On the streets of Nuevo Laredo: The new Wild West

The army was called in after a wave of drug-related killings. The last police chief was shot within seven hours of taking the job. Andrew Gumbel takes a stroll through the Mexican border town where a bloody battle is being fought by drug cartels vying to control the supply of cocaine to the US
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The Independent US

A few evenings ago, just as the edge was coming off the searing summer heat of the Rio Grande valley along the Texas-Mexican border, a group of four men in black ski masks and black clothes pulled up in front of a squat residential building suspected of being a clearing-house for cocaine, methamphetamine and other lucrative illegal drugs in suburban Nuevo Laredo.

The men raced into the house, kicked open the doors to the kitchen and one of the bedrooms, and opened fire with a fearsome array of semi-automatic weapons. More than 60 rounds later, three men were dead - an ex-convict known as The Bull, a former city police officer who had mixed with some glaringly bad company, and a 17-year-old known by the nickname Grapefruit.

Two women and a young boy were also in the house at the time, and suffered non-fatal injuries from ricocheting bullets and flying glass. But they were of no interest to the gunmen, who were in effect a professional assassination squad out to complete a very specific mission. The killers didn't seem to care that they worked in daylight, or that the neighbours saw and heard just about everything. They simply hopped back into their grey four-wheel-drive and sped off. The three dead men were victims numbers 101, 102 and 103 of an increasingly bloody and bewildering turf war that has erupted between rival drug cartels in Nuevo Laredo since the beginning of the year. Once a prosperous and relatively carefree border town where truckers and tourists would drop by for cheap beer, music, good food and dancing, and Texans would cross the border to stock up on clothes, furniture and prescription drugs, Nuevo Laredo has now become a security nightmare.

The killings began at a rate of about two a week, but the pace has increased to something closer to two per day. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people have been kidnapped, many of them then tortured or killed outright. One overwhelmed city police chief, feeling the heat of both the death toll and the involvement of his own underpaid, easily corruptible officers, quit his job in May. His successor, suspected of being involved in the drug rackets himself, was gunned down within hours of taking office in early June.

Following that outrage, the Mexican government decided to pull every last officer off the streets and replace them with roving patrols of federal police wearing bullet-proof vests and wielding assault rifles on the back of black-and-white pick-ups.

All 720 Nuevo Laredo police officers were subjected to background checks and drug tests. Almost 200 of them have either been fired, or have chosen to leave the force and get out of town before the gunmen come after them too. The 41 officers suspected of being the most corrupt were flown to Mexico City to be questioned about their contacts and drug-cartel paymasters. There would have been 42, but one of them committed suicide on the day the force was temporarily disbanded.

Vicente Fox, the Mexican President, has called this intervention Operation Safe Mexico, earning the praise of the United States which has been pressing Mexico for years for some kind of clean-up operation. But the violence has not only continued unabated, it has got measurably worse. Last week the dead in Nuevo Laredo included a state police officer, two state police commanders and two city police officers. The death toll has become particularly acute within the ranks of the city police since the death of Alejandro Dominguez Coello, the man who took over as chief for one day before being cut down in a hail of bullets outside his home.

Dominguez told reporters a few months ago: "We are not in the era of Al Capone and Prohibition." But Chicago in the 1920s - with its racketeers, corrupt police and politicians, and the constant rattle of machine-guns - is becoming an ever more compelling point of comparison. Thirteen policemen have died since Dominguez in what looks like a clean-up of elements loyal to the losing side in the battle for control of Nuevo Laredo's illegal drug business.

These days even Nuevo Laredo's mayor, Daniel Peña Treviño, a man of limited education who is clearly out of his depth - he is better known locally for his ability to down 20 or 30 tacos at a single sitting than he is for his civic leadership skills - can't bring himself to express public outrage for the deaths of local policemen or offer his sympathies to their families.

Not only does he not want to be caught praising officers who might be consorting with the drug cartels; he also does not want to get himself in trouble by association. "I feel sorry that police are being killed, just as I feel sorry for any human being killed," Mayor Peña said this week. There has yet to be a report of uniformed officers or political leaders attending a police funeral.

The problem is, of course, much bigger than Nuevo Laredo. The town is strategically located at one end of I-35, the main interstate highway leading through Texas and the Great Plains up to Canada, and is therefore an ideal transit point for drugs that can be shipped to Dallas and distributed from there to the rest of the US.

But it is only the latest of several focal points for Mexico's increasingly powerful, and increasingly vicious, drug cartels, who are constantly shifting their operations between Tijuana, on the Pacific coast, the remote borderlands of Sinaloa and Arizona, Ciudad Juarez (next to El Paso in western Texas), and towns closer to the Gulf Coast. Four major crime syndicates are vying for the lucrative illegal narcotics business, and their fortunes - their alliances, rivalries and bloody turf wars -- have a habit of ebbing and flowing with the political tide in Mexico.

During the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, Nuevo Laredo and points east were under the control of the so-called Gulf Cartel, which not only thwarted the efforts of a government paramilitary anti-drug force but actively recruited its members with the lure of hard cash. Thus was created a fearsome private army of enforcers known as the Zetas, whose firepower and political grip quickly came to outstrip the state's.

When Mr Fox became president five years ago, breaking a 70-year-old monopoly on power by the increasingly corrupt PRI, or Partido Revolucionario Instituticional, he decided to launch a crackdown on the drug cartels and disrupt the cosy political ties they had developed with PRI leaders. Under his leadership, at least 18 major cartel leaders have been arrested, including the Gulf Cartel chief, Osiel Cardenas. Others have been killed in shoot-outs with the police.

Far from halting the cross-border narcotics business, however, these arrests only served to create a power vacuum and unleashed a ferocious battle for control. Nuevo Laredo's death toll is only a fraction of the more than 600 people estimated to have been killed along the length of the border this year. The highest toll has been in the state of Sinoloa, home to a cartel chief of near-legendary cunning and ruthlessness called Joaquin Guzman, nicknamed El Chapo - or Shorty. Guzman was arrested during the last major cartel war in 1993, when it emerged that he had built a sophisticated cross-border tunnel to evade the customs authorities and was hiding consignments of cocaine in cans of chilli peppers. Four years ago, he made a dramatic escape in a laundry basket, under the noses of his prison guards, and has been on the loose ever since, running his drug empire with a satellite phone, a portable computer and the complicity of police officers and politicians who have been in his pocket for years.

It is El Chapo who is believed to be gunning for the Gulf Cartel's rackets in Nuevo Laredo, and his army of goons - the so-called Men in Black - who have triggered the violence. The policy appears to be nothing short of total erasure of Cardenas's Gulf Cartel network, eliminating everyone who continues to take money from the rival group and establishing a new network of patronage involving every level of civil society.

Because state incomes are low, everyone is corruptible - politicians, police, journalists, businessmen. All these groups have had their share of victims. In some instances, men who grew rich before the turf war erupted have sold their houses to one cartel or another, thinking they would be better off moving to Texas, only to be killed within hours of making the sale and robbed of the cash they were paid for it.

The prevailing mood in Nuevo Laredo, a city of 300,000 people, is not so much fear as anger. For all the negative publicity surrounding the killings, the streets still feel safe, at least during daylight hours, and the sense is that only those directly involved in narco-trafficking are at risk. But the city has still lost almost all of its US tourist trade, particularly in the wake of a State Department advisory, issued in January, expressing concern about the violence. Two popular nightclubs have closed, one big tourist restaurant has laid off two dozen workers, and every small business in town is feeling the pain.

Much of the anger is directed at the US, which not only fuels the demand for the drugs but is also ultimately responsible for the porousness of the border. The International Bridge linking Nuevo Laredo to Laredo, Texas, sees anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 trucks every day, only a fraction of which are searched. Customs officials estimate that they seize only about 10 per cent of the drugs coming through.

"The drug cartels are here for a reason, which is that it's easy to get these drugs across," said Jack Soneson, vice-president of Nuevo Laredo's chamber of commerce. "Sensational demand in the US is what is driving the frenzy over here ... but the Americans are putting the monkey entirely on our backs to clean it up. It's just not fair. Our city police force shouldn't have to deal with drug cartels. It's not their job. The reality is the demand on the other side of the border, which is fuelling the wars over here, and we're sitting right in the middle of it."

In the centre of Nuevo Laredo, a typical border-town mix of shops and street stalls selling everything from beef tacos to prescription medicines to fancy shoes, business owners seize on the rare sight of any foreigners and politely but insistently lobby for their custom. A few brown-shirted traffic cops hand out parking tickets, and every few hours police armed with automatic weapons come rolling by, more for show than for real effect. Otherwise, the authority of the state is entirely absent.

A revamped city police force is just now resuming street patrols - wearing new white shirts instead of blue to symbolise the hope for a newer, cleaner era - and an array of trucks and patrol cars donated by the Mexican state sits on one city square.

The chances of an end to official corruption and complicity in the cartels are, however, next to zero. The power and the money simply aren't on the civic authorities' side. Most people assume that one cartel - presumably El Chapo's - will eventually assume control, and reach an understanding with the politicians that they can continue their trafficking undisturbed in exchange for calm on the streets. In the meantime, however, the killing continues.