- Associated Press - Monday, October 29, 2012

PROGRESO, Mexico — Every Sunday, about 100 people gather for pickup baseball games in a dusty open field equipped only with a dirt mound and rusted bleachers.

It is the event of the week for this small northern Mexico town of 800 people with just one gas station and no supermarket, bank or high school.

Despite the crowd, nobody is willing to acknowledge attending the game on the afternoon of Oct. 7 or seeing the shootout just outside the ballfield in the heart of Coahuila state.

Mexican marines gunned down Heriberto Lazcano, a founder and top leader of the Zetas drug cartel and the biggest kingpin netted so far in President Felipe Calderon’s six-year assault on organized crime.

Days later, no one would even acknowledge having played in the game.

“We don’t like sports,” said one teenager waiting for his school bus last week when an Associated Press reporter asked him and his friends whether they played that Sunday.

Most of the players in the weekly games are in their teens.

Some townspeople do say they heard the explosions from grenades that Lazcano reportedly tossed as he ran for his life, but they insist that they were home at the time and thought the sound was from fireworks.

Hideout for the Zetas

Cartel wars in neighboring states have made Coahuila a hideout for the Zetas, much like the remote “Golden Triangle” area of northwestern Mexico, where the world’s most wanted drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is rumored to seek cover.

“Coahuila is for the Zetas what the Sierra Madre is for El Chapo easily defensible, sparsely populated and relatively easy to get in and out of,” said Samuel Logan, a security analyst and co-author of a recent book about the Zetas.

Silence and fear govern Coahuila’s rugged mining and agricultural terrain, home to 95 percent of Mexico’s coal reserves.

The state provides the latest snapshot of a bloody drug war that has killed more than 50,000 people since 2006 and of a nation’s uncertainty, as President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto brings Mexico’s old ruling party back to power when he takes office Dec. 1.

“It used to be really quiet here. The women would bring out their rocking chairs and stay up late, talking and playing bingo,” said a 31-year-old local television reporter, who didn’t want to be quoted by name because he has received threats. “Nobody does that anymore.”

Drug cartels always have operated in Coahuila, but the mountainous terrain made large-scale smuggling difficult and unattractive to gangs warring for major transportation arteries through Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa.

As recently as 2006, the biggest drug-related news in Coahuila was about a children’s party in the town of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. The party allegedly was sponsored by Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who sent bicycles, toys and a cake with “Happy Children’s Day, from your friend Osiel” written in icing.

Lazcano started out in organized crime working for Cardenas, with his band of former army special forces serving as assassins for the Gulf Cartel.

The two gangs split in 2010.

As early as 2008, residents of Progreso and nearby towns say they started to notice the arrival of very young, strange men, who rode around in caravans of pickup trucks with large-caliber weapons and vests marked “Federal Police.”

Because of their tattoos and beer drinking, locals knew the men were not police, especially when the strangers started extorting used-car dealers, liquor stores, nightclubs and bars. Some farmers were even forced to grow marijuana for them.

Now, the bloody headlines come almost daily.

A confrontation in Piedras Negras between state officers and suspected cartel members this month left five dead, including the nephew of another top Zetas cartel leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.

Hours later, gunmen shot down state Gov. Ruben Moreira’s nephew, who is the son of Humberto Moreira, a former Coahuila governor and former head of Mr. Pena Nieto’s party. He preceded his brother as part of the political dynasty, known as “Los Moreira,” that runs the state.

The body of the 25-year-old, Jose Eduardo Moreira, was discovered Oct. 4 inside his pickup truck on a rural road on the outskirts of Ciudad Acuna, a town across the border from Del Rio, Texas. He had been shot twice in the head in what investigators think was a revenge killing. Several police officers are suspected of involvement.

Lazcano was killed four days later when marines said they happened upon him by accident in Progreso. His body was stolen by gunmen from a funeral home in the nearby town of Sabinas after marines left it unguarded.

Before the killing, residents heard that Lazcano owned a ranch in the next town over from Progreso, with land butting up to the Sierra de Muzquiz mountains, where he could disappear if necessary. Lazcano’s co-leader, Trevino, also is rumored to use Coahuila as a hideout.

Political turmoil

The violence has only stoked political turmoil in the state.

Humberto Moreira resigned as president of Mr. Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party in December because of $3 billion in state debt racked up during his time as governor. The former state treasurer is on the run, and a close former aide is under investigation for amassing unexplained wealth.

Six state and federal officials working in Coahuila were arrested this year on charges of protecting the Zetas.

Neither the Moreira brothers nor Coahuila state Attorney General Homero Ramos responded to requests for comment.

Humberto Moreira also often is blamed for the violence.

“Many people believe when Humberto Moreira became governor, he let the Zetas in,” said a 71-year-old retired movie theater worker in Sabinas. He also declined to be quoted by name out of fear of retaliation.

The Moreira brothers now appear to be estranged, though neither has acknowledged that publicly. Humberto Moreira said that fighting drug cartels was the job of the federal government, but his brother has gone after them aggressively with a special state police force. Some people speculate that the crackdown cost his nephew his life.

The governor did not attend his nephew’s funeral, although he has said he will pursue the killers to the full extent of the law.

Diana Iris knows what it means to lose a child. Her 23-year-old son disappeared in 2007 with his boss and another man on their way to a marble mine. She has worked since then to find out what happened. She said authorities have done little to investigate.

In 2009, she was among the first to join Forces United for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, a group of people seeking justice for their missing relatives.

“One time in a meeting with Humberto Moreira, we said we didn’t want one more person to suffer the pain we were going through,” said Mrs. Iris, 55.

“Sadly, it happened to him.”

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