Posted on Sun, Jul. 10, 2005

Besieged by drug trade, border town struggles on

A closer look at Nuevo Laredo reveals a city where many people are living in fear, even as they try to carry on with daily life.

San Antonio Express-News

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico - Behind the screaming headlines and blood-smeared crime scenes of an escalating drug war, people in this enduring city of 400,000 have learned to live life amid death.

Babies still are baptized, soccer fields still are full every Sunday, the maquiladoras -- foreign-owned factories with tax breaks and cheap labor -- still assemble radios and auto parts, and music still blares onto the street from storefronts and bars.

A closer look, however, reveals a city where many people are scared to have their names in print; where a doctor drives a jalopy at night rather than his BMW to avoid being robbed -- or worse; where a freight forwarder at an import-export company scans the front of his office for suspicious vehicles; where the tourism industry has tanked and popular bars have closed.

Violence, like the searing heat, has long been a fact of life here as rival drug gangs battle for lucrative smuggling routes into the United States, where the narcotics are consumed.

But as 70 people have been killed -- many after being tortured -- and dozens of cops have been fired for failing background checks, drug tests and other new screening measures, the drug war has become more ingrained in the life of the city.

''I haven't seen so much death in the 25 years I've been selling newspapers. For there to be peace, they will kill more people,'' Nuevo Laredo resident Rogelio Ibarra said, giving voice to what many others here believe: That the only way for the violence to end is for one cartel to win.


To those unlucky enough to lose a shipment of cocaine or work for a rival gang, death can come in any number of ways. Some are gunned down in cars. At least one body was found burned on a stack of tires. Others have been dumped in the Rio Grande, hands bound and heads wrapped with tape.

In recent months, bullets have flown day and night, on the edge of town and on an international bridge that links this city to Laredo.

Law-abiding residents take comfort in the Mexican saying, ''He who does not owe does not fear.'' But innocence alone isn't a shield from violence.

An ice-cream vendor is dead because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In a bed at Hospital San José lies Silvia Edith GarcÃ*a, 16. She was at a beauty parlor June 17 when a gunman came in and fired several times.

A ricocheting bullet struck GarcÃ*a in the spine and left her paralyzed, her doctor said, while a second woman was hit in the leg.


The man who was sitting next to her in the beauty parlor, Juan Longoria Hernández, 22, was shot in the throat, shoulder and elbow as he was getting a $3 haircut.

Longoria, who apparently was the gunmen's target, is in a hospital bed two rooms down the hall from GarcÃ*a. The night nurse worries that someone will try again to kill him.

Even violence unrelated to the drug war seems to have more potential for disrupting the rhythms of life here. Municipal police officers are not able to react quickly to street fights and crimes in progress.

Though officials say Federal Preventive Police are patrolling the streets with help from various agencies, no cops were present on a Sunday night in late June at a popular plaza one block away from an international bridge when two young men began screaming and trading punches.

When the fight broke out, at least 20 people were sitting on plaza benches or milling around nearby. Marta Hernández, 46, and her 8-year-old granddaughter, Valerie, stood and waited for a ride home and tried not to make eye contact with the men.


As one of the men lay shirtless on the concrete, the other man kicked him in the head. The man grunted and the crowd squirmed at the sound of the hit. Hernández pulled Valerie close trying to hide her young eyes. ''Don't look, don't look,'' Hernández said, turning away.

The Gulf Cartel allegedly controls illegal shipping here, as well as in the cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, which border South Texas. But a rival group -- JoaquÃ*n ''El Chapo'' Guzmán's Sinaloa Cartel and its allies -- is vying for access to Laredo, the busiest land port on the U.S. southern border.

Drug gangs have fought for this turf for years. Only the names change, said retired DEA official James Kuykendall.

Distrust of police and public officials runs deep. Local cops aren't eager to take the fight to the cartels, saying that's the federal government's responsibility. And officials say some police officers, like some taxi drivers and laborers, act as gang lookouts.