In Just One Year, A Mexican City Turns Violent Last year, Reynosa — a dusty, sprawling city of half a million people across the border from McAllen, Texas — was a relatively peaceful part of the country. Now it's one of the most dangerous places in Mexico.
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In Just One Year, A Mexican City Turns Violent

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In Just One Year, A Mexican City Turns Violent

In Just One Year, A Mexican City Turns Violent

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Drug cartels continue to be the scourge of Mexico. More than 22,000 people have been killed since 2006 in violence related to the drug wars. Yesterday, Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. can do more to help Mexico in its fight against the cartels. We'll talk shortly with a professor whose long studied the roots of Mexico's drug violence.

But first, a report from the state of Tamaulipas, which borders the southern tip of Texas. Just a year ago, this was a relatively peaceful part of the country, but as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, it's now one of the most dangerous places in Mexico.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Reynosa is a dusty, sprawling city of a half a million people across from McAllen, Texas. This is a maquila town. There are roughly 140 factories that float in a free trade limbo between the U.S. and Mexico. During the day in downtown Reynosa, shops bustle with activity, young men sell pirated DVDs on the sidewalk, music blares from the CD store, shoeshine men polish shoes.

But this is a city that this year has become seized with fear.

(Soundbite of shutters closing)

BEAUBIEN: As night falls, so do the metal shutters on businesses, and the streets become eerily empty.

Mr. ELIACIB LEIJA (PAN Party): It's not officially declared a war but we are in a warzone.

BEAUBIEN: Forty-year-old Eliacib Leija grew up in Reynosa. Now he's the coordinator for President Calderon's PAN Party in the state of Tamaulipas.

Mr. LEIJA: And most of the people stay at home after 6:00, 8:00 at night. Don't go out, they take their precautions because once in a while you hear a bunch of shootings and things like that.

BEAUBIEN: The problem in Reynosa right now is the same problem that's plaguing the rest of Tamaulipas: a fight between the Gulf cartel and their former hit squad, the Zetas. At times this fighting has involved shootouts between more than a dozen heavily armed combatants.

While residents may hear the confrontations in the streets, the local news media, under pressure from the cartels, has stopped reporting on the drug violence almost entirely. The security situation has gotten so bad, Leas says many mayors and other high-ranking public officials in this part of Mexico now live in the United States.

Mr. LEIJA: And not only officials and city people, inversionistas and people that have businesses from Tampico, from Matamoros, Reynosa, Laredo, are going to the United States because of those insecurities.

BEAUBIEN: Many people in Reynosa behave as if they're living under a dictatorship. But here the feared omniscient authority is not the state, it's the cartels. Shopkeepers, politicians, journalists decline to be interviewed and some say explicitly that they can't be caught by Los Malos, the bad ones, speaking to a foreign reporter.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

BEAUBIEN: Along the south bank of the Rio Grande, young lookouts for the Zetas watch the river to make sure that only cartel-approved smugglers move migrants or other contraband into the United States. Migrants who've come to the border to try to cross illegally are terrified - not of the American authorities but of the Mexican criminals.

This is a state where 72 migrants were slaughtered in August, allegedly by the Zetas.

At a shelter for people who've just been deported from the U.S., a 23-year-old Honduran named Edwin Ramos Ponce says migrants here are regularly beaten, robbed and kidnapped.

Mr. EDWIN RAMOS PONCE: They know where we're from, where we come from, and they know and they treat us wrong here.

BEAUBIEN: Ramos says he snuck into the U.S. illegally 10 years ago with his uncle, at the age of 13. Two months ago he got deported for, in his words, making some bad choices. Now he's broke and stuck here.

Mr. RAMOS PONCE: I mean, it's like dangerous, like nobody's safe here in Mexico. Not even the Mexican people safe here.

Ms. REBECA RODRIGUEZ (Human Rights Advocate): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Reynosa human rights advocate Rebeca Rodriguez says the problem right now is, quote, "We've become accustomed to the violence just as we've become accustomed to poverty." Rodriguez says the violence is now making the poverty even worse as Texans no longer want to come across to shop or have dinner.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

BEAUBIEN: The differences between McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico are sharp. On the Mexican side there are heavily armed soldiers on the border, torn up roadways and a collective fear. On the Texas side, people leave their keys in the ignition of their pickup trucks at the gas pump.

But economically these two worlds are closely intertwined. They even have the same economic development agency. Keith Patridge, the head of that agency - the McAllen Economic Development Corporation - says the violence in Reynosa is definitely affecting the area. New potential investors are being scared away from the Mexican side, but it's also caused a burst of Mexican investment into McAllen.

Mr. KEITH PATRIDGE (McAllen Economic Development Corporation): From a short term, that's good for our local economy because it's, you know, we're selling houses, we're getting new business startups, we're creating jobs and things.

BEAUBIEN: But he says McAllen derives its economic strength from its relationship with the low-cost manufacturing plants in Reynosa. Patridge says the two cities are dependent on each others' success.

Mr. PATRIDGE: We have to really look at what's in the best interest of both parties, and the best interest for us is to have a strong, stable, progressive Mexico.

BEAUBIEN: And right now, with drug violence flaring across the country, that's not what they've got.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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