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In fact, it may be longer. The Zetas, sensing weakness, launched a new offensive after the Nov. 5 slaying of top Gulf cartel leader Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen. Most think the Zetas are still lurking on the cattle ranches and in the brush and low woods around Ciudad Mier and farther up the Rio Grande Valley, just waiting to return.

Some hold out hope that kidnapped loved ones are still being held at the cartel hide-outs.

“My father said, ‘I’m going over to the ranch to cut some wood and pick up a few [fence] rails.’ He never came back,” said one middle-aged woman at the Lion’s Club shelter.

Maria Isabelle, 42, disappeared from the shelter and hasn’t been heard from.

“A truck came by, and someone said, ‘Pick up that woman,’-” said her mother, shelter resident Maria de la Luz, 59.

In Casas Geo, another resident on a quick run to his former home shows a reporter a flame-scarred house across the street. “This is where they fired a rocket into the house,” he says. He is picking up furniture from a house where the subdivision’s last remaining holdout, Gaspar Rodolfo, was kidnapped earlier this month.

Across the road, a feed-store owner tosses the twisted metal casing of a rocket-propelled grenade onto his counter. In the back room, he has a 5-gallon bucket full of shell casings he collected in his parking lot.

Farther down the road, a restaurant owner pours his own collection on the counter: casings from an M-40 grenade launcher and .50-caliber bullets.

That probably isn’t what scares the army, which has M-40 launchers and .50-calibers of its own. What is truly frightening is what lies in the municipal impound lot: the burned-out remains of five crudely armored pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, with half-inch steel plate welded over most of the windows, leaving only a narrow slit for the drug gunmen’s visibility and firing. It all looks like something out of a “Mad Max” movie.

Farther outside of town lies a homemade tank that locals refer to in hushed tones as “the Monster.”

“The Monster” was a 10-wheeled gravel truck with a 5-yard freight box entirely covered in 1 1/4-inch steel plate welded into the box to cover firing positions for about 10 gunmen. In the cab, the thick steel plate covered the engine, the windshield and the doors, punctuated by hinged covers for gun ports, and massive steel rams welded onto the prow of the craft.

What is terrifying about “The Monster” is not that the Zetas gang built it and used it in the almost medieval war for Ciudad Mier, but that the Cartel del Golfo - which roared back into Mier with a vengeance on Feb. 23 to retake the turf - brought it down.

Perhaps most frightening of all is what is happening farther up the road from the subdivision, where the highway leads toward the town of Nueva Ciudad Guerrero. Even those brave enough to sneak back into Ciudad Mier won’t take the road to Guerrero, where 11 Zeta gunmen were killed in a clash with soldiers days before. In more than an hour’s time, not a single vehicle passes in that direction.