Features

Border war

Mexico | Efforts fail to stop drug gangs from terrorizing Nuevo Laredo

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

Not even the Mexican army could get the job done. In a tacit admission of failure, officials in Mexico City in March renamed and reorganized a military operation that had been designed to quell violence spawned by warring drug cartels along Mexico's northern border with Texas. The Mexican government retooled the "Secure Mexico" program that placed federal troops in Nuevo Laredo, renaming it "Northern Border" and promising to send between 600 and 800 more federal troops and police into Nuevo Laredo. But there are signs that Mexico's new initiative will fail just like its last.

Since Mexican troops marched last summer into Nuevo Laredo to stop the territory war between the Gulf and Sinaloa drug cartels, the carnage has only increased. Last year, around 170 were killed; this year, more than 50 have been killed in just three months, including four federal officers who, Mexican officials claim, were assassinated on March 16 by local police working for the Gulf Cartel. Shootouts and assassinations, often carried out in broad daylight, have transformed Nuevo Laredo, a once-bustling tourist location, into a frightened ghost town.

Now, news reports from Nuevo Laredo-less frequent because of violence against journalists, including a grenade attack-indicate a new obstacle to restoring security to the city. The general in charge of the Mexican national forces disappeared, and local officials say they haven't seen General Alvaro Moreno in weeks. Bureaucrats in Mexico City could not place him either. WORLD's phone calls to the Mexican consulate in Laredo, Texas, were not returned.

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"There's no referee here and there's no agreements between these gangs," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexican expert on drug smuggling and U.S.-Mexico relations. "There was once an equilibrium that kept things peaceful. But it was broken. These guys are no sisters of charity." Just the opposite. Since the Mexican government weakened the Gulf Cartel in 2003 by arresting its kingpin, Osiel Cardenas, the Sinaloa Cartel has tried to move in on the Nuevo Laredo territory.

Four bridges that span the Rio Grande make Nuevo Laredo all-important not only to U.S. officials but also to drug runners seeking to transport South American cocaine to markets as distant as the East Coast of the United States and as far north as Michigan. Since NAFTA's cross-border boost, warehouses and depots have dominated industry on both sides of the river. They service an area that has become the major port of entry for truckers who use I-35 as a conduit to the rest of the United States. All that makes Nuevo Laredo a key geographical location for cartels that use warehouses on both sides of the Rio Grande to stash narcotics, and for traffic jams to camouflage their cargo among the nearly $90 billion of legitimate goods that passed through Laredo ports of entry in 2005 alone.

According to figures released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the cartel war may be affecting business. Marijuana seizures in the Laredo, Texas, sector (from Brownsville to Del Rio, Texas) have dropped from nearly 243,000 pounds of marijuana a year to just 80,000 pounds.

But CBP's Rick Pauza says looking at seizures of marijuana may not be the best way to gauge drug traffic through Nuevo Laredo into the United States. The figures measure only what was caught, not what made it past the border and security, and seizures of other drugs have increased. "What we're seeing," he said, "is a big rise in the hard narcotics." Conservative estimates peg the value of cocaine that passes through Nuevo Laredo and into the United States every year at close to $30 billion.

Mr. Chabat doesn't think it's surprising that Mexico is impotent to stop two vendors in a multibillion-dollar industry from fighting over prized territory. Corruption, he says, renders local authorities useless. "It's very difficult to get results there. The Mexican government doesn't have the institutional power strong enough to deal with these kinds of violence," he said. "I think the only way to end this violence is with the victory of one cartel." The businesslike cartels, Mr. Chabat said, would like nothing more than to put away their weapons and go back to their billion-dollar industry of meeting North Americans' voracious appetite for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.

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