of all Mexican marijuana is smuggled into the U.S.
Zoran Yankovich, special agent in charge of the Houston DEA office, says if the two-year-old turf battle raging in Juarez is a guide, the violence in Tamaulipas has only begun.
Mr. ZORAN YANKOVICH (Special Agent, Drug Enforcement Agency): They're positioning themselves, and I think they're still preparing. I mean, I believe that they're still arming themselves, you know, and bringing additional reinforcements. And I think eventually it will probably, you know, be even bloodier than what we're seeing now.
BURNETT: The DEA says most of the major Mexican drug mafias have allied with one side or the other in the new Tamaulipas conflict. Mexican media have reported the war erupted over vengeance after a Gulf cartel member killed a top Zeta. The DEA's Yankovich believes the conflict may be a result of opportunism: who will replace the former Gulf cartel chief Osiel Cardenas, recently sentenced in the U.S. to 25 years in federal prison?
Mr. YANKOVICH: Any time a major player goes down, whether they get arrested or in this case, you know, sentenced, you know, there is this reorganization going on in place.
BURNETT: The territorial struggle has engulfed a large region of northeastern Mexico in violence, from Nuevo Laredo downriver to Matamoros at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Early the morning of February 27th, there was a fearsome, three-hour shootout on Federal Highway 2 in the town of Camargo, across the river from Rio Grande City, Texas. No deaths or injuries were reported, but Mexican drug mafias frequently carry away their own casualties. During a visit last week, the city was still on edge. The international bridge was nearly deserted, some businesses had closed, schools were letting students go home early, and Santa Ana Catholic Church had cancelled evening masses.
Reverend LORENZA GARCIA (Santa Ana Catholic Church): (Speaking Spanish)
BURNETT: Basically, we are taking extra precautions because of the recent disturbances, said Father Lorenza Garcia, picking his words with excruciating care. People are still afraid, despite street patrols by federal police and soldiers.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking Spanish)
BURNETT: No one is protected here. Everyone has to look out for themselves, says a woman selling tacos of sliced cactus called nopalitos. She added derisively, and the mayor, he's hiding in his mother's skirt.
No one really knows what's happening because there's a media blackout. Journalists are terrified. In the past two weeks, a Mexican TV reporter and cameraman were kidnapped, beaten and released - presumably by narcos - and a Reynosa reporter died, local sources say, from a vicious beating. Much of what people know about the Saturday morning shootout they learned from a video shot by an anonymous local woman and posted on YouTube.
(Soundbite of YouTube clip)
Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Spanish)
BURNETT: While she narrates, the camera pans a half-dozen late-model SUVs and tricked-out pickups riddled with bullet holes, sitting disabled beside the road. The video, titled "Gunfight in Camargo," has gone viral, said a local doctor who asked not to be identified.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking Spanish)
BURNETT: The governor said this was an isolated case and we shouldn't be afraid, he said. We don't know who this woman is, but she's brave. She showed the truth. Now the government can't deny it.
The U.S. State Department has urged Americans to avoid driving on major highways south of the border in northeastern Mexico. And the Texas Department of Public Safety has warned students going to South Padre Island for spring break not to party in Mexico this year.
John Burnett, NPR News, Mexico City.