By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press
PROGRESO, Mexico (AP) — Every Sunday, some 100 people gather for pick-up baseball games in a dusty open field marked only by a dirt mound and rusted bleachers. It's the event of the week for this small northern Mexico town of 800 people where there is just one gas station and no supermarket, bank or high school.
Despite the crowd, nobody is willing to admit they were there the afternoon of Oct. 7 or saw the shootout just outside the ball field in the heart of Coahuila state. Mexican marines gunned down Heriberto Lazcano, a founder and top leader of the Zetas drug cartel and the biggest kingpin netted so far in President Felipe Calderon's six-year assault on organized crime.
Days later, no one would even admit to playing in the game. "We don't like sports," said one teenager waiting for his school bus last week when an Associated Press reporter asked him and his friends if they had played that Sunday. The players in the weekly games are largely in their teens.
Some townspeople do say they heard the explosions from grenades that Lazcano reportedly tossed as he ran for his life, but insist that they were home at the time and that they thought it was fireworks.
The reluctance to speak isn't surprising.
Cartel wars in neighboring states have made Coahuila a hideout for the Zetas, much like the remote "Golden Triangle" area of northwestern Mexico, where the world's most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is rumored to seek cover.
"Coahuila is for the Zetas what the Sierra Madre is for El Chapo ... easily defensible, sparsely populated and relatively easy to get in and out of," said security expert Samuel Logan, co-author of a recent book on the Zetas.
Silence and fear govern Coahuila's rugged mining and agricultural terrain, home to 95 percent of Mexico's coal reserves.
The state provides the latest snapshot of a bloody drug war that's killed well over 50,000 people since 2006 and the nation's uncertainty as President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto brings Mexico's old ruling party back to power when he takes office Dec. 1.
"It used to be really quiet here. The women would bring out their rocking chairs and stay up late, talking and playing bingo," said a 31-year-old local television reporter, who didn't want to be quoted by name because he has received threats. "Nobody does that anymore."
Drug cartels have always operated in Coahuila. But its mountainous terrain made large-scale smuggling difficult and unattractive to cartels warring for major transport arteries through Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa.
As recently as 2006, the biggest narco news in Coahuila was a kiddie party in the town of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas, allegedly sponsored by Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who sent bicycles, toys and a cake with "Happy Children's Day, from your friend Osiel" written in icing.
Lazcano started out in organized crime working for Cardenas, with his band of former army special forces serving as assassins for the Gulf Cartel.
The two gangs didn't split until 2010. But as early as 2008, residents of Progreso and nearby towns say they started to notice the arrival of very young, strange men, who rode around in caravans of pickups with large-caliber weapons and vests marked "Federal Police."
From their tattoos and beer drinking, locals knew the men weren't police, especially when they started extorting used-car dealers, liquor stores, nightclubs and bars. Some farmers were even forced to grow marijuana for them.
Now, the bloody headlines come almost daily.
Earlier this month, a confrontation in Piedras Negras between state officers and suspected cartel members left five suspects dead, including the nephew of another top Zetas cartel leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.
Hours later, gunmen shot down state Gov. Ruben Moreira's nephew, who is the son of Humberto Moreira, a former Coahuila governor and former head of Pena Nieto's party. He preceded his brother as part of the political dynasty that runs the state, known as "Los Moreira."
The body of the 25-year-old, Jose Eduardo Moreira, was discovered Oct. 4 inside his pickup truck on a rural road on the outskirts of Ciudad Acuna, a town across the border from Del Rio, Texas. He had been shot twice in the head in what investigators believe was a revenge killing. Several police officers are suspected of involvement.