Drug Cartel Battles Escalate in Nuevo Laredo

Violence between drug cartels is escalating in the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo, directly across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. Alex Chadwick discusses the situation with Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, racing downhill with lunatic middle-aged skateboarders.

First, to the sun-blistered border city of Nuevo Laredo of Mexico, a hub for drug traffickers on their way north into Texas. Drug cartels warring over the control of the smuggling routes are killing civilians and police officers almost daily. In an effort to control the chaos, the Mexican government suspended the local police force and sent in troops and federal police to investigate corruption. I spoke about the situation earlier with Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado. He's there covering the story.

Alfredo, welcome to DAY TO DAY, and tell me, what is the situation now in Nuevo Lardeo with the federales in control?

Mr. ALFREDO CORCHADO (Dallas Morning News): Well, it's an interesting day today because after more than a month, the city police is back on duty today. Many were being investigated for corruption, for alliances with the drug cartels. Today after a month and a half, they're back on the streets, so people are kind of either nervous or anticipating even more violence.

CHADWICK: There's a new police chief. He's been on duty about two weeks now. His predecessor was shot dead last month just a few hours after he took office. How is this new chief going to do?

Mr. CORCHADO: Well, for one thing, he has bodyguards. The last one, as you said, was killed, I think seven hours after he took over his job, on his way home. Omar Pimentel, the new chief, says that he has learned a lesson, and he has a number of bodyguards with him. He's promised to raise the pay for the cops and has promised to cut on corruption. He says they're training at least 600 additional cops. Today they're back on the streets, but only half of the 755 actually have jobs.

CHADWICK: I hadn't realized this, but I guess Nuevo Laredo has really become a very important transshipment point for drug trafficking.

Mr. CORCHADO: Yes. No-Laredo, or the Laredo area, is the number-one entry point for land trade. The I-35 corridor--it's very coveted by the competing drug cartels.

CHADWICK: What about these two gangs that are fighting for control here? There's the Juarez cartel, that I gather is based in Juarez, Mexico, and a Gulf cartel.

Mr. CORCHADO: Yes, you have those two cartels. One is--the Juarez cartel is also known as the Sinaloa cartel. That part of the organization is run by a man named Joaquin el Chapo Guzman. His arming forces are known as the Men in Black or the Zeros--they're ex-paramilitary, deserters from the Mexican army--vs. the Gulf cartel, whose arming forces are the Zetas; they're also former paramilitary groups. Now the core members of the Zetas were trained in the United States to take on drug cartels. Osiel Cardenas, who is the leader of the Gulf cartel, basically bribed them and said, you know, `How much money are you making? I'll double it, if not triple it,' and at least 31 members deserted the Mexican military and are now working for the Gulf cartel. And that's why the level of violence is so bloody here along the border.

CHADWICK: And these are well-trained former soldiers, in some cases trained by the US.

Mr. CORCHADO: Exactly.

CHADWICK: So these drug cartels have been battling each other in Nuevo Laredo to get access to I-35. How do the people there think things are going to go with their own police force back in control? I mean, what do people think is going to happen there?

Mr. CORCHADO: Well, actually, it's kind of interesting, because when the federales came in and took the local police off the force, many of the local businesspeople and local normalmentes we applauding the move. But now weeks later, they're kind of happy to see the force back because ironically, over the weekend Reforma, the Mexico City newspaper, had a story showing that since the federales came in, the murder rate has actually increased. In 41 days of what President Fox calls Operation Safe Mexico, there've been registered 35 deaths, or at least one every 28 hours. Also the rate on assaults, rate on--of kidnappings has increased by about 50 percent. So people are kind of--we were talking to some merchants last night and they were saying it's better the devil you know than the one you don't know.

CHADWICK: Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News on developments in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Alfredo, thank you.

Mr. CORCHADO: My pleasure.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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