AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Battles between rival drug gangs are flaring right now in the Mexican town of Matamoros less than a hundred yards from Brownsville, Texas. The feud is terrorizing the citizens of this historic border city. In February, the U.S. State Department warned consulate personnel to stay indoors even during daytime. Convoys of cartel gunmen, some armed with grenade launchers, openly cruise the streets. NPR's John Burnett has the first of two reports on life on the frontlines of this war.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: You can walk through the colorful mercado in central Matamoros and convince yourself that nothing looks especially out of the ordinary. Vendors are hawking pirate music CDs, religious statues and hammocks.
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BURNETT: But you'd be wrong. People are tense. People are wary, and they have reason to be. Matamoros periodically erupts in fearsome gun battles between militias of coked-up narcos in muscle trucks or between the narcos and ski-masked soldiers. This used to be a laid-back border town famed for margaritas and manufacturing - not anymore.
SERVANDO: I don't go anywhere - just my house to my office and my office to my house. That's it.
BURNETT: Public life has withered in this once vibrant tourist town on the lower Rio Grande. Servando is a 70-year-old businessman who, like everyone else in this story, asked that we not use his last name. He sits at his desk waiting for patients who never come to buy health products from him anymore.
SERVANDO: I know. Also I have people in Brownsville or in the States, and they don't come to visit me anymore because they are afraid. What can I do? All I can do is wait.
BURNETT: Wait until one side wins the Mafia war - wait for the city to wake up and come back to life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
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BURNETT: The violence is also hurting the trade in used cars, known as chocolates. Time was when Mexican brokers would tow broken cars across the bridge from Texas to Matamoros, mechanics would fix them, and Mexican buyers would travel to the border to get a good deal on a used car. That was Carlos Alberto's lifeblood. He owns a grease-stained garage in Matamoros.
CARLOS ALBERTO: (Through interpreter) And today people don't come from the interior of the republic to buy cars because they're afraid. Most of the mechanics here in Matamoros depended on selling used cars. Now we're all struggling. Today, the situation is very tense. We really don't know what's going to happen tomorrow.
BURNETT: Carlos Alberto says life has not stopped. People still go out to mass and to baby showers and quinceaneras, but they go straight home afterwards. Everything has changed, he laments, from the time when he emigrated to Matamoros from San Salvador as a teenager.
ALBERTO: (Through interpreter) I lived through part of the civil war in my native country. When I came here, compared to El Salvador, I thought Mexico was a piece of heaven, but all this ended little by little. Today, Matamoros is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, but we never see it on television.
BURNETT: This is the maddening reality here. There were 883 homicides in Tamaulipas State in 2013. Most of them were victims of the Mafia war, but local TV, radio and newspapers cannot report on them. The Gulf Cartel exerts strict censorship over the media. Violations are not tolerated. Last month, the editor of the leading daily, El Manana, was abducted and beaten because his newspaper published a front-page account of cartel clashes. He's since fled the city. Soteco is a 22-year-old tourism worker.
SOTECO: The media is shut down. They don't publish anything because they are afraid of the consequences.
BURNETT: So where do you find out what's going on in Matamoros?
SOTECO: Facebook mostly. People living near the danger zones, in real time, they send messages to the Facebook page, and they publish it. So everyone in the town that is connected to that page can read it and be alert.
BURNETT: Reporting on cartel violence on social media can be dangerous, too. Four years ago, a blogger in Nuevo Laredo was beheaded, and last October, a Twitter user in Reynoso was murdered. Both were killed for saying too much. Yet people keep doing it in Matamoros because it's the kind of news they can use.
A vendor of used clothes named Hugo has turned up the volume on an old Mexican movie on his TV so people won't overhear him talking to a reporter.
HUGO: (Through interpreter) The newspapers only publish simple things, like car accidents. They don't publish what's really happening. My daughters monitor Facebook, and they call me and they say, Papi, don't go near 18th and 20th Streets, there's a shootout there. And so I don't go out.
BURNETT: The people of Matamoros have learned not to go out as they wait for their long nightmare to be over. John Burnett, NPR News, Matamoros, Mexico.
CORNISH: Tomorrow, on All Things Considered, listen for our second report on life in Matamoros - a gold dealer who survived a cartel kidnapping.
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