Tuesday, October 18, 2005

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — A violent war between two powerful drug cartels over control of a lucrative trade route for Mexican cocaine and marijuana bound for the United States has turned many Americans away from Nuevo Laredo and nearly gutted the city’s tourist economy.

Once a bustling shopping center for visitors to southern Texas, this Mexican border city of 300,000 on the edge of the Rio Grande has seen a wave of killings that has taken 135 lives this year — including the police chief, a city council member and 13 police officers.

As a result, vendors and merchants on the city’s violence-prone streets are stuck with street carts and stores filled with unsold food, watches, belts, wallets and jewelry.

“The people are afraid to come, and it has hurt us very badly,” said Eduardo, a local store owner who asked that his last name not be used. “The Americans used to come here in great numbers and spend a lot of money. That no longer is happening.”

Although Nuevo Laredo’s Office of Tourism and Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez Flores have said the violence is declining and the city is again safe, brazen daylight killings continue — including the death just last week of another Nuevo Laredo police officer, who was fatally shot at a city hospital while questioning a man suspected of being a cartel member.

In one recent 10-day period, eight fatal shootings were reported — four bullet-riddled bodies were discovered at a ranch 30 miles southeast of the city, two men were killed as they sat on their front porch in the city, and two others slain outside a store in the city center.

Just last week, U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the Justice Department was sending federal agents to Texas to combat violent crime along the Mexican border. The Violent Crime Impact Team will target Laredo, Texas, and focus on firearms violations, gang activity, illegal drug organizations and organized crime.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry also announced last week a new security plan for the Texas-Mexico border, saying the state would “increase the law-enforcement presence in the border region, provide new investigative tools, improve communications among law-enforcement officials and make our border region more secure.”

“I offer this plan, not because it is the state’s responsibility to control the federal border, but because the state of Texas cannot wait for the federal government to implement needed border security measures,” he said.

Much of the violence has been attributed by U.S. and Mexican authorities to a renegade band of Mexican military deserters known as the Zetas. Trained in the U.S. as an elite force of anti-drug commandos, they have since signed on as mercenaries and recruiters for Mexican drug traffickers.

As many as 200 Zetas, including former Mexican police officers, are thought to be involved with the violence. Their hub, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, is Nuevo Laredo — the most active port of entry along the border. More than 6,000 trucks cross daily from here into Texas, carrying about 40 percent of Mexico’s exports.

Authorities said the Zetas control the city despite efforts by Mexican President Vicente Fox to restore order. He sent hundreds of troops and federal agents to the city in March to set up checkpoints and raid suspected Zeta locations.

The Zetas operate over a wide area of the U.S.-Mexico border, and authorities suspect them in at least three drug-related slayings in the Dallas area. They said as many as 10 Zeta members operate in Texas as assassins, protecting a nearly $10 million-a-day drug trade.

The Justice Department said in a report that the organization was spreading from Texas to California and Florida and establishing drug-trafficking routes that it was willing to protect “at any cost.” In July, the department warned law-enforcement authorities in Arizona and California to be on the lookout for Zeta members.

Meanwhile, Nuevo Laredo’s economy continues to falter, and although the streets are full, few of those rushing up and down the city’s pothole-filled streets and crumbling sidewalks are U.S. tourists looking to spend money.

“I cannot remember it being this bad,” said Hector Gonzalez, who sells food from a stand just a block from the border. “I am very sad.”

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