Mexican Border Town Caught in Drug War

Mexican drug cartels are battling each other and authorities for control of transit routes into the United States. The border town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Texas is caught in the middle of this war, with more than 130 murders so far this year.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A turf war between two of Mexico's biggest drug cartels is disrupting a Mexican border town. Nuevo Laredo is across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, and it's on the front line of a fight to control the lucrative drug smuggling routes into the United States. More than 130 people have been killed in this town so far this year, and just yesterday, two men were shot to death as they were riding in a car in an area of the downtown. In the face of violence like that, the Mexican government has launched an operation to curb the violence that has spread across the country. US officials say the Mexican cartels have grown so powerful, they're taking over from their more infamous Colombian counterparts. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

As he's driving through the upscale neighborhood of Maredo in Nuevo Laredo, government official Juan Jose Zarate(ph) points out the buildings that have been marked by the battles here recently.

Mr. JUAN JOSE ZARATE (Government Official): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One house has rocket-propelled grenade holes in it from an attack in July. In June, the newly appointed police chief here was assassinated. He'd been on the job only seven hours. Over the past few weeks, several bodies have turned up, stuffed into barrels, shot and burned. Zarate says the sensational crimes and violence have put this city of 500,000 people in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Mr. ZARATE: (Through Translator) After all this, people have been looking at us as if we are living in Iraq, and there are terrorists here and this is a very unsafe city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The battle in Nuevo Laredo right now is between the Gulf cartel, run by Osiel Cardenas, who's in prison, and the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who was arrested but escaped prison in a laundry cart. They both want the lucrative trade into the United States.

(Soundbite of truck air brakes)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Large trucks pull up to get checked by customs agents at the Colombia crossing near Nuevo Laredo. It's one of four bridges in the Nuevo Laredo area, and a major gateway to the United States.

(Soundbite of truck doors being opened)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jorge Spino Ascanio is the bridge director.

Mr. JORGE SPINO ASCANIO (Bridge Director): This is the most important bridge in America. It's--the traffic is too heavy. Every day drawing--from United States, or from United States to Mexico, we talk between 8,000, 9,000 trucks a day.

(Soundbite of truck doors being opened)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, at least 40 percent of all US-Mexico trade passes through these bridges.

Mr. ASCANIO: The reason is the freeways, the communication. It's easier for the people to come from LA to Nuevo Laredo, and from Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City, because you--you're driving always on the freeway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That good access has attracted the drug activity. An official with the DEA says some of the drugs and money come hidden in some of the trailers. Despite a system of random checks on both sides of the border, only about one-fifth of the vehicles are inspected. According to the US drug czar, John Walters, at least 80 percent of all the cocaine that gets into the States goes through Mexico, along with large quantities of methamphetamines and marijuana. Nuevo Laredo is only one example of what is a border-long problem.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (US Drug Czar): There is a very bloody struggle going on for whether or not free institutions and rule of law are going to win, or whether mafias are going to exert their power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, according to Walters, the Mexican cartels have extended their reach, increasingly becoming involved in most aspects of the trade, from transportation from Colombia, to final distribution in the US.

Mr. WALTERS: There is much greater Mexican organization involvement that involves both Mexican nationals and US nationals that are a conduit for drugs that either originate or are shipped through Mexico more than ever before. And that's what made some of those organizations so powerful is their increasing share of the market and the dollars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Mexican government says it has made fighting drug traffickers a priority. After this summer's violence in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican government launched a federal initiative to crack down on the drug gangs called Operation Secure Mexico. It has met with only mixed success so far. The murders and violence have continued. But Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who heads Mexico's organized crime investigative unit, says that the increase in violence is because the government has disrupted the cartels' operations, throwing them into chaos and in-fighting.

Mr. JOSE LUIS SANTIAGO VASCONCELOS (Organized Crime Investigative Unit, Mexico): (Through Translator) These organizations have been struck through the heart by the detention of their leaders. We are seeing the chaos now of disorganized crime because of the application of the law.

(Soundbite of amplified announcement)

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Near one of the main squares in Nuevo Laredo, municipal police officers arrest a man on the street whom they suspect of carrying a gun. Over the summer, the entire municipal police force here was replaced by federal police and soldiers who still patrol the city in large pickup trucks bristling with guns.

Nuevo Laredo's municipal police is only just getting back on its feet after hundreds were fired, suspected of being involved with the cartels. In the past few weeks, 20 police have been charged with crimes ranging from kidnapping to attempted murder. Now only a reduced force are on the beat.

(Soundbite of bells)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nearby, 53-year-old welder Alfonso Sala Serviol(ph), sits reading a newspaper under the trees of Plaza Hidalgo, while the bells from the church ring. He's lived in Nuevo Laredo for 50 years. He says this situation now is the worst he's ever seen.

Mr. ALFONSO SALAS SERVIOL (Welder): (Through Translator) I wish they'd all kill each other and leave us alone. How many businesses have been ruined because of his? How many people jobless because of the situation here? There's no work. People are leaving the city.

(Soundbite of shop sounds)

Unidentified Man #2: We have a lot of stuff inside. Go ahead...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Walking near the shops that used to be busy with visitors, sellers now desperately try and get tourists into their store. Nuevo Laredo used to be popular with visiting Americans, but the violence prompted a State Department travel warning, and the closure of the consulate for a week over the summer. Now people are afraid to come.

(Soundbite of shop sounds)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jack Suneson is the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce who owns a high-end shop on one of the main drags. His sales are off 80 percent.

Mr. JACK SUNESON (Vice President, Chamber of Commerce, Nuevo Laredo): This is our 51st year in business, and it's--this is the toughest year we've ever had. And we've been through floods and fires and whatnot. This period has been really devastating, and so we're hoping that it'll turn around by Christmas. If not, then we're going to have to see about whether or not we stay open or not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Suneson says things have been turning around recently, but he says people have gotten the wrong idea about Nuevo Laredo, and that is a hard impression to change. He specifically blames the US for taking the action it did.

Mr. SUNESON: Americans are not the target. The targets are the drug cartels themselves, between them.

(Soundbite of shop sounds)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's a difficult message to get out. Nuevo Laredo has been offering free bus rides from cities in Texas to entice people back. But of the first six buses, only one was filled. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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