Juárez encouraged by Nuevo Laredo's decrease in violence
By Darren Meritz / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 06/02/2008 12:00:00 AM MDT

Photo gallery: Juárez Violence-Graphic Content
Video (Graphic Content): Police investigate crime scene

The violence sweeping through Juárez is drawing distinct comparisons to the bloodshed that startled Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, several years ago.

Other than the deadly street shootouts that occur almost daily, the most obvious comparison appears to be the Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán. In the Nuevo Laredo area, the cartel was battling to gain turf in the narco-trafficking trade against the Gulf cartel of the state of Tamaulipas and South Texas.

In Juárez, it is battling the Juárez cartel for turf, while fending off law enforcement.

But more peaceful times appear to be on the horizon in Nuevo Laredo, a city of about 350,000 that saw its homicide rate drop from more than 500 in 2005 to about 47 last year.

Just across the border in Texas, Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas attributes signs of improvement to

a heavy Mexican military presence.
"I think the impression is that the violence has subsided here on the border with us in Nuevo Laredo," said Salinas, a 27-year veteran of the FBI, now retired. "It's been a lot quieter, and I haven't read any reports."

Although Juárez is about four times the size of Nuevo Laredo, the similarities between the two cities are striking. High-ranking officials of police departments in both Nuevo Laredo and Juárez have been assassinated. Talk abounds about whether cartel violence in each city could spill over into the United States. And the Mexican army has been ordered to establish some semblance of law and order in both border cities as fears linger that local police corruption is hampering investigations.

In early 2007, Mexican President Felipe Calderón ordered 3,300 soldiers into the border states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas -- a response to heavy violence that plagued the city as the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels went to war. A Nuevo Laredo police chief, Alejandro Dominguez, was pumped full of bullets hours after taking office in June 2005.

Three years ago, Nuevo Laredo could have been a template for what's happening in Juárez now. Just as in Nuevo Laredo, Juárez police have become a target for slayings believed to be ordered by cartel bosses. More than a dozen Juárez police officers have been killed this year, including police director Juan Antonio Roman Garcia, who was gunned down last month.

Thomason Hospital was placed on an unusual lockdown for several weeks beginning in January after Cmdr. Fernando Lozano Sandoval, of the Chihuahua State Investigations Agency, went to the hospital after being riddled with bullets. Law enforcement feared that cartel members responsible for the hit would cross into the United States to finish the job here.

John Dickson, director of the office of Mexican Affairs for the U.S. State Department, is quick to pinpoint a cause for what he describes as a spike in violence in pockets or regions of Mexico: Calderón's efforts to turn the tide against drug trafficking in Mexico.

As fears emerge that Mexico is sinking into a disarray similar to that faced by Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, Calderón is making a hard press to break up cartels that are emerging in cities throughout Mexico, law enforcement experts say.

"We're talking to people who are out there in our embassies," Dickson said. "Our view of it is it's a sign that Calderón's efforts are a success."

Violence in Mexico seems to ebb and flow, Dickson said. As skirmishes in Laredo subside, new ones crop up, sometimes in Juárez and sometimes in other cities.

On the heels of Calderón's effort to combat narco-trafficking is what Dickson describes as "a bit of a power vacuum and a turf war" among cartels -- a keen opportunity for the United States to bear some of the responsibility of the drug trade while offering its southern neighbor assistance if they'll have it.

"What we're running into is our age-old dance with Mexico, which is the historic view of 'How closely do you want to work with the Americans?' " Dickson asked.

Salinas also is quick to credit Calderón, who has has taken strong, aggressive measures to quell drug violence in his country. Because of the added soldiers, cartels are less able to operate freely in Nuevo Laredo and are discouraged from running roughshod throughout the city, he said.

In 2005, in what officials believe was a cartel effort to intimidate, a crude bomb wrecked the car of Pedro Pérez Natividad, the editor of the Primera Hora daily newspaper. Also that year, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza ordered the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo to close after a wave of violence, and the U.S. Department of State continues to warn Americans traveling to Nuevo Laredo that many people have been kidnapped or murderd in that border city.

In what Salinas describes as a "show of force," Mexican military stepped up law enforcement and cooperation with U.S. officials has begun to return Nuevo Laredo to some sense of normalcy.

"Whenever you go downtown, you see them right at the bridge and at other locations," he said. "When you have military presence and you have police presence, that certainly helps to deter crime, and that's a key thing."

Who knows, though, what will work in Juárez, Salinas said.

Darren Meritz may be reached at dmeritz@elpasotimes.com;546-6127.