World

11.10.14 10:45 AM ET

Mexico’s Murderous SWAT Teams

Three American kids allegedly were slaughtered by the so-called Hercules Group, which claimed to use special weapons and tactics just like many cops north of the border.

MEXICO CITY—Even in Tamaulipas, one of the most violent states in Mexico, there was something cavalier, or worse, about the way the “Hercules Group” operated. Back when its existence was officially still a secret, citizens of Matamoros, a border city about five miles south of Brownsville, Texas, complained to the police about a militarized strike force that took orders from city hall. The complaints reached such a pitch that in July, when Hercules was less than a month old, a city councilman named Ulises Ruiz demanded that Mayor Leticia Salazar say more about the group, which, back then had no name.

Then as now, Mayor Salazar was short on details: The strike force existed, its mission was to fight organized crime, its members drawn from the ranks of ex-marines and ex-army regulars, trained by the Mexican navy, how many there were and how much all of this cost was classified.

The state government in Tamaulipas was hovering in the background, airing its concerns that Mayor Salazar’s strike force was uncertified, unregulated, and without legal standing. The mayor responded defiantly with a kind of military pageant that was truly bizarre for such a secretive organization. The public debut of the Hercules Group is a day that not many in Matamoros are likely to forget. A militarized strike force onstage, attired in all black with faces smeared in black as though prepped for a nighttime raid. Behind them, a royal blue backdrop with the city’s logo and its slogan “Land of Progress.” Before them, and a head shorter than the rest, Mayor Salazar at the lectern attired in militant black beret and matching uniform with Hercules Group emblazoned in Spanish above one breast pocket and her last name stitched above the other.

“We are all Hercules,” Mayor Salazar told the assembly of reporters and well wishers that day, “defending our city from the trenches.” In her remarks, the Hercules Group was synonymous with peace and safety. But the president of the state chamber of commerce said it was nothing more than a personal security detail for the mayor and her secretary of social welfare, a wealthy and scandal-ridden automobile importer named Luis Biasi. The mayor and Biasi are a popular topic of gossip in Matamoros. She somehow retained him despite an embarrassing customs raid on a warehouse of his in January that turned up cases of contraband beer, whiskey, and cigarettes. Then in August, the Mexican IRS fined both of them for a scheme to import used cars from the United States and sell them in Mexico as a part of an ill-defined public-welfare program. The worst kept secret in Matamoros is that Biasi and Mayor Salazar are more than colleagues. The president of the state chamber of commerce went a step further and accused Biasi of being the real power behind the Hercules Group. “We don’t understand how the secretary of public welfare can go around deputizing police. Are you the secretary of public welfare or the commander of the Hercules Group?” the chamber president intoned in the press.

Maybe none of which would have mattered much outside the neighborhood, but on Oct. 12 members of the Hercules Group showed up at a barbeque restaurant in the jurisdiction of Matamoros and kidnapped four people, including three Americans, all of whom ended up dead and whose charred bodies were found 16 days later in a field 25 miles east of Matamoros. Mayor Salazar and her administration have gone into lockdown mode and she was back in civilian clothes to make her only comments on the crime, and those were to disavow any responsibility for the Hercules Group, to deny she used the group as her bodyguards, indeed, to deny she kept bodyguards at all. Her repudiation comes more than two weeks after two vehicles belonging to the Americans then reported as missing were photographed while parked inside a sales lot owned by Luis Biasi.

Biasi has not responded to interview requests and has yet to make any comment on the case. State criminal investigators said that nine of the 40 members of the Hercules Group are under investigation  in relation to the quadruple homicide. In a statement, Governor Egidio Torre Cantu said “We will apply the full force of the law and zero tolerance.” Last week, the Mexican Justice Department took charge of  the investigation. When state authorities in Tamaulipas were still in charge, the chief prosecutor said he saw no reason to interview Biasi or Mayor Salazar.

Raquel Alvarado is the mother of the three young Americans killed. Raquel lives in a modest brick house in Progreso, Texas, a border town less than 40 miles from Matamoros. She said she still doesn’t know what to say when her four grandchildren—ages 3, 4, 5, and 9—ask her where their mother is. She said her children had no criminal charges against them, no prior warrants. Fighting through sobs, she says she hasn’t received any condolences from Mayor Salazar nor gotten any explanation for why this happened. 

“She has caused me so much pain, she left my grandchildren without a mother, she took my children away from me. There is no doubt in my mind that she is responsible.”

Raquel Alvarado is comforted as she talks about her three children, Erica Maria Alvarado Rivera, Alex Rivera, and Jose Angel Rivera, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014, in Progreso, Texas who were found dead near Matamoros, Mexico after visiting El Control. (AP Photo/The Monitor, Joel Martinez)

Joel Martinez/The Monitor, via AP Photo

Raquel’s ex-husband, Pedro, the father of her children, lives just over the border in Mexico in a town called El Control. Pedro has not had a day’s rest since the search for his children began. In an area of Mexico like Tamaulipas, which is dominated by criminal gangs, the murders of children tend to turn grieving parents into investigators, and Pedro is no exception.

It was Pedro who drove to La Curva Texas, the barbeque restaurant on Highway 2, and interviewed the witnesses to his children’s kidnapping. He says the owner of La Curva and members of his staff witnessed the Hercules Group abduct Pedro’s daughter Erica, 26, and her Mexican boyfriend Jose Guadalupe Castañeda Benitez, 32, while they were having lunch. He said he learned that his two sons Alex, 22, and José Angel, 21, arrived in time to try to rescue their sister, but that the men in black military-style uniforms ended up abducting them as well, beating them, putting hoods over their heads and forcing them into armored trucks that bore the insignia of the Matamoros city government.

Those witnesses have not granted interviews to the media, but Pedro says that at least three of them have made statements to criminal investigators. The men from the Hercules Group identified themselves by name, he said, photographed the witnesses at the scene of the crime, confiscated their photo IDs, and threatened to retaliate if they spoke to anyone about what they had seen.

Pedro Alvarado searched for his children for 16 days and it was he and his son Pedro, Jr., who saw the siblings’ missing vehicles, a Jeep Cherokee and Chevy Tahoe, locked inside the gates of a car dealership whose owner is Luis Biasi, the secretary of social welfare in the Matamoros city government. The license plates had been removed and the stereo was stolen from the Tahoe, but Erica Alvarado’s personal belongings were still inside the Cherokee.

“We searched all the impound lots in the city, and there they were,” Alvarado said.

Things got very heated between Pedro Jr. and the manager of the lot, with Pedro demanding to know how the vehicles ended up there and asserting that they belonged to his siblings. He took photographs of the vehicles and vowed to send them to the FBI. The manager made a phone call and eventually relented. He had the vehicles moved to the curb outside the dealership. Pedro Sr. suspects the manager of telephoning the Hercules Group, because two armored trucks arrived and he said that members of the group began to inform him in a threatening manner that he had no business taking photos on private property. The dealership called the Hercules team “right then and there,” Pedro Sr. said. “Because the people in that agency are in charge of that group. Luis Biasi is the one in command of the Hercules.”

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The manager of the car dealership declined to comment to the AP about the presence of the murder victims’ vehicles. He said he feared that including his name in an article would endanger his life.

Pedro Sr., said that the men from the Hercules Group ordered him to drive his son’s Tahoe away from the lot and arranged to have Erica’s Cherokee towed to Pedro’s driveway in El Control. “Two pickup trucks full of Hercules escorted the vehicles to my house. They weren’t normal police. They didn’t want to give me their badge numbers or anything. They followed us back to the house and left the vehicles there,” he said.

The Tahoe remains in El Control and the Jeep Cherokee is now parked in the driveway of Raquel Alvarado’s house in Progreso, Texas.

“How can Biasi not be considered a suspect?” Raquel Alvarado asked during a telephone interview. “If the vehicles were found in a business that belongs to him, then he has to explain what they were doing there and who brought them. They haven’t given any explanation. But they did take the plates off the vehicles and why would they do that if they had nothing to do with it?”

The murders in Matamoros mark the third time since June that Mexican state security forces are suspected of extrajudicial executions. In September, 43 students from a rural teachers college in the southern state of Guerrero disappeared and six persons were executed by municipal police officers suspected of acting in consort with a drug cartel. In June, the Mexican army executed 22 suspected gang members in Mexico state and the National Commission on Human Rights reports that the army tampered with evidence, manipulated the crime scene, and pressured witnesses to cover up the fact that most of the executions took place after the victims had surrendered. The Mexican human-rights commission is also investigating the murders in Matamoros.