AUGUST 1, 2005


The Mean Streets Of Nuevo Laredo
Drug trafficking wars are scaring American tourists away -- and eviscerating the economy

The 315,000 residents of the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo are a hardy lot, accustomed to a blast-furnace climate and chronic water shortages. But things have never been as bad as they are today.

A bloody turf battle among competing drug cartels has claimed 92 lives in the city this year -- a third of all violent deaths registered on the Mexican side of the border. Most victims are connected to the drug trade, but the casualties also include Nuevo Laredo's police chief, who was gunned down in June just hours after being sworn in, and 10 police officers.

As if that wasn't bad enough, when President Vicente Fox dispatched federal police to restore order, local officers fired on them as they drove into the city. The federales promptly disarmed and arrested Nuevo Laredo's entire 730-member police force; 41 are still being held and face possible charges of collaborating with the drug traffickers. Rebuilding the local force will take many months. In the meantime, the streets of Nuevo Laredo are being patrolled by federal police and army troops.

News reports of the carnage have taken a heavy toll on the local economy. Mayor Daniel Peña says tourism is down 90%, with most of the Americans who normally cross the Gateway to the Americas bridge from neighboring Laredo, Tex., to shop or patronize tequila bars staying away, even though most of the killings have taken place in isolated areas.

Their concerns are not completely unfounded, however. According to the State Dept., four Americans have been killed in the Nuevo Laredo area in the past year, while 19 have been kidnapped and 19 others have gone missing. "This has been a disaster for us," says Lety Cárdenas, who adds that on one recent weekend day her arts-and-crafts shop took in just $17. A few blocks from the border, a husband-and-wife team of dentists, Lino Pérez and Patricia Vidal, wait in vain for patients in their small clinic. Normally they're booked solid with Americans eager to take advantage of rock-bottom prices, including just $35 for a filling. "In the seven years we've had this office, I've never seen anything to make me feel unsafe," says Pérez. "But people see the news reports and stay away."

Nuevo Laredo's residents are counting on Omar Pimentel, their new police chief, to turn things around. A former highway patrolman who was sworn in on July 6, Pimentel radiates calm as he chats in his office -- surprising, considering two of his predecessors were murdered. "I have great trust in God," he says. To rebuild his force, Pimentel plans to hire 600 new officers and hopes to raise police salaries to reduce corruption. "I want people to think of good things when they think of Nuevo Laredo," he says.

Despite the killings, Nuevo Laredo continues to draw investment. On July 12, Teleflex, a Limerick (Pa.) maker of auto parts and medical equipment, opened a new $24 million factory in Nuevo Laredo -- its third in the city. "The violence was of some concern to us, but we know the community well, and the location is good," says David J. Suchy, Teleflex' strategic development officer. That old Mexican saying, "so close to the United States, so far from God," rings true in Nuevo Laredo these days.