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Texas Town Is Unnerved by Violence in Mexico


http://www.nytimes.com/

New York Times(08/11/2005)
by RALPH BLUMENTHAL

Correction Appended

LAREDO, Texas—The killings and kidnappings across the Rio Grande have kept Marco A. Alvarado and his wife from visiting her kin in Nuevo Laredo.

William Slemaker and Pablo Cisneros haunt the border searching for clues and awaiting news of their kidnapped and long-missing daughters.

Carlos Carranco Jr. and other teachers are spending vacation days in school, wresting blue plastic guns from one another and learning how to detect drug problems and subdue violent students, lessons that will be followed by a mock siege this fall.

Such is life these days in Laredo, the trading powerhouse and major border crossing point of 225,000 people who have been spooked by the drug wars and escalating violence in their Mexican sister city.

On the surface, the city remains almost absurdly quaint, a frontierlike outpost of steepled churches, shaded plazas, vintage warehouses, ironwork galleries, and narrow, wild west streets, where hot-rodders cruise on Sunday nights and the high point of the year is Washington's Birthday Celebration, a debutante pageant dedicated to the nation's first couple, George and Martha.

But the anarchy of Nuevo Laredo has cast a pall over two communities long accustomed to regarding each other as neighbors across the way, united, not divided, by the border.

Nuevo Laredo's grim record includes more than 100 unsolved killings in the last year, downtown crossfires, brazen assassinations (a new police chief on his first day in June and a city councilman on Aug. 5), sending in federal troops to replace local police officers who were thought to be in league with criminal gangs and the kidnappings of at least 43 Americans in the last 12 months.

[On Wednesday, a Nuevo Laredo police officer was shot to death and a former officer was wounded on a busy street in broad daylight, Tamaulipas State police officials said.]

Some others may, but the people of Laredo do not dismiss the rampage as a challenge just for the overmatched Mexican authorities.

"It's not their problem - it's our problem," said Alan Jackson, a Laredo insurance executive whose family roots go back two and a half centuries to the Spanish colonization.

Laredo's mayor, Elizabeth G. Flores, whose forebears were also original ranch settlers, said Los Dos Laredos has always been one big place. When people visit the other city over one of two international bridges, "they cross the street, they don't cross the river," she said.

Though trade continues, casual crossings have declined as fears have risen of catching a stray bullet or running afoul of Mexican police officers in league with criminal gangs. A recent series of calls to prominent Laredans demanding money for protection from kidnapping did nothing to ease the anxiety.

Assurances of safety from the Laredo Chamber of Commerce notwithstanding, the Alvarados are staying closer to home. "My wife's family is from Nuevo Laredo, but we haven't gone in a year," said Mr. Alvarado, a spokesman for the Laredo Independent School District.

Mercurio Martinez Jr., a former judge, is curtailing his forays across the Rio Grande to his favorite Nuevo Laredo restaurant, Mexico Tipico, for its kid-goat specialty, cabrito.

Those who do venture over the border for business or family ties "are looking around their shoulders - you can sense the nervousness," said Antonio Rodriguez, associate dean of the college of business at Texas A&M International University. "I hope I don't get into trouble on the other side with something I said," he added at the end of a telephone interview.

Young people long drawn to the liberal night life of Nuevo Laredo - where you were said to be of drinking age as soon as you could push a peso across the bar - are being kept home by worried parents. Instead, they throng Laredo clubs like Graham Central Station, their doings swelling the ¿Qué Pasa? section of The Laredo Morning Times.

Some shrug and live with the risks. Lynda Ramirez, 25, an art director for a large company in Laredo, has chosen to live in Nuevo Laredo with her family and future husband. "Yes, it's my home and I'm not going to hide," she said. "It's no different as if I lived at the Bronx."

In the end, Laredans say, geography is destiny. Astride Interstate 35, funneling traffic from Mexico City and Monterrey through the American heartland as far north as Lake Superior, Laredo is a gateway for merchants on both sides of the law.

Laredo, whose population has doubled in less than 20 years, is bustling with Mexican shoppers and smugglers enticed by American appliances, electronics and fashions, and rumbling with nearly 10,000 trucks and 1,800 loaded rail cars that pass daily through the border crossing.

Local officials worry not just about spreading drug violence but potential terrorism as well. "Our motto," said Norman A. Townsend, the supervisory F.B.I. agent in Laredo, "is if something bad were to happen, he didn't come through Laredo."

Illegal immigration remains a tribute to human ingenuity, with one would-be infiltrator sewn inside an overstuffed van seat and discovered when he moved.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Mexican authorities were committed to restoring order and "have been making some progress."

Still, two recent killings on Laredo streets have been linked to drug gangs, said Chief John W. Montoya of the Border Patrol's Laredo sector. And on May 23, accounts of a local gang shooting caused mass panic at Lyndon B. Johnson High School, prompting 703 absences.

A high-profile carjacking in January showed just how vulnerable locals can be. Hector Bolaños, a leading Mexican customs broker with business and family ties on both sides of the border, had his new car taken at gunpoint in Nuevo Laredo. Mr. Bolaños, who uses a wheelchair, was hauled out and left in the street.

With good official contacts, he complained to the governor of Tamaulipas State and demanded his car back. The police delivered it, slightly battered, two days later. Mr. Bolaños confirmed the account on National Public Radio in February, declining to provide details, but did not respond to a message left recently at his freight forwarding company in Laredo. At a recent speech in Nuevo Laredo, Mr. Bolaños belittled the concern over violence and did not allude to his ordeal, people there said.

"Life on the border is unique," Chief Montoya of the Border Patrol said. "And life in Laredo is more unique."

Ardent boosters like Mayor Flores, who has infuriated some by insisting that all kidnapping victims were tied to the drug trade, are in the difficult position of playing down public concern while demanding that more be done to restore law and order in Nuevo Laredo.

Even before the latest mayhem in Nuevo Laredo, fears of terrorism growing out of last year's Chechen rebel attack on the Russian school in Beslan prompted the Laredo School District to become the testing ground for a security program developed by Texas State University in San Marcos with a state grant.

In July, more than 100 teachers and administrators gathered in a Laredo high school for demonstrations on how to detect drugs and control abusive students. "Do not approach from behind because the strongest kick a human being can deliver is a mule kick," cautioned Cullen Grissom, a former police officer now with the Texas Engineering Extension Service of Texas A&M, which is providing the training. He mimed a backward kick at a husky guinea pig who instinctively doubled over.

Afterward, Mr. Grissom and a partner handed out blue plastic automatics and showed the teachers how to safely disarm one another.

The sessions are continuing, with police officers responding recently to a mock mass shooting at the school. In September, school officials, teachers and public safety officers are to enact a daylong war game simulating another large-scale attack.

Anxiety over a drug threat in schools and elsewhere is well founded, Chief Montoya said. The value of drug seizures in the Laredo sector has risen only slightly, but while the amount of marijuana has declined, cocaine seizures rose to 4,126 pounds in the period from October through June, compared with 3,000 pounds in those months a year earlier.

In the view of some officials, the war on drugs in Laredo has been hampered by enmity between the Webb County district attorney, Joe Rubio, and the United States attorney's office for the Southern District of Texas, in Houston. Federal prosecutors convicted Mr. Rubio's father, brother, cousin and office employees in 2000 of taking bribes to fix cases. Mr. Rubio, 51, was never charged but, angry at the government, he ended his office's practice of prosecuting federal seizures up to 50 kilos in cooperation with the government.

"If someone did something wrong they have to pay the price, including members of my family," he said. But the government, he said, "made it a hell of a lot bigger than it was." Mr. Rubio, elected five times since 1988, said, "We're concentrating more on local drug cases."

To Laredans like Mr. Slemaker, the violence has struck with particular vengeance. On Sept. 18, his stepdaughter, Yvette Martinez, 27, a mother of two girls, and Mr. Cisneros's daughter, Brenda, who was celebrating her 23rd birthday, disappeared after attending a concert by the Mexican pop star Pepe Aguilar in Nuevo Laredo. Witness accounts suggested they were stopped by the Mexican police after 4 a.m. five blocks south of the international bridge, Mr. Slemaker said.

Nine others vanished that night, he said, for a total of at least 43 Americans abducted in the last 12 months. Three were slain, 17 were released and 23 remain missing, he said.

Although the Mexican police turned away his inquiries, Mr. Slemaker said, he later found his stepdaughter's Mitsubishi in a Nuevo Laredo wrecker's lot used by the police, with dents indicating the car had been hit from behind. With little cooperation from American authorities apart from Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, he said, the two fathers regularly cruise Nuevo Laredo in their own investigation.

"Our pain is greater than our fear," said Mr. Slemaker, 43, a train conductor and trucker. "And we're past the pain - we're mad now."

Correction:

An article on Thursday about violence in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo and its impact on Americans across the border misspelled the name of the state involved. It is Tamaulipas, not Tamaluipas.

Ginger Thompson contributed reporting from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, for this article.