RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now, we get an update on another region that's been wracked by violence: the cities along Mexico's northern border with the U.S. We've been hearing a lot about Juarez and the bloodshed there linked to the drug trade. But another border city has quietly calmed down. Nuevo Laredo, across the river from Laredo, Texas, has experienced a dramatic drop in killings. The 55 murders last year were less than a third of the total in 2006. Residents report they feel safe in the streets again, and tourists are trickling back. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: It's hard to overstate how bad it was. The new police chief was murdered hours after he was sworn in. Rival cartel gangs used rocket-propelled grenades in street battles. Thugs murdered the editor of the largest daily, El Manana, in 2004, because they didn't like its coverage. And two years later, they attacked the newspaper's newsroom. Editor Daniel Rosas remembers.
Mr. DANIEL ROSAS (Editor, El Manana): They started shooting with automatic weapons in the direction of the receptionist. And after that, one of the shooters threw a grenade. It exploded right in the hall in front of the editorial director office.
BURNETT: A bullet hit a reporter, who remains in a wheelchair to this day. Around the city, tourism evaporated. Even the U.S. consulate closed briefly. Families that could fled across the river to Laredo. Then in 2007, the turf war apparently ended, and the city began to return to normal.
Mr. ROSAS: Fortunately, the violence has decreased a lot. Fortunately, investment is coming back. We have a new Wal-Mart. We see a renewal.
BURNETT: What a difference a truce makes. The Sinaloa cartel had been trying to muscle into Nuevo Laredo, which is controlled by the Gulf cartel. The Sinaloans wanted access to this, the busiest trade port along the U.S.-Mexico border, where it's relatively easy to smuggle drugs inside some of the 6,000 commercial trucks that travel south to north every day. But the two warring mafias, weakened by their own casualties and under pressure from Mexico's tough anti-cartel president, Felipe Calderon, made a prudent business decision, says Will Glasby. He's special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, stationed on the southern border.
Mr. WILL GLASBY (Special Agent, Drug Enforcement Administration): They weren't making money at that point. They realized that they were spending more time waging a war as opposed to conducting their criminal enterprises, and in doing so, they were losing members on a daily basis due to executions, assassinations.
BURNETT: Under the current cease-fire, Glasby explains, the Sinaloans pay a tax to the Gulf cartel to use the Laredo border crossing. At the same time, the Sinaloans moved upriver to try and wrest control of Juarez from the Juarez cartel, which has resulted in the daily carnage in that city. No one suggests that today, the cartels have gone away. The city has reverted to an earlier model. The traffickers smuggle cocaine and marijuana across the river, mostly mind their own business, and Mexican authorities - some of whom are on the take - look the other way. The city's charismatic new mayor, Ramon Garza, put it bluntly.
Mayor RAMON GARZA (Nuevo Laredo, Mexico): Let's put it this way: You cannot have a city like Laredo without a cartel.
BURNETT: The mayor knows all too well the power of the cartels. His friend and adviser Rolando Montante was murdered last January. A U.S. official in the area said they suspect the narco mafia was behind it. Ever since he took office last January, Ramon Garza has been trying to turn around the image of his city.
Mayor GARZA: A lot of people still think Nuevo Laredo has still a lot of violence in our city. The perception is the hardest thing to change.
BURNETT: Mr. Garza - tall, handsome, 47 and ambitious, the son of a wealthy customs-brokerage family - climbs out of a gleaming, white Suburban.
(Soundbite of car door closing)
BURNETT: The mayor wants to redefine his city. Over the course of an afternoon, he shows off Nuevo Laredo's handsome new cultural center, the new civic center and the zoo. There's Chino the pot-bellied pig, Lupita the alligator, and an as-yet-unnamed, ill-tempered bobcat.
(Soundbite of bobcat growl)
BURNETT: But the crown jewel of his year-old administration is the old train station.
Mayor GARZA: (Spanish and English spoken) Buenas tardes. Como estan? Buenas tardes. Buenas tardes. This is Estacion Palabra.
BURNETT: "Estacion Palabra" translates Word Station. In a leap of imagination, Garza has transformed the old passenger-train station into a sleek and sunlit literature center. It was inaugurated last September by none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Latin America's literary giant, who passed through here in 1961. Garza stands over a glass case containing editions of Marquez's masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
Mayor GARZA: (Spanish and English spoken) Y esta es la edicion de Gabriel Garcia Marquez, la leccion Colombiana, where he's from, the Colombia nation where he's from.
(Soundbite of man whispering in Spanish)
BURNETT: A distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a jaunty hat and a scarf comes up to warmly shake the mayor's hand.
Mayor GARZA: (Spanish and English spoken) A tus ordenes. He doesn't work here or anything. He's a person that comes very often. We have people that comes to read. Since September, we have more than 15,000 people that comes into this place.
BURNETT: As journalists say, the storyline has changed in Nuevo Laredo. You won't hear as much about it now because the drug violence has moved to Juarez. And that's a very good thing for Nuevo Laredo. U.S. counter-narcotics agents expect the combatants in Juarez to tire of their bloodletting sooner or later. Mexicans on the border are sick and tired of living in the crossfire of the drug wars. Many would much rather go to a quiet place and read a good book. John Burnett, NPR News, Nuevo Laredo.