Mariano Castillo, Express News, July 23, 2006
Laredo — “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”
So goes a common saying among the communities that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border, where culture and language are nearly indistinguishable.
It’s a sentiment being redefined in the sister cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, as Mexican businesses are opening branches north of the Rio Grande with unprecedented frequency.
Pushed by the narco-violence that plagues Nuevo Laredo and pulled by profit opportunities in Laredo, nearly a dozen such firms have shifted to Texas recently, and more are on their way.
Once an easy trip across an international bridge, leisure visits to Nuevo Laredo have steadily declined in the past two years as a turf war there between drug cartels has escalated.
More than 150 homicides have been registered in Nuevo Laredo this year, the majority attributed to the battle between the Gulf and Sinaloa drug cartels for control of lucrative smuggling routes.
In Laredo, real-life horror stories from the neighboring city, such as too-close-for-comfort shootouts and murdered acquaintances, blend with tall tales — including the much-repeated but never confirmed one about diners getting locked in a restaurant so a drug capo could eat undisturbed.
The mix creates a tornado of warnings that keep Laredoans away, a fear factor that has undercut Mexican entrepreneurs who rely on tourist traffic.
One Nuevo Laredo salon, Aliciada Express, for years had counted on the dollars of Laredo women, but when they began to stay away, the owner persuaded her sister, Laredo resident Teresa Martinez, to open a salon on the Texas side.
“The wave of violence is ugly, but it’s benefited us in Laredo because you don’t have to cross, you don’t have to do anything, to enjoy the same businesses,” Martinez said. “If you walk into Nuevo Laredo, everything is closed.”
About 40 businesses affiliated with the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce have closed, officials there said. No exact figures are available, but according to some estimates, more than 100 businesses and vendors have shut their doors in Nuevo Laredo.
The evidence is everywhere — in boarded up office spaces and “For Rent” signs on the doors of once-popular nightclubs such as Señor Frog’s.
The new rule in Nuevo Laredo is this: Those who can, move. Those who can’t, close.
The shift in Los Dos Laredos — The Two Laredos — is pronounced and expanding. But the economy of fast-growing Laredo is an equal or greater incentive to move than is the violence in Nuevo Laredo.
A larger trend
The movement to Laredo is part of a larger trend, chamber of commerce officials on both sides of the border agreed.
“I don’t think it’s strictly a Nuevo Laredo phenomena, but a borderwide trend,” said Memo Treviño, chairman of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce.
Both Mexican businesses and individuals have begun to invest in the United States, he said.
Homero Villarreal Cerda, president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce, downplayed the push effect of the drug cartel war.
“The reality is that companies will go to where there is business, and right now there are a lot of opportunities in Laredo because of its fast growth,” Villarreal said, adding he believes his city is on the path to recuperation.
Even if the violence recedes in Nuevo Laredo, the new Laredo locations are likely to stay.
Mar-la, a Nuevo Laredo breakfast chain for 15 years, just celebrated its one-month anniversary on the U.S. side.
“If this one becomes successful, regardless of the situation on the other side, I think we will open up another in Laredo,” said Melissa de Muñoz, part owner of Mar-la.
As uniquely Nuevo Laredo businesses move to where the customers are, the border is once again crossing Laredo.