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March 13, 2023

The Kidnapping in Tamaulipas

Over the past two years, 155 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department records; 25 of these occurred in the first half of 2022. Many of these cases of violence receive only local media attention—they include disappearances of families and occur everywhere from the border to Tulum.[1] A Washington Post report notes that at least 550 U.S. citizens have gone missing in Mexico, with 107 going missing in the state of Tamaulipas alone between 2016 and 2022. The kidnapping of four U.S. citizens on March 3 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, is thus simultaneously a horrific tragedy and perhaps less extraordinary than it appeared. There are undoubtedly remarkable elements to the case, but the reasons why it has ignited a media frenzy are more revealing of both engrained preconceptions about violence in Mexico and the narratives, some firmly in the realm of clichés, around security.

Moving beyond the particularities of the murders and kidnapping, there are five components that explain the episode’s relevance.

1. The Innocent Victim. When news of the abduction broke, most stories emphasized that the four U.S. citizens had been “caught in the crossfire” and that it was perhaps a case of “mistaken identity.” This framing not only drove attention to the case—as will be discussed below—it also mimicked the storytelling around many other episodes of violence. Discussion of victims in Mexico often occurs within a dichotomy of guilt and innocence: the amount of public attention to a case is correlated with the presumed “innocence” of those affected, whether or not they are assumed to have some involvement in criminal activity. When foreign tourists are affected by violence, they are cast as victims of tragic accidents, just as class and race shape perception around Mexican victims. The other side of this dichotomy is much darker, however, with those assumed to be “involved in something” receiving little sympathy no matter how horrific the violence they experienced.

Intrinsic to this dichotomy is the perception that such violence against “innocents” is rare. Yet this is simply not the case. It is methodologically impossible to determine how many of the more than 375,000 homicide victims or 80,000 disappeared were cases of mistaken identity, and it is morally perilous to even attempt such an exercise because it would deepen the false divide between those who deserve justice and those who do not. Anecdotally, however, there are scores of accounts of seemingly random disappearances and murders. And even the most horribly capricious dimensions of the violence are not isolated incidents. During the March 3 shootout in Tamaulipas, a Mexican woman walking on the sidewalk was hit by a stray bullet and killed. Less than a month ago, a woman died in similar fashion in Mexico State. Over a six-year period, between 2009 and 2015, one study found 83 deaths from stray bullets, and 103 non-fatal injuries.

The division between innocent and “deserving” victims remains prevalent, in part because it provides a cognitive survival strategy for those living in situations of high violence, and in part because of its tremendous political utility. These points explain why, amid a growing diplomatic crisis, Mexican media outlets have found a receptive audience for assertions that the U.S. victims were linked to gang activity and drug dealing.


2. The Media Frenzy. The “innocence” of the victims is only one of several aspects of the case drawing U.S. media attention, and it is perhaps the least responsible for the frenzy. Rather, the episode has become an ongoing international story because of its spectacular—or narco-spectacle—characteristics. The story of gunmen abducting unwitting tourists conjured a primal terror, but in casting drug cartels as the villain—and labeling them the ‘unofficial rulers’ of Matamoros—the tragedy became a Hollywood trope. As a result, countless media outlets were able to frame coverage that aligned with both fears and assumptions, while avoiding the complex reality of criminality and violence in Mexico.

The final plot twist was a scriptwriter’s dream, with five men appearing in downtown Matamoros, with their hands bound and a message allegedly from the Gulf Cartel’s “Scorpion Group” identifying them as the perpetrators and apologizing for the event. This acknowledgement fits a typical pattern of criminal communication identified by political scientists, but provides very little real clarity about what happened, and no justice for the victims and their families. State investigators appear to have little pointing to the five men’s supposed guilt beyond their confessions which, having certainly been made under some form of duress, hardly meet a standard of proof. Yet the apology made it possible to impose a sort of legibility on otherwise indecipherable violence: by naming a group and offering an explanation, the narcomessage reinforced the narrative elements necessary for a spectacle.


3. The Images. Central to that spectacle, and essential to understanding the attention the case received, was the availability of photos and videos of the violence. Circulating on social media, the images demonstrated brutality, power, and impunity, with the gunmen appearing utterly unhurried while forcing the victims into a pickup truck as traffic passes by. Such documentation has become common in recent years, as videos from security cameras and cellphones reveal massacres, extortion, and the firepower of organized crime. Often sensational, and sometimes misleading, the imagery forces a confrontation with the realities of insecurity, and frequently produces minor public scandals. But even as they make visible crimes that are often hidden and provide an illusion of legibility, these videos also obscure the complicated networks around the violence. What we can see is fragmentary: in the absence of a police response there is a suggestion of complicity; in a handshake between gunman and soldier there is a suggestion of acquiescence. The high-level corruption and daily impunity that produce such videos almost never appear on screen.


4. The Context. High-level corruption and daily impunity are, of course, entrenched phenomena in Tamaulipas, and it is significant that the abduction and murder occurred there and not elsewhere along the border. In January 2021, 19 people were murdered in the municipality of Camargo, along the state’s border with Texas. Initial reports blamed the “Cartel del Noreste,” but it became clear that the perpetrators were members of the GOPES elite state police force. Two years later, despite arrests and rapid early investigations, the case is stalled. This is, in some ways, emblematic of dynamics in the state: security forces in Tamaulipas have a record of ‘creating chaos’ and perpetrating human rights abuses. Five years ago, Mexican Marines kidnapped and disappeared a U.S. citizen in Nuevo Laredo. Less than a week before the March 3 abduction, five young men—including a U.S. citizen—were killed when an army patrol pursued and opened fire on their truck in the same city.

The federal government’s response? To deploy 200 more soldiers and 100 members of the new National Guard to the state and downplay revelations that the army illegally spied on Tamaulipas's most prominent human rights defender.


5. The Shared Tragedy. Ultimately, the events of March 3 have distorted understandings of security in Tamaulipas, with a media frenzy and pressured official reaction failing to address the institutional and systemic challenges. Simultaneously, both the Mexican and U.S. governments have missed the opportunity to address the situation as part of a shared tragedy that could give substance to the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities.

On the U.S. side, the abduction fueled further political grandstanding, amplifying the profoundly unserious proposals to send the U.S. military into Mexico and the slightly more serious proposals to designate drug trafficking groups as terrorist organizations. The belligerent bipartisan discourse about Mexico hinders discussions about what could contribute to reductions in violence: meaningful action around guns and ammunition, honest conversations about drug consumption, and demilitarized security assistance.

On the Mexican side, outright denial by AMLO that the country’s criminal groups are responsible for fentanyl production and trafficking is not only blind to reality, it also generates unproductive conflict with the United States and creates difficulties in addressing drug consumption within Mexico where substance users are currently dying from an alarming methadone shortage. Equally important, it does little in gaining empathy from the U.S. government and the American public on the human costs that illicit firearms trafficking has produced in Mexico. Put simply, for decades the United States has asked Mexico to address production and trafficking of illicit substances. Today, Mexico is using the same argument to achieve desired outcomes in reducing illicit firearms trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico. By admonishing the U.S. about the moral failings leading to substance use, the Mexican president is unwittingly doing the bidding of gun-rights supporters who want to characterize Mexico´s violence as a problem exclusively of Mexico rather than the region. Sovereignty and security need not be in opposition.

In this sense, that missed opportunity is the greatest shared tragedy.

[1] There are reports of many other murders of US residents, whose citizenship status is unclear, which do not appear in the State Department database.

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