On 30 November 2019, reports of a shootout in Villa Unión, Coahuila appeared on social media. When it was all finished, 23 people were dead. The story sparked international media attention and came only weeks after two other spectacular incidents of supposed cartel violence: the chaos in Culiacán following the arrest of the sons of El Chapo and the senseless massacre of the Mormon family in Agua Prieta. The attack on Villa Unión also came on the heels of the recent announcement by president Trump, who signaled his intention to designate cartels as foreign terrorist organizations following the Agua Prieta massacre.

Four municipal police and two unarmed civilians were killed in the attack allegedly by Cartel del Noreste (CDN) based out of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. The attack was strange in that it had no clear strategic value and was unlike anything ever done before or since by CDN. For one thing, Villa Unión was territory they already controlled. The assault also proved to be very costly, with 17 gunmen killed at the scene, some only in their teens, along with 8 armored trucks destroyed and over 100 weapons confiscated. The attack would have cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars, and would have brought unwanted attention on the group from state and federal officials. Police claimed other sicarios fled but were eventually apprehended.

Google Earth

The attack sparked investigations in the US by agents at the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who traced the origins of the weapons back to Zeroed-in-Armory based out of a house in Pearland just outside of Houston. Thanks to the outstanding reporting from St. John Barned-Smith at the Houston Chronicle this week, many interesting details of that investigation are now coming to light.

Victor Camacho

According to the court documents, the investigation began after Victor Camacho, 23, was arrested five days after the Villa Unión attack allegedly following reports of shots fired in Brownsville, Texas. Camacho was found to be in possession of weapons and ammunition that were ultimately traced back to a gun dealer in the Houston suburbs, Khalid Abdullaziz, owner of the Zeroed-in-Armory. Investigators discovered that the wide variety of tactical pistols, carbines and rifles had been purchased over a 6 month period beginning in July 2019, with some weapons—including a belt-fed .50 caliber rifle—purchased on 19 November 2019, days before the attack. In all, 156 weapons were purchased from Khalid Abdullaziz/Zeroed-In-Armory by several straw buyers, including Ashley Giddens, Javier Cavazos III and Israel Chapa Jr. of Houston, Texas. The transfer of the guns to Camacho was facilitated by Isaac Rodriguez, also of Houston. Links to the full criminal complaints can be found here and here. Another person, Steve Baranowski of Houston, was omitted from the diagram below (Figure 1) because his involvement was subsequent to the Villa Unión attack.

Figure 1. Arrangements for straw purchases and transfers of weapons used in the Villa Unión attack 

One tangent which is interesting to note in the criminal complaint against Chapa, Rodriguez, Giddens, Cavazos and Baranowski is from the last two sentences in paragraph 27. The affidavit mentions that after Victor Camacho sent a photo to Isaac Rodriguez via an end-to-end encrypted messaging app, Camacho was arrested following a traffic stop a few hours later. This suggests that parallel construction may have been used, whereby federal investigators might have coordinated with local law enforcement to find pretext for initiating a traffic stop based on undisclosed signals and/or human intelligence. If that's the case, this suggest that investigators may have either had an informant working for them or had a warrant to employ a network investigative technique (NIT) against Camacho and/or other subjects in the investigation. If it is the case that investigators had a warrant to use a NIT (i.e. hack the phones of Camacho and/or other subjects in the investigation), it would have either happened following his arrest in Brownsville on 5 December, or possibly even before that.

What happened to the weapons from the time that Victor Camacho picked them up in Houston to when they were used in the deadly assault on Villa Unión is unclear. One thing that is certain: the subject is now one of intense interest to federal investigators in the US.

Nevertheless, details about Victor Camacho might be able to give us some clues. According to details in court documents and on his Facebook page, Victor Camacho is a 23-year-old homeowner from Brownsville. In his employment history, he lists one year at McDonalds from 2012-2013. Some of his photos show him apparently working at a construction site, although in the pictures he doesn't seem to be doing much work. Victor apparently likes cars, fighting, Whataburger (who doesn't?), guns, narcocorridos, gold jewelry and even 2-way radios.

Did I mention he likes guns?

One of the most puzzling things about Victor Camacho is that he lives in Brownsville, the sister city of Matamoros in Mexico. The reason this is puzzling is because according to statements and evidence described by investigators in the criminal complaint, a majority of the weapons went through Victor Camacho en route to their ultimate fate in the Villa Unión attack.

Victor was initially arrested and found to be in possession of weapons in Brownsville, and some of the weapons used in the attack were purchased only days before. So how did the weapons get to Nuevo Laredo and CDN, the criminal group supposedly responsible for the attack? Laredo, the sister city of Nuevo Laredo, is a 4 hour drive from Brownsville. Did the weapons cross at Brownsville into Matamoros, or were they smuggled somewhere else?

Historically, the city of Houston has been the distribution hub of the CDG which is where all the guns in the investigation were purchased. If the guns were acquired on behalf of the CDG, all of the facts of the case would add up and Matamoros would be the most likely place for the weapons to cross. But CDN/Los Zetas distribution hubs have historically been Austin, San Antonio and/or Dallas. If the guns used in the attack had come from any of those cities, that would not be surprising. But they didn't. They came from Houston and went through a guy in Matamoros.

The factions of the Gulf Cartel (CDG) in Matamoros are also considered to have political favor in the state because they allegedly paid $10 million for the campaigns of the governor, Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, and his senator brother, Ismael. Currently, the security strategy in Tamaulipas is to selectively prosecute certain groups like CDN in Nuevo Laredo and Los Metros in Reynosa, both historically rivals of the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros. While the reality of the way the arms trade actually works in Tamaulipas and Texas is much more complex than historic rivalries, it's still worth examining the political and criminal dynamics in the state.

What actually happened and how the weapons used in the Villa Unión attack got there is not yet clear. But the nexus with an alleged arms trafficker in Matamoros is another strange twist in a case with more questions than answers so far.