Thousands of ranches have been abandoned in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas by owners who don’t want to end up like Alejo Garza, a rancher who died defending his property from a drug cartel.

Garza, considered a hero by many in the region, refused to hand over his property to a drug cartel, which gave him 24 hours to leave his property. The 77-year-old rancher barricaded himself inside his house and took on 30 cartel gunmen, killing four of them and seriously wounding two others before being slain.

The drug cartels, which have been engaged in a turf war since the beginning of this year, take over ranches and use them as bases, a Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office source said on condition of anonymity.

“They use them as recruitment centers or as hiding places to avoid being spotted when federal forces do aerial reconnaissance,” the source said. A ranch in the border city of Mier, for example, was the scene of a clash in which federal forces killed about 20 gunmen.

Cartel gunmen, moreover, massacred 72 Central American migrants over the summer at a ranch near the city of San Fernando, the official said.

Many ranchers have decided to abandon their properties or switch occupations to avoid becoming victims of the cartels, the Tamaulipas Regional Ranchers Association, or URGT, said.

“It’s a scourge that is hurting everyone. The ranchers have stopped going to the ranches and are working at something else, so the industry has been falling. They are abandoning the ranches,” URGT president Alejandro Gil said.

About 5,000 properties may have been abandoned in the state, Gil said.

The industry has been losing money and exports to the U.S. have fallen considerably, Gil said. Some 200,000 head of cattle were exported in 2009, but exports will only reach about one-third of that level this year.

The Gulf cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations, and its former armed wing, Los Zetas, have been fighting for control of smuggling routes in Tamaulipas since the beginning of the year, leaving hundreds of people dead in the border state.

To read more about Alejandro Garza’s gun battle with the drug thugs, go to:
thewesterner.blogspot.com/2010/12/alejandro-garza or www.nypost.com/p/news/international/high_noon_at_not_ok_corral_
-- Latin American Herald-Tribune (www.laht.com)