Mexico’s Massacre Era: Gruesome Killings, Porous Prisons

When forty-nine dismembered torsos were dumped for public display near Cadereyta, Mexico, in May of this year, they confirmed a grim pattern: what might be called a massacre era has been unfolding in Mexico for nearly two years now, since August 2010.

Before that, firefights and multiple murders had certainly characterized the nation’s drug cartel warfare, but there had been limits. For whatever reasons of logistics or psychology, not even the worst known clashes before 2010 had produced more than about twenty-five fatalities each. Most were far smaller.

Then on August 22–23, 2010, in a single close-range barrage, gunmen from the Zetas Cartel shocked Mexico—and the world—by killing seventy-two trussed, blindfolded immigrants—for reasons that remain mysterious. The 2010 massacre, near San Fernando, in the northeastern part of the country (less than ninety miles south of Texas), catapulted Mexico onto a new plateau of world-scale killing fields. Just why the dam broke at that particular moment is another mystery. Many details of Mexico’s organized crime crisis remain unfathomably obscure. The top leaders of the Zetas are shadowy fugitives, known to the public as little more than fabled names and faded mug shots. Lower-level arrestees typically disappear into police interrogation networks. Mexico is long inured to seeing battered criminal faces stare for a moment at the paparazzi in a perp walk. Officialdom cobbles together a few cryptic sentences and then imposes silence.

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At first the 2010 massacre had seemed an isolated fluke. Even today, great swaths of Mexico remain peaceful. Many tourist resorts purr along serenely. But in the wake of the immigrant massacre, the Mexican government turned out to be keeping secrets. It was well aware of clues pointing to other such bloodlettings, and by April 2011 new revelations became too pronounced to contain. Broad areas of mass graves were revealed on separate sides of the nation, in the states of Tamaulipas and Durango, with some two hundred or more corpses in each main area. The secretive body disposal made it difficult to gauge how many separate massacres this represented, but the overall numbers spoke balefully.

The mass graves in Durango, on the western side of Mexico, were said to hold mostly cartel gunmen killed in secretive feuds within the Sinaloa Cartel. But the eastern graves, back around the tormented town of San Fernando, held many non-criminal bystanders, apparently killed by the Zetas in bizarre episodes of bravado. (The son of one victim said in anguish: “They did it because they could.”) The Zetas in the east and the Sinaloa Cartel in the west have emerged as the two top forces warring for Mexico’s underworld spoils, along with other groups in alliance. All have made their contributions to the death pits.

Moreover, as the massacre era has deepened, clandestine burials have increasingly been supplemented by another flourish: the piling of corpses in public places for terroristic display. In September 2011, the state of Veracruz was shaken by a dump of thirty-five mutilated bodies on a downtown street. Surrounding incidents pushed the statewide total of such corpses toward one hundred. The September pile came with notes from the killers saying they were cleaning out the hated Zetas (in this case, the killers were linked to the Sinaloa Cartel). But some of the victims turned out to be luckless passersby, apparently killed to add bulk to the spectacle. On November 24th, a similar downtown dump, of twenty-six corpses, more victims of the Zetas, appeared far to the west in Guadalajara. A cartel gunman arrested in May of this year said he had been ordered to conduct random abductions for new corpse piles. The cases described here are only a few of the milestones.


As cartel subcultures have moved by stages into new ways of causing horror, opinions are mixed as to what, exactly, is breaking down. Some say the atrocity pattern is inspired by furtive foreigners—specifically, by Guatemalans who once worked as shock troops in their nation’s counterinsurgency sweeps, then went rogue and hired on with the Zetas. It is true that the last massacre era before this one was not in Mexico but Central America, especially in the early 1980s, as governments struck at leftist guerrillas. (The 1982 Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala took decades to document: more than two hundred dead, including children.)

But Mexico’s underworld does not need foreign instruction. The surrealistic Mexican prison system, for example, provides plenty of training opportunities. When the Zetas inaugurated the massacre era in 2010, their commander in the region surrounding San Fernando was Alfonso Martínez, a.k.a. La Ardilla, “The Squirrel.” He had been formidably schooled in cruelty while in jail.

Ardilla made his bones at a regional prison called the Dupont Ostión Center for Social Readaptation, eight hundred miles south of the US border in the oil port of Coatzacoalcos. His time there provides a case study of jailhouse atrocities, and the way they can cycle back into mainstream Mexican society—via epidemic mass prison escapes.

Ardilla was sent to prison early in his career, after he and his modest squad of four other Zetas were arrested on March 10, 2007, in a botched kidnapping attempt. They had somehow gone after the wrong target in a harried shopping-center swoop-down, then got their truck stuck as they fled. (Such confusion is not rare in the scant public annals of Zeta operations—but the occasional pratfalls don’t make the Keystone Kriminals any less deadly.)

Since the dime-novel days, Mexican jails have held a certain notoriety, but the massive drug markets of a new millennium have produced corporate players—the cartels—who can streamline the corruption. In jail, Ardilla seemed to have found his element. Relatives of other prisoners began complaining that the Zetas had taken over the facility—savagely and with fatal effect.

The Zetas in particular have a stoic paramilitary culture well suited to terrorizing target populations. In prison after prison, especially at Mexico’s easily corrupted state level, the Zetas have supplanted old-style inmate kingpins. Both the Zetas and rival cartels have carved out prison turf, sometimes butchering one another en masse behind bars. Prisoners from opposing cartels are routinely kept in separate cellblocks.

At the Dupont Ostión facility, nightmare rule seemed to escalate in early 2008. Two prisoners, jailed for three-day holding on minor offenses, were beaten to death with a plank: Mayo Martínez on March 3rd, then Josué García on April 9th.

The “plank” (plancha) was probably a flat club with a handle, a standard Zeta tool, like a fraternity-hazing paddle on steroids. Whether such paddles first arose inside jails, then became a common tool of torture outside, or vice versa, is an interesting question—but not very conducive to sociological research. Occasional photos confirm street tales about these weapons, and victims bear the marks. Sometimes not only backsides but upper backs, arms, and legs are black with bruises.

Meanwhile another term, la talacha, helps explain why the paddle is applied. Since the early twentieth century, in both Mexico and adjoining Guatemala, jails used this strange hybrid word (half Spanish, half Nahuatl or Aztec) to designate a squeeze put on new inmates. In outside society, talacha means scut work, menial drudgery, unskilled patch jobs—but incoming prisoners find it attached to a jail extortion fee: Pay off the ruling gang or you’re punished with waist-deep sewer work—if you’re lucky. Grieving relatives of the two murdered men at Dupont Ostión spoke bitterly of la talacha, and how the victims had pleaded for money to pay, but were apparently unsuccessful.

When Ardilla entered Dupont Ostión Prison, there were many lessons to learn, including a big one on what turned out to be his last day there. In the wee hours of May 16, 2008, at least three vehicles reportedly converged on the prison gate. Men got out who announced they were from Mexico’s version of the FBI (since disbanded, so bleak was its reputation). They said their special mission required immediate conference with Comandante Ardilla. The duty guard later claimed to be in the bathroom. The visitors got the keys. The five jailed Zetas (plus a plucky convicted robber from Chile, along for the ride) then were magically free. Ardilla and the others disappeared, without a shot fired.

He would become a Zeta regional commander in the San Fernando area through not one but two massacre cycles there, according to Mexican authorities. In the immigrant massacre of August 2010, Ardilla was barely a shadow in the background, but he was more evident in the later “bus massacres” of April 2011, when astonished passengers from hijacked buses were herded into lonely brush country and butchered in groups, though many had no cartel connections. A Zeta sub-commander arrested later said that Ardilla was presiding over a kind of paranoid purge, ordering the death of anyone even remotely suspected of being a rival, no matter how unlikely the suspicion. Shock value was added by the killing style: no guns. There was only a sledgehammer (or perhaps a plancha), smashing away at the skulls of prone bodies, as if in an antique slaughterhouse. Ardilla remains at large.


Mass prison breaks by crime cartels, especially the Zetas, have turned Mexico’s state prisons into Swiss cheese. And because of overcrowding many cartel heavies are housed at this porous state level. Federal authorities have promised to build six new higher-security prisons and overhaul the system at a cost of over $1 billion. For now, the mass prison breaks are staggering. As a partial list of escapees suggests, Ardilla’s break was minor (see Table 1).The chaos in these events was so great (and the prison authorities often so corrupt) that the numbers have to be viewed as approximate. Nor do they reflect the large number of smaller escapes—or certain creative variations.

The Sinaloa Cartel’s “work-release killers” of 2010 didn’t need to escape from jail because at night prison officials let these inmates come and go, using prison vehicles and prison guns to commit outside massacres, as when they mowed down eighteen bystanders in July. In Gulf Cartel territory, a bus was rammed into a prison for a mass escape. Gossip said that some reluctant, non-cartel inmates were forced to climb aboard so they could be dragooned as Gulf gunmen.

In February 2012, the spotlight was on Apodaca prison, in an area where drug battles are now raging between the Zetas and a syndicate headed by the Sinaloa Cartel, locally allied to the Gulf Cartel. Later investigators said the Zetas had been paying $150,000 a year in bribes for control of Apodaca prison, coopting all its personnel, including the warden. Gulf Cartel prisoners were kept quarantined in Cellblock C, but a bought guard opened that block to the Zetas as unsuspecting Gulf Cartel inmates lay sleeping. Using no guns—and only such shivs or bludgeons (or paddles) that might supplement their bare hands—the Zetas then conducted a blood orgy. The reported number of Gulf members they killed was forty-one, none with bullets. Some were smashed against walls. At least one was beheaded.

In this mêlée was José Ricardo Barajas, a Zeta identified by the code names El Diablo and El Bocinas (roughly: “Boombox”). He was among some thirty-seven Zeta inmates who, with the carnage covering their tracks, walked out of the prison that night without firing a shot, then disappeared. The guards were later fired. The warden and some others were criminally charged.

Apparently the Zeta hierarchy then sent Boombox only twenty miles from Apodaca to be local boss in the oil pipeline city of Cadereyta, population about ninety thousand. It was just outside Cadereyta on May 13, 2012, that the horrific recent body dump occurred: forty-nine corpses, severely mutilated. Most reports said that all had been not only beheaded but shorn of hands and feet, making the dump a matter of torsos. This was a tremendous amount of hacking, over a long, plodding period of time. How could anyone do this?

On May 21st, the Mexican Army announced that escapee José Ricardo Barajas (Boombox) had served as a supervisor for the Cadereyta abattoir.  He and another Zeta, Daniel Elizondo (a.k.a. El Loco) were said to have rendezvoused with thirty gunmen to attend to the forty-nine cadavers—or possibly live victims. Afterward, the Zetas hung “narco banners” at some twenty sites across northern Mexico, protesting that they hadn’t committed this atrocity. For a moment the authorities seemed to think it might have been a disinformation op by the rival Gulf Cartel. But evidence against the Zetas redoubled, along with riddles: If they were going to do it and then deny it, robbing themselves of the terrorism value, then why do it at all? Again, the true motive recedes down a rabbit hole of the sociopathic and the diabolical.

Boombox is said to have been tasked with making a special Zeta video of the dumping, for uploading to YouTube as a cryptic taunt. But who were the forty-nine victims? How many might have been bystander targets thrown in to swell the shock? The mutilations left little to identify, and nobody seemed to report forty-nine disappearances. 

In a haze of official contradictions, it wasn’t even clear whether Boombox was arrested along with El Loco, or was still loose. At least one Mexican news outlet said he was caught, and showed a photo of him being shepherded by police—and yet the fellow in the photo didn’t seem to match an earlier shot of Boombox used in a wanted poster. Most media found only one arrestee, El Loco, who was paraded before photographers with unexplained abrasions on his face. Official statements weirdly resisted clearing up the status of Boombox.

But they did say he had kept the video camera rolling, undeterred by forty-nine torsos at his feet. His cellblock had grown to the size of a nation, with room for his nightmarish art.

Gary Moore has written about Latin America and the Hispanic community in the United States for various national publications. He has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post Magazine, and the New York Times.


Photo Credit: Tomascastelazo

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