LAREDO, Texas—Celebrating her 23rd birthday, Brenda Cisneros and a friend drove across the border to a concert in Nuevo Laredo one night last August. They never came home.
“It’s been seven months of agony,” said Brenda’s mother, Priscilla Cisneros, tears welling up as she unrolls a poster of her missing daughter.
“The Mexican authorities say they are investigating, but nothing happens. And the American authorities tell us there’s not much they can do.”
Dozens of Laredo parents say their children have been abducted in Mexico lately. Some of the kidnappings have been attributed to a turf war between drug cartels competing for control of this stretch of the border, a key corridor for Texas-bound cocaine, marijuana and heroin.
Dozens have died in Nuevo Laredo, from gunfights with local police to execution-style slayings of attorneys and journalists in broad daylight.
Adding fuel to the fire, one of the trafficking groups was reinforced by the desertion of 31 elite Mexican special forces, known as the Zetas, who brought a new level of firepower to the drug war.
“These people are commandos,” said Arturo Fontes, a special agent for the FBI in Laredo. “They are trained to be instructors and force multipliers. They know how to handle weapons and have a much more specialized expertise in trafficking operations.”
Nuevo Laredo found itself caught in the middle.
More than 100 people have died in drug-related violence in the past year, 40 since January, and officials say the numbers could be double that.
April saw 11 murders, assassination attempts and a shootout with police on the international bridge. On April 10, traffickers armed with assault rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade ambushed a police convoy barely 10 blocks from city hall. Four policemen and a passer-by were wounded. Investigators found more than 300 shell casings at the scene.
Last month’s travel warning bluntly questioned the ability of Mexican police to deal with the crime wave:
“Mexico’s police forces suffer from lack of funds and training, and the judicial system is weak, overworked and inefficient.” It added: “Criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know there is little chance they will be caught and punished.”