‘Someone says the wrong thing and by the time I’ve poured another tequila, they’re dead’: How the murder of a mayor’s entire family by a drug cartel turned peaceful Mexican town into one of the most dangerous on Earth
Paso de Ovejas’ bullet-ridden sign is the first clue that what was once a sleepy farming town is now one of the most violent places on Earth.
It was once a place where a quiet agricultural community lived happily and safely without fear of attacks and reprisals.
But now the town, home to 7,000 people and dropping, is synonymous with lawlessness where murders, kidnappings, drugs feuds and daylight executions in the street are a daily occurrence.
Paso de Ovejas is now one of the most dangerous places on Erath. Since the municipal president’s family were assassinated by a drug cartel, total anarchy has erupted in the town.
The bloodthirsty Zetas, a drug cartel formed by breakaway special forces soldiers, leave bodies of their victims on busy roads to send a message to the public.
‘There haven’t been any killings for quite a long time now’, shopkeeper Julia Cervantes told MailOnline. Then he gives a shocking pay-off: ‘The last person I saw shot in the head was four days ago’.
Julia runs the corner shop next door to Paso de Ovejas’s only bar.
Covered in bullet holes, the Cantina Cabubis has become notorious for public executions.
‘People get drunk and lose control of their lips’, said Emilia Bustamante, who serves drinks there. ‘Someone in here says the wrong thing and they get dragged outside and murdered in the time it takes me to pour four more tequilas’.
‘The bodies just lie there until the cops come and collect them’, she said.
‘Sometimes that can take a whole day, even though the police station is only one hundred yards away’.
‘My son was murdered last week’, said Juana Perez, her face etched with grief as she lays across a pew in the town church.
Ramon Herrera had been accused of raping a woman. He was captured and tied, in broad daylight, to a tree beside a nearby back road.
A fire was set under him before being hacked to pieces with machetes.
His burned body was found last Thursday. Police here claim they have no leads.
‘The narcos make their own justice’, resident Jose Villareal told MailOnline. ‘The police here either do nothing, or are involved with the crimes’.
The police appear powerless to do anything about the murder rate in Paso do Ovejas, which has seen 58 people murdered already this year – one unlawful death every three days.
Veracruz, Ver.- Los cuerpos de dos hombres fueron encontrados por elementos de la PolicÌa Estatal sobre la banqueta de la avenida Paseo Libertad en la zona centro de Veracruz. Los cad·veres presentaban huellas de tortura.
Paso de Ovejas has seen 58 murders already this year – or one every three days. Kidnappings are also rife. Many families refuse to pay enormous ransoms demnaded as so few victims are returned alive to families.
Hundreds of mass graves have been discovered in Paso de Ovejas in recent years. Murders are common in the town. Some people just disappearance with entire families unaware of their loved ones’ fates.
But very little, if anything, is done because the police live in fear of the narco gangs – there are more of them and they are better equipped.
So common are attempts on their lives that, at the beginning of last year, a foot-thick concrete barricade was erected in front of the police station.
Attacks on the building are so regular that they no longer bother to replace the shot-out windows.
In March the town’s police chief David Guerrero’s predecessor was found mutilated in the main square.
Mr Guerrero said it has been a difficult two months since he took charge.
‘There’s not much we can do about the narcos’, he told MailOnline with his heavily-armed entourage alongside. ‘They is more of them and they are better equipped than we are’.
‘People used to sit out in the streets until midnight, just to socialise and be in the fresh air’, Manuel Hernandez told MailOnline, ‘but these days if you go out for stroll after 9pm, you aren’t likely to make it home again’.
Manuel said his house is now cooler during the sweltering evenings thanks to the bullet holes in the brickwork.
“There haven’t been any killings for quite a long time now… The last person I saw shot in the head was four days ago”
All this crime and violence is in stark contrast to the peaceful, law-abiding farming town that Paso de Ovejas once was, which produced large amounts of papaya, corn and tomatoes.
It changed in October 2011 when the then-mayor Adolfo Ramirez, the eldest son of the powerful Ramirez Coria family, reportedly received a declaration of war from the ‘Zetas’ – a new drug cartel formed by ex-paramilitary soldiers.
The Zetas told Adolfo they wanted a share of land in the town, it is alleged, and wanted him to turn a blind eye to their criminal activities in the region.
Veracruz, Veracruz.- Elementos forenses levantan el cadaver de un joven que fue acribillado al interior de un autobus de pasaje urbano en la colonia La Pochota. Los incidentes violentos en el puerto de Veracruz se han incrementado en los últimos días luego de la detención de importantes lideres del Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación que pelean la plaza con el grupo antagonico de Los Zetas.
But Adolfo wouldn’t negotiate with the Zetas and refused to concede any territory to them, it is said.
In response, Zetas gunmen stormed his family ranch, kidnapped his parents, two brothers, three sisters and one month-old baby, and executed them all outside the town cemetery.
‘They blocked both entrances to the town with buses’, said Cesar Ahumada, the owner of nearby Hotel Jardines, who witnessed the massacre. ‘Then they made them kneel in a line on the road and gunned them all down’.
‘They were crying and begging for mercy but it didn’t matter. The police took over an hour to arrive after the crime and they never caught the people who did it. Paso de Ovejas changed completely after that day’, he added.
It is reported that the slaughter led to a turf war between the Zetas and the Ramirez family, who reportedly have links to the Sinaloa Cartel.
Aldofo’s three cousins Abel, Gregorio and Alejandro Ramirez, moved into the town.
Adolfo installed his wife, Ana Rosa, as mayor, and appointed himself municipal president.
Paso de Ovejas has seen some of the most brutal killings Mexico has ever witnessed. Here a victim, who is still alive, is lifted into an ambulance and taken to hospital
Four years on and the result is total anarchy in Paso de Ovejas.
‘Now most of the bodies are dropped in the same place that the Ramirez family were murdered’, added shopkeeper Ms Cervantes.
Quite why there is such an explosive turf war in Paso de Ovejas is best explained by its location.
Positioned 400km east of Mexico City, midway between state capital Xalapa and the Gulf Coast’s busiest port at Veracruz City, it is the perfect cartel territory.
It’s also close to the country’s largest railway junction at Tierra Blanca – a major hub for Central American migrants to the United States.
Its location means almost unlimited resources for drug and human trafficking, a Mexican cartel’s most profitable rackets.
Combined with ineffective law-enforcement and open ranching land in all directions for hiding narcotics and disposing of kidnap victims, the region is ideal for Mexican cartel activity.
Little agriculture remains as the narcos have taken hold of the local economy and extorted the farmer’s already-lean profits into non-existence.
Now the town is gripped by fear and the older residents who remain are terrified to speak out about the sky high murder rate.
‘This was a lovely place when I was younger’, said 73-year-old Jose Villareal, who said the problems with violence first started 15 years ago.
‘But today we can’t even trust our neighbors. People are so scared of the gangsters that they try to win favour by telling on their own friends’.
‘We just try to remain ignorant’, he said as he rushed the MailOnline’s reporter inside his house to avoid being seen. ‘There are so many murders here that it’s hard to keep track, let alone mourn’.
‘It’s a small town and we all know each other’, added Manuel Hernandez, who has lived in Paso de Ovejas since he was a child. ‘But after dark the only people we see in the street are those we don’t recognize. It’s never the police’.
Locals say that Central American migrants to the United States are a constant presence.
‘We constantly have the undocumented Central Americans walking through town’, said 54-year-old Enrique Lopez who runs one of the town’s many funeral parlors.
She added: ‘They are trafficked through here by the criminals. The women have always been raped and the men have been badly beaten. At first I gave money out of pity, but now I see so many I have to ignore them’.
‘They used to come here just begging for money’, said one woman who asked not to be identified.
‘But now there are so many of them and they’re so desperate that you have to lock your doors. When the cartels have robbed and beaten them, they have less problem with doing the same to you’.
Paso de Ovejas, which means ‘Sheep Crossing’, is in the state of Veracruz – the third most dangerous state in Mexico.
Veracruz accounts for around 20 per cent of murders in Mexico every year.
At least 175 women were murdered in 2012 alone. Of those, only 49 were investigated by police.
In the same year a further 15,000 women were admitted to hospital as a result of violence domestic or otherwise.
Very few murders are ever solved by Mexican law enforcement. Statistics aren’t easily available and victims are often difficult to identify because they have been severely tortured before being killed.
Kidnappings are also a big problem with the number of kidnappings up 80 per cent last year. Of those taken, 85 per cent were murdered, even though in some cases, a ransom was paid.
‘The only people who stay here are the old-timers’, said Enrique Lopez. ‘I told my son to get out as soon as he could. I don’t even allow him to come back and visit me. The narcos don’t take kindly to the people who run away’.