“Redlogarythm” and MX for Borderland Beat
|Francisco Javier Cabeza de Vaca, current Governor of Tamaulipas|
During the last months we have been witnessing the development of an interesting story: current Tamaulipas Governor Francisco Javier Garcia Cabeza de Vaca is facing multiple criminal charges. Following years of news, rumors, and acussations against Cabeza de Vaca himself and most of his family members, during the first months of 2021 the official debate and public opinion finally placed the Governor in the middle of the bullseye.
The old rumors evolved into formal and public denouncements that have revealed what was always known: Tamaulipas, as many other Mexican States, has been the private fiefdom of a predatory elite composed by corrupted politicians and public officials that have abused public and private resources allocation for their own profit, earning hundreds of millions of dollars while their State fell into violent anarchy and widespread corruption.
Although Cabeza de Vaca has not been declared guilty yet, we can infer that he will face the same ending as other former politicians such as Tomás Yarrington, Eugenio Hernández Flores, Humberto Moreira, César Duarte, Roberto Sandoval, or Javier Duarte.
Today, Cabeza de Vaca is still in power and can use his political position as a cover. He has allies, from his own party and in certain layers of society, have defended his honorability because he still controls the allocation of public contracts, certain areas of the criminal panorama, and the granting of job positions. Nevertheless, it is a matter of time before he falls. It will likely be before or after he ends his mandate in 2022.
At that moment Cabeza de Vaca will be left alone by his current friends and allies. He will likely go into hiding and probably will try to leave Mexico like former Tamaulipas governor Yarrington or Coahuila governor Moreira did. We have witnessed the same stories enough times to understand that this is another card in the wide and wicked deck of Mexico’s criminal governors.
In order to offer a better hindsight into the facts and circumstances that surround Cabeza de Vaca’s case, Borderland Beat presents a series of investigative reports that will dig into the Governor’s past and present times. We will study how he got into the higher layers of Mexico’s first alternative to the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN).
Borderland Beat will also analyze how he got into the city hall of Reynosa, how he was able to develop strong ties with both former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, and how he created a vast network of associates, strawmen, and accomplices with whom he sacked the State of Tamaulipas since at least 2005.
For doing this series, Borderland Beat spent hours of investigative reporting and invested a considerable amount of resources to gather its findings. We sincerely hope to match up to the challenge. We owe it, not just to our readers, but also to the beleaguered, mistreated and incredible Mexican people.
THE McALLEN INCIDENT:
Son of the marriage between María Lourdes Cabeza de Vaca Wattenberger and Manuel García Uresti, Francisco Javier Garcia Cabeza de Vaca was born on September 17, 1967. He has two brothers: José Manuel and Ismael. His family was traditionally based in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, and from this border city the clan has managed the strings of municipal and regional politics at least since 2005.
|Simplified overview of the Cabeza de Vaca clan|
The first relevant event in the life of Cabeza de Vaca as a youngster is possibly one of the darkest. Not because of its relevance but because it evidences the nature of the individual. Although it is true that one cannot be judged by a single action, the circumstances, accomplices, the fate of such accomplices, and the future of Cabeza de Vaca after this specific incident offers a great glipmse through which his life and personality can be interpreted.
On February 9 1986, Cabeza de Vaca and three other individuals where detained by a police officer in McAllen, Texas. That night the four youngsters (all of them minors except Cabeza de Vaca) stopped their car next to a pickup parked at the Cinema Gemelos Plitt. One of them came out from the car, entered into the pickup and stole everything he found inside. The police officer saw it and stopped the car later, which was being driven by 16-year old Alfredo Cerda Ramos AKA El Paya.
Next to the driver was Cabeza de Vaca. Behind them there were 17-year old Antonio Barba Villanueva AKA El Toño Barba and 16-year old Alberto Gómez AKA La Chona. They were hiding a cardboard box, a rifle, and a shotgun they had stolen from the pickup.
Among the items found by the agents inside the car were two screwdrivers, a package of batteries, a pair of gloves, a knife in a black case, a pair of spurs with the initials E.R. and a cardboard box containing a telephone with an automatic answering machine. This machine was propriety of Emilio Rodríguez, the owner of the pickup that Cabeza de Vaca and his pals robbed.
Since his friends were all minors their cases did not go through the criminal procedure. But Cabeza de Vaca was 18 years old and had the capacity to answer for his crime. How did he get away from the subsequent criminal procedure? In later interviews he said that he was inside the car, but defended himself by saying that he did not steal anything.
“The incident occurred as we were coming out from a cinema,” he said in an interview with Radio Fórmula decades later. “The police came and a boy tried to open a car, they captured everyone, it was a mischief.”
Mischief or not, they stole two weapons, not vegetables. Although it is true that the Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney René Guerra (the one who handled the case) recognized these allegations in a TV interview in the 2000s, the defense and praise he gave to Cabeza de Vaca, who was just one of the hundreds of cases Guerra managed from 1984 and 2014 was a District Attorney, should be considered at least suspicious.
Officially, the case was dismissed because the one stealing the pickup was a minor and it was not possible to link any of the other youngsters, including Cabeza de Vaca, to the crime. We will probably never know what happened between the Cabeza de Vaca family and Texan authorities, but the truth is that all four of them left McAllen as free men after paying a $5,000 fine and negotiating with the victim, who granted their pardon. The only trace that the murky event ever left is the police mugshot of a young Cabeza de Vaca holding a plaque with the number of his criminal case: 33696 0209.
|Cabeza de Vaca’s mugshot following his arrest in McAllen, Texas|
What we do know about is the end of his three friends. All of them were murdered in a time span of less than 3 years.
On October 9, 1998, Alfredo Cerda Ramos AKA El Paya (the driver of the car) was murdered. Son of the high-ranking PEMEX labor union boss Alfredo Cerda Hernández, El Paya appeared executed with a bullet to the head with two other individuals from Reynosa in the Cuautitlán Izcalli delegation of Mexico City.
Antonio Barba Villanueva AKA El Toño Barba was murdered on August 20, 1999. The last of the McAllen quartet was Alberto Gómez AKA La Chona, who had evolved quite a lot since he was captured with Cabeza de Vaca. According to available press archives, he became a lawyer and started working from Monterrey in cases linked only to drug issues.
According to El Norte newspaper, he became a lawyer for the Juárez Cartel and was particularly close to Amado’s brother Vicente Carrillo Fuentes AKA El Viceroy. La Chona was kidnapped on the first days of November 2000. According to Mexican reporter Jesús Blancornelas, he was abducted and killed by people linked to Arturo Guzmán Decena AKA Z-1, founder member of Los Zetas. Z-1 was the head of Osiel Cárdenas Guillen’s security circle and commanded offensives against members of Sinaloa Cartel in northeastern Mexico. Z-1 was killed in November 2002 in Matamoros.
It is difficult to determine the circumstances of Cabeza de Vaca’s life during the aftermath of the McAllen incident. If we have to believe his own version, he already was a popular football player and a clever student in the area of McAllen, so he continued with his bright career. He got two degrees from the Houston Baptist University, one in Business Administration and the other one in Marketing. He also met his wife Mariana Gómez Leal in a ball in 1990 in Reynosa, right after he had arrived from playing a football match in McAllen. This event would mark Cabeza de Vaca’s future and career since Mariana was member of one of the multiple family clans or dinasties that have ruled Tamaulipas through local fiefdoms since before the revolutionary period.
Mariana was the daughter of Graciela Leal de Gómez and José Ramón Gómez Reséndez. José Ramón was probably one of Reynosa’s most powerful businessmen. An engineer, he studied at the Tecnológico de Monterry, where he met and befriended a young Economics student called Manuel Cavazos Lerma, who between 1993 and 1999 would be the PRI Governor of Tamaulipas.
José Ramón was also the founder of Transportes Gor, a transport company founded in Reynosa in 1981 that would become a transport emporium absorbing several smaller companies and eventually becoming Autofletes Gómez Leal SA de CV, which still bears the brand name “Grupo Gor” in memory of the initial company.
During the early 2000s, Transportes Gor was in the middle of a scandal that erupted when several trucks of the company were caught redhanded transporting illicit fuel that had been brought illegally into the country. Among other episodes, we can cite the one happening on July 22, 2002, when three tanker trucks belonging to Transportes Gor were seized containing illegal kerosen imported from the US.
The relationship between Cabeza de Vaca’s political family and organized crime have always been a dark shadow orbiting around him. In 2009, his brother-in-law José Ramón Gómez Leal (one of Transportes Gor’s shareholders) launched his campaign as a PAN candidate for a seat in the State Congress.
As journalist Ana Lilia Pérez points out, in the middle of the campaign, several photos appeared in the internet showing José Ramón hugging and partying with Armando Montes de León, a former policeman who at the time was working as enforcer for Jaime González Durán AKA El Hummer, one of the original Los Zetas founders and a heavy hitter in the city of Reynosa at the time. Borderland Beat was not able to find these pictures, but did confirm that such photographs were in circulation when reports from that time were consulted.
|Simplified overview of the Gomez Reséndez clan|
During those years, Transportes Gor was owned by Cabeza de Vaca’s father in law, José Ramón Gómez Reséndez, and his two brothers in law, José Ramón and Manuel Gómez Leal. The manager of the company was Manuel Gómez García, who was also Gómez Reséndez´s nephew. Manuel Gómez García left Transportes Gor at the end of 2002 to create his own transport company, Intertransports Inc. SA de CV, which immediately managed to obtain public contracts from PEMEX in order to transport oil and gas and that would also be pointed as a company engaged in oil theft and kerosen smuggling.
In 2001, Manuel Gómez García would be nominated as the head of Mexico´s National Chamber of Cargo Trucking (CANACAR), the national union of the haulier elite. From there, and until the end of his mandate in 2003, he would continuously praise and develope strong ties with Vicente Fox Quesada, who at the time was Presidente of Mexico. The President himself would attend meetings of the CANACAR organized by the union´s leader.
|Manuel Gómez García, cousin of Francisco Javier´s wife Mariana when he was president of the CANACAR|
Manuel Gómez Garcia’s blazing career would have an abrupt end on February 3, 2008, when his corpse was found with several gunshots in a wasteland near Reynosa. But by then Fox was a friendly retired old man enjoying the fruits of his career in his ranch in Guanajuato and Cabeza de Vaca was a local deputy for the Tamaulipas State Congress. It was just another cadaver rounding on the orbit of the future Governor of Tamaulipas.
THE NOT SO HUMBLE BEGINNINGS OF A BUREAUCRAT:
The origins of Cabeza de Vaca’s involvement in politics are clouded by the distance of time and the unbearable number of campaigns, elections, marches, speeches, and promises of dozens of candidates appearing in Tamaulipas during the last 22 years. What we know is that during most of the 1990s, he devoted himself to the management of his family’s businesses.
The first contact with real life political implications happened in 1998 when he became a precandidate on the elections for Reynosa’s townhall. He did not go too far in an atmosphere where the only possibilities of success were linked to the factic powers represented by the PAN and the PRI, which still controlled Mexico’s political destiny. The future Governor immediately saw the possibilites of joining one of Mexico´s political forces, and that same year Cabeza de Vaca jumped into the ranks of the PAN.
Today most people might not remember how Mexico was back in the 1990s. A rare exception among the long and terrible list of Latin American dictatorships of the XXth century, Mexico managed to remain relatively stable and politically peaceful. The price for such a stability was the creation of a “civilian dictatorship” that would rule Mexico’s social, political, and economic spheres for nearly 60 years through an almost unique party, the PRI.
Once labeled by prominent writer Mario Vargas Llosa as “the perfect dictatorship”, the PRI managed to maintain Mexico within a certain level of order combining an old-fashioned and artificial revolutionary rhetoric, the mismanagement of the public resources coming from the exploitation of gas and oil through PEMEX, a widespread regime of corruption and clandestine, accurate and fierce repression against potential threats that included forced dissapearances of revolutionary students and intellectuals, a generalized practice of police torture, and a sporadic displays of violence (such as the Tlatelolco massacre or the scorched earth campaign against the armed movements in Guerrero and Michoacán).
Nevertheless, during these years of obscurity, the PRI was not the only political party acting inside Mexico. As a method for legitimizing its own system, the PRI allowed certain political organizations to organize themselves as some sort of “opposition” as long as their reivindications did not go too far. Thus, in 1939, a group of conservative and religious businessmen founded the PAN.
The PAN originally represented the ideas and aspirations of a certain (and minority) group of citizens opposed to the policies and political projects of President Lázaro Cárdenas, who always charaterized himself as a nationalist, with a clear idea about the progressivism, laicism and patriotism that should guide Mexico’s founding principles.
With the years, as the PRI’s hegemony turned into a wicked regime of nepotism and corruption, the PAN did not stay silent. Things began changing in the 1980s when it was clear that the revolutionary movements of Central America would not achieve any significant victories and the US started loosening the ties that linked what they saw as America’s security to the stability of Mexico’s political system.
Thus, in 1989, the “panista” politician Ernesto Ruffo Appel managed to become the first opposition candidate winning a Governorship (the one of Baja California). During the 1990s, Mexicans suddenly realized that the PRI´s regime would not last forever. Suddenly, new PAN candidates started being elected as mayors and Governors, and the press could publish articles critizising the hegemonic party. It was also possible (to some extent) to organize a political meeting without fearing the appearance of “porros” or secret policemen who would start a quarrel.
Certain surreal events such as the murders of the PRI’s presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and General Secretary José Francisco Ruíz Massieu, both linked to the obscure spheres of influence orbitating around the Salinas de Gortari political clan, contributed to the destruction of the remaining party’s influence and credibility. By the last years of the 20th century it was clear that the PRI would loose the Federal elections and that the monopoly over the industry created around the public contracts through which the PRI’s last administrations had started privatizing Mexico’s economy would change hands.
This was a turning point in the history of Mexico that few have studied with rigour.
A system created for achieving political stability had shaped a country, defining its economy, molding its institutions, stating a way of doing business … This system was crushed in 2000 when Vicente Fox Quesada, the PAN opposition candidate, was elected as President of Mexico. And with the new President came a new system that was different from the preceding one in the colors of the party flag, because the objective remained the same: sacking Mexico.The PRI bureaucrats were followed by a cohort of PAN politicians that without any political experience would cope with the facilities and temptations of absolute power very soon.
By the end of the 1990s, Cabeza de Vaca was one among the thousands of young individuals that saw in the PAN not the possibility of a democratic future and an end to the PRI´s reign of corruption, but the possibility of acquiring power and money. And, obsiouly, he joined the party.
As any other “young turk”, Cabeza de Vaca entered into the PAN ranks with the aid and support of a godfather: Gustavo Cárdenas Gutiérrez. Son of three-time mayor of Matamoros Jorge Cárdenas González and nephew of former Tamaulipas Governor Enrique Cárdenas González (1975-1981), Gustavo Cárdenas was initially a member of the PRI.
|Gustavo Cárdenas Gutiérrez, political godfather of Francisco Javier García Cabeza de Vaca|
In 1993, when the party refused to present him as candidate for the mayorship of Ciudad Victoria, Gustavo changed colours and joined the already successful PAN, winning the position and becoming the mayor of Ciudad Victoria. In 1995 he managed to become a local Deputy at the Tamaulipas State Congress. By this time Gustavo had managed to become the PAN’s heavyhitter in Tamaulipas, controlling the party at the State level (he would be the PAN’s delegate for the whole State between 1999 and 2000).
Due to his large political influence, he tried to run for Tamaulipas’ first opposition Governor. He lost in 1998 against the PRI’s golden candidate: Tomás Yarrington Ruvalcaba, who would make an art of corruption and collusion with organized crime, as Borderland Beat has reported in detail.
Gustavo would try again in 2012, but this time it was Yarrington’s puppet, Eugenio Hernández Flores, who beat him for the Governorship role. After two failed attempts, Gustavo’s political image was totally burnt and after four years in the Federal Senate (2000-2004), he finally left the PAN in 2013 amid allegations of corruption and despotism. He immediately chose a new political party, Movimiento Ciudadano, which he would use to run again for the Mayorship of Ciudad Victoria (he failed once again) and to become a Federal Congressman between 2015 and 2018.
Although today there is a bitter rivalry between both men, it was Gustavo Cárdenas Gutiérrez the one who initially sponsored Cabeza de Vaca inside the PAN.
Cabeza de Vaca’s first task for his political godfather was to organize Gustavo’s electoral campaign for the Governorship in 1998 as Coordinator for the PAN’s pre-candidacy. He also directed Gustavo’s formal candicacy in the northern area of Tamaulipas.
From these new positions, a young and relatively inexperienced Cabeza de Vaca, had to sell the image of his boss and mentor to the people of Tamaulipas. Given the PRI’s de facto control over Tamaulipas, it is worth noting that Gustavo managed to obtain a meager 26.02% of the votes against Yarrington’s undisputed victory with 53.66% of the vote.
By the end of 1999, Cabeza de Vaca had become someone important inside the PAN’s state ranks. Using his influence, contacts, and unquestionable social skills, he managed to climb positions inside a party which was clearly defined as Mexico’s next ruling party.
Cabeza de Vaca knew this, and once his first obstacle (the obtention of contacts and reputation inside the State PAN elite) had been achieved, he immediately turned towards the second goal: reaching the Federal level. Hence, Cabeza de Vaca targeted a new political patron: PAN’s presidential candidate Vicente Fox Quesada.
TARGETING MEXICO’S OWNERS: CABEZA DE VACA AND THE FOX-SAHAGÚN CLAN
The relationship between the current Governor of Tamaulipas and the Fox family started in the late 1990s and probably was the consequence of indirect contacts. In other words, Cabeza de Vaca was introduced to the Fox family through someone who knew both families. In this case the relationship was established not with Vicente Fox, the presidential candidate, but with his spouse Marta Sahagún, and especially with the three sons of the would-be first lady: Manuel, Fernando and Jorge Alberto Bribiesca. Where did this relationship come from?
The most probable answer is a man called Sergio Amaury Flores Pérez. Originally from Reynosa, Amaury studied in Celaya, Guanajato, where he met and befriended Marta Sahagún’s son Manuel Bribiesca.
As Cabeza de Vaca recognized, he also knew Sergio Amaury very well, “even before Manuel Bribiesca”. Eventually, Sergio Amaury would join the Customs division of the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit (SHCP), Mexico’s equivalent of the US’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), where we worked as sub-administrator in the customs of Guadalajara, Jalisco, and as Chief of Customs Operations in the border crossings of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo during the 1990s.
While stationed in these two border cities, he introduced his friend Manuel Bribiesca to several transport elites. It is worth noting that a Federal Investigative Commision revealed that Sergio Amaury participated in the diversion of seized smuggled items for private profit.
What happened that linked Sergio Amaury, Cabeza de Vaca, and Manuel Bribiesca? We may never know, but we can suppose that the link between Amaury and Reynosa’s customs and transport elites may have facilitated contacts between Cabeza de Vaca and Manuel Bribiesca.
In any case, Amaury’s services were rewarded when Cabeza de Vaca became mayor of Reynosa in 2005. He appointed Amaury as Director of Transit and Land Transport. In 2006 it was revealed that Amaury and Cabeza de Vaca’s brother, Ismael had created two companies, Compañía Difusora de Radio del Norte SA de CV and Corporativo de Radio Norte SA de CV. These two companies tried to obtain hundreds of TV and radio licenses issued by the local Government. We will return to this issue in the next episode of this series.
The fact is that it is almost unquestionable that it was through Sergio Amaury that Cabeza de Vaca contacted Manuel Bribiesca. Manuel Bribiesca, in turn, introduced the would-be Governor to his mother, Marta Sahagún, through whom he got access to his ultimate objective: Vicente Fox Quesada.
Nevertheless, the initial relationship between the Fox-Sahagún clan and Cabeza de Vaca would be bolstered by the articulation of a support platform and civil organization for the presidential candidate: “Amigos de Fox” (Friends of Fox).
Born in the State of Guanajuato, Vicente Fox Quesada was the son of an American citizen and a Vasque immigrant. Bred inside considerable levels of economic and social well-being, Vicente Fox joined Coca-Cola Mexico in 1964 as a mid-level manager. In the late 1970s, he left the company after serving as President and Chief Officer and managed his family´s businesses and ranches in Guanajato.
By 1987, he entered in the PAN’s ranks and founded an internal political trend known as “neopanismo”. This faction was headed by young businessmen that managed to win their first victory in 1989 when Ernesto Ruffo Appel won the Governorship of Baja California. In the early 1990s, several of Fox’s friends conceived the project of presenting him as candidate for the Governorship of Guanajuato, which he won in 1995.
Two years later, these same friends and businessmen started developing a plan to help prepare Fox for the 2000 presidential elections, but for such a campaign they needed a formidable public relations campaign.
On February 1998, this clique founded Amigos de Fox. This organization constitutued itself as a civil association whose purpose was to act as a powerful multimedia platform that would sell the image of the ideal alternative to the PRI. Amigos de Fox soon became the key to future success for multiple insightful individuals that immediately understood that if they provided Fox with support and favours, they would be rewarded once the PAN had conquered Los Pinos, Mexico’s former presidential office.
Hundreds of people, most of whom intially were rich businessmen from Jalisco, the State of Mexico and Guanajuato, started joining the group. They provided money to print T-shirts, polos, caps, flags, key rings, and banners with the face of Fox and his electoral slogan: “Sacar al PRI de Los Pinos” (Take the PRI out from Los Pinos).
Amid this wave of sudden Fox supporters was a young Cabeza de Vaca. He already knew the son of Fox’s fiancé, Marta Sahagún (at the time, Fox was preparing the divorce from his first wife). Cabeza de Vaca was also one of the closest advisors to Tamaulipas PAN delegate Gustavo Cárdenas Gutiérrez.
With such contacts it was no surprise that Cabeza de Vaca was able to be nominated as Coordinator of Amigos de Fox for the Northern Zone of Tamaulipas at the beginning of 2000. That same year, he joined the State Committee of Amigos de Fox, where he coordinated the campaign of the future president, who was elected as President of Mexico with 42.52% of the votes.
|Overview of the Gomez Resendez / Cabeza de Vaca initial political contacts|
A new century had started for Mexico. A century that would bring a new wave of public contracts awarded by the PAN’s leadership, the sharpening of the climate of violence caused by organized criminal groups, and the strengthening of the Cabeza de Vaca clan, which from its native Reynosa would raise him to the mayorship.
From there, the future of the clan was going to speed up towards massive corruption, nepotism, and a tacit alliance with organized crime.
Next series, “Part II: Francisco Javier Cabeza de Vaca and his rise in Reynosa, Tamaulipas”
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