VILLA UNION, Mexico -- Mexico’s president says he wants to fight drug cartels with “hugs, not bullets,” but after 23 people were killed in a weekend gunbattle in the border state of Coahuila, some communities want a more forceful strategy to prevent cartel assailants from reimposing a reign of terror.
Residents of the small town of Villa Union said Tuesday that they fear a return to the days of 2010-2013, when the old Zetas cartel killed, burned and abducted Coahuila citizens. This past weekend, the Cartel del Noreste — an offshoot of the Zetas — invaded Villa Union to try to reassert a claim to the turf.
Villa Union is 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the town of Allende, the site of a 2011 massacre in which the Zetas killed at least 70 people. Residents said they have learned from experience that the Zetas must be fought.
“You can’t give a drug trafficker a hug and not expect to receive a bullet in return,” said a former policeman in Allende who would not give his name for fear of reprisals. “That is the only way to fight them off, to prevent them from returning to our towns and ruling them, is with bullets.”
The ex-policeman and his family had to flee Allende for a while in 2011 in the face of Zeta threats. He doesn’t want to have to flee again.
Many others expressed similar fears.
Sandra Zedillo, a municipal employee in Villa Union, said “it doesn’t look good. We are afraid they will return.” The atmosphere of dread was underscored by the funeral procession held Tuesday for a local firefighter who was abducted and killed by the gang.
“This hurts,” a rancher said. “The firefighter paid for something that he didn’t have any part in.”
Another resident who asked that his name not be used, said old fears were stirred up by the weekend invasion in which dozens of Cartel de Noreste pickup trucks shot up the town hall, killed two municipal workers and four state police officers, before battling soldiers and police and fleeing.
Some of the suspected gunmen were later arrested and described the incursion as a hit-and-run operation aimed at staking a claim to the territory for use as a drug-trafficking route to the U.S. border. But many thought the gang wanted to rule the border area, not just use its routes.
“This is going to get worse,” said the man, who lived through the previous round of violence. “This is what happened with the Zetas. They said they wouldn’t stay, but they stayed.”
For his part, Coahuila Gov. Miguel Riquelme is planning to fight the cartel’s move into the state. The Cartel del Noreste, like the Zetas, is based in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, to the east. Nuevo Laredo is in Tamaulipas state.
“This isn’t a question of issuing a challenge to the criminal groups,” Riquelme said following a meeting with army officers in Villa Union. “It is about protecting the civilian population.”
Riquelme announced plans to set up at least three military posts with about 40 soldiers apiece and said more would be added if necessary.
He said with apparent satisfaction that some of the 10 suspects detained in the weekend attack — several of whom are adolescents — said they had been forced into participating, and said they feared the Coahuila state police.
While President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants to avoid confrontations with drug cartels, they appear unavoidable.
And although the president claims the policy of detaining drug lords and the 2006-2012 government offensive against the cartels were failures, those initiatives weakened the Zetas and reduced violence in some parts of the border states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.
Now locals fear the cartels may be resurgent. Some long for the days when Mexican marines successfully patrolled the area until Lopez Obrador reassigned them to other duties. They were known for not getting corrupted by the cartels and not yielding in battle with them.
“The marines are the only ones I trust,” said one local mechanic. “The rest are going to take a bribe.”
Villa Union bears the scars of the hourslong gunbattles Saturday and Sunday. The fight that unfolded between a cartel force estimated at 100 to 150 men and state police left 23 people dead. At least 50 homes and buildings were riddled with bullet holes.
In the aftermath, authorities found about 20 abandoned vehicles, some with machine-gun turrets and welded armoring. The doors of many were professionally printed with the initials of a drug cartel. At least four had .50-caliber mounted machine guns.