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Election In A Failed State

State police from Tamaulipas, Mexico patrol the main plaza in the city of San Fernando.
Peter O'Dowd
State police from Tamaulipas, Mexico patrol the main plaza in the city of San Fernando.
A Militarized Town Prepares to Vote
Election In A Failed State
San Fernando has come to exemplify the harsh consequences of Mexico's drug conflicts.

In part two of our series The Border and the Mexican Ballot, we visited the small town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in northern Mexico. It has come to exemplify the harsh consequences of that country’s drug conflicts. On July 1, this town will vote along with the rest of Mexico -- but even under the scrutiny of a thousand federal troops, the campaign atmosphere in this town is subdued, even fearful.

SAN FERNANDO, TAMAULIPAS, MEXICO -- San Fernando lies at the end of a 150 mile bus ride south of Texas, along a lonely highway bordered by endless fields of sorghum grass reddening in the steamy heat. It’s one of the highways known for narco-bloqueos, roadblocks manned by drug gangs looking for rivals or victims. Even Mexico’s toughest reporters are reluctant to come here. Get in, do your job, leave immediately, was their advice.

With a population of about 60,000 people, it’s laid out like many Mexican towns. People sit in the plaza here in the shade of small trees and the tall steeple of the church. It’s quiet, peaceful: not the kind of place that hosts drug wars.


But in 2010, it began. After a firefight nearby between the Zeta drug cartel and the army, the military entered the town. Soldiers found 72 bodies buried in a mass grave. All Central American migrants, killed it is believed, because they refused to work for the cartel. It was a singularly shocking incident.

Then, a year later, it happened again. This time, 193 bodies. These victims were pulled off buses on the highway. It’s all the result of a struggle for dominance of a critical drug trafficking conduit. Los Zetas battle the Gulf Cartel and skirmish with the military. Last May, the Sinaloa Cartel moved in.

So San Fernando has become the type of town analysts speak of when they refer to Mexico as a failing state. Local police here were no help in the face of these massacres –- in fact, 16 of them were arrested in the murders –- so the country turned to its military to establish order.

Now enormous three-axle trucks with canvas sides rumble through the town square. They’re loaded with dozens of soldiers carrying machine guns, wearing tan camouflage uniforms and body armor. Locals avert their eyes. Checkpoints bottle up the highways leading into the city from the south. Yet, somehow, this town is going to have to vote in two weeks.

Father Hilario del Pozo Noyola says the military patrols 24 hours a day.


San Fernando has become "Satanized," the priest says. It will have to live with its new reputation as the place of the mass graves. San Fernando needs its own police force and prosecutors and a local justice system. The military should not be a long-term solution.

"Or then we’re talking about a very different type of government," he said.

The conservative PAN party’s campaign office is next door to the church. It's adorned in blue lettering and giant portraits of the PAN candidates, including presidential candidate Josefina Vasquez Mota. Francisco Quintanilla is the PAN’s campaign manager here.

More from the Fronteras Desk journalists who reported along the border about impact the Mexican elections will have on the U.S.

"The PAN will continue Calderón’s economic and security policies," he said. Right now, that means military occupation of towns like San Fernando.

On a park bench in the plaza, Jose Galvan sits next to his son and an old friend. He’s dubious of the PAN campaigner’s enthusiasm for a continued military crackdown. He’s voting for Enrique Peña Nieto, he says, the PRI candidate.

"Mexico needs a radical change," he said. "The PAN started a war against people who would not hurt locals, only each other."

For Mexico, he says, it’s time to start acting like a developed nation again.

Corrected: July 12, 2024 at 1:18 PM PDT
Video by Jill Replogle