REYNOSA, Mexico (AP) — Heavy gunfire echoed along the main thoroughfare and across several neighborhoods in a firefight that lasted for hours, leaving perforated and burned vehicles scattered across the border city.
Social media exploded with reports of dozens dead. Witnesses saw at least 12.
But the hours of intense gun battles in Reynosa on March 10 gave way to an official body count the next day of a head-scratching two.
The men who handle the city's dead insist the real figure is upward of 35, likely even more than 50. Ask where those bodies are and they avert their eyes and shift in their seats.
Cartel members, they say, are retrieving and burying their own casualties.
"Physically, there are no bodies," said Ramon Martinez, director of Funerales San Jose in Reynosa, who put the toll at between 40 and 50. "It's very delicate."
If Reynosa is an example, even the government can't count how many are dying from drug violence. The Felipe Calderon government stopped counting in September 2011. Since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office Dec. 1, the government has issued monthly statistics, saying that January killings were down slightly from December, and that February saw the lowest number of killings in 40 months — without providing numbers for the other 39 months.
Even officials have trouble settling on a figure. In April, the mayor of a town in Sinaloa state told news media that at least 40 people had died in shootouts between armed men and soldiers. State police later said seven. Local news media said 13.
Mexico City's Reforma newspaper is keeping its own count. It says the killings in Pena Nieto's first 100 days exceed those in the first 100 days of his predecessor, who intensified the country's assault on organized crime.
In Reynosa, the fight for territory has caused at least four major gunbattles this month, the result of a split within the Gulf Cartel after the Mexican government made significant blows to its leadership. The biggest was the capture of Gulf capo Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez in September, leaving a power vacuum and the anticipation that the battle would intensify south of the Texas border in northeast Mexico, a region that has seen some of the most horrific violence.
Michael Villarreal, also known as "Gringo Mike," had moved against the man recently appointed by Gulf cartel boss Mario "Pelon" Ramirez Trevino to run the cartel's business in Reynosa, U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the situation said Monday.
The local boss heard Villarreal was coming for him and, with Ramirez's support, beat back Villarreal and his men.
"They went in to whack him and got whacked themselves," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and had no independent count of how many people died in the battle.
State authorities said that "armed civilians" fought their way through the city across the border from McAllen, Texas, on March 10, blocking streets and leaving two bystanders dead. The day after the battle, a spokesman at the local army base said the fighting was among "delinquents," usually shorthand for cartel gunmen.
"It's illogical," said one funeral director, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, speaking four days later. "People here agree that more than 50 have died."
After all, the fighting lasted for hours in a densely populated city and the government said it seized 22 vehicles afterward. The local media as usual reported nothing, leaving residents to rely on Twitter and other social media, where details can be exaggerated.
That funeral director said his company used to pick up the bodies from shootouts and take them to the city's morgue. But that stopped about a year and a half ago when his management decided to step back and a new funeral home started taking all that business. He said they let it go because they often weren't getting paid for their services in those cases, but he added, "We live with fear here."
His company still drives bodies to the morgue, "but not this kind of people," not people who die in shootouts, he said.
A man washing down a forensics van at the city morgue under the gaze of soldiers referred questions about the body count to a supervisor downtown. That supervisor kicked inquiries upstairs, where an investigator with the state attorney general's office pulled out two thin manila folders and said, "officially, only these two."
They were a 37-year-old taxi driver shot through his windshield and an 8-year-old boy shot inside his father's car at a convenience store. His father was also hit in the neck, but survived.
An employee at another funeral home, who also declined to give his name for safety reasons, said they too used to go to the crime scenes to transport bodies to the morgue, but now they don't bother. Either the bodies are already gone or the authorities take them.
"People say there were many (bodies), but where are they?" he asked.
His competitors say Martinez at Funerales San Jose knows the answer. Without logos on their shirts or vehicles, San Jose's people pick up the bodies, competitors say.
One competitor at first said he had no idea where Funerales San Jose was located. Later he acknowledged he did know, but was afraid to share it.
San Jose is a white stucco building on a small lot in a residential neighborhood near schools and a supermarket. Unlike its competitors' polished showrooms, plush furnishings and uniformed attendants, it is a small, spare operation.
A young man in T-shirt and jeans sat on a chair in its empty gravel lot playing with his phone. Martinez arrived in a pickup with flashy rims and welcomed a visitor into his office. The cramped room, which smelled heavily of cigarettes, doubled as the showroom. With a wave at the eight caskets, some still wrapped in plastic, stacked along two walls, he said, "I'm tiny, small."
One competitor said Martinez cremates the gunmen he retrieves. Martinez said that was ridiculous and guessed that the cartel takes them to their own secret graves.
Martinez, the only funeral director who agreed to be identified, didn't seem surprised by the allegation though.
"It's like all businesses, there's jealousy," he said.
Martinez is the new guy in town. He expanded about two years ago from Diaz Ordaz, a smaller town and hotbed of cartel activity about 25 miles up the border. That's about when his competitors say they stopped getting the bodies from shootouts. Martinez said Reynosa's established parlors just don't like the competition.
Word had apparently trickled onto the street that Funerales San Jose does the mopping up. Martinez said that since Sunday's shooting, at least 10 people had come to him looking for their loved ones. He declined to share their contact information saying it was confidential. He said he took down their descriptions and promised to call if they turn up, but he swears he hasn't received any bodies.
Authorities drive by his business all the time, Martinez said. If he were taking bodies without the proper documentation, he'd wind up in jail, he said.
"I provide a public service like any other," he said.
That afternoon, March 14, a few miles away on Miguel Hidalgo, one of Reynosa's main arteries, traffic glided slowly through the city's center where the four lanes curve to parallel a canal.
A silver Jeep Grand Cherokee was parked on one corner. A young man, clad in jeans and a casual shirt faced traffic, his head swiveling from side to side. He held an AK-47 style assault rifle with its signature curved ammunition clip. More men, similarly armed, piled out of the Jeep and moved with purpose along the side of a building where still more armed men waited. The Jeep and a large grey pickup briefly backed into traffic and then quickly disappeared up the side street.
Traffic continued unabated. A block away people strolled down the sidewalk, and the street window washers splashed and scraped the windshields of cars waiting at the stoplight.
In the hours that followed, social media burst again with reports of gunfights and photos of bullet-riddled trucks.
The next day, the state announced that gunmen had battled soldiers and state police at various points in the city.
Officially, one gunman was killed.
Christopher Sherman can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/chrisshermanap .