The gunfire was deafening. Street corners all over the city were darkened by smoke from grenades and light artillery.
The dead lay in pools of blood flowing into the gutters that drain into the Rio Grande.
Men with automatic assault rifles stood stoic after the carnage. Then, one by one, they picked up the bodies of their victims, threw them into the back of pickup trucks and headed out of downtown.
Bystanders hid inside shops, behind trash bins—wherever they could find refuge from the explosive showdown between members of rival drug cartels.
The April street violence, witnessed by several residents interviewed by The Sun’s sister newspaper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin of Ontario, was but one recent example of how Mexico’s cartels are fighting each other over the four major U.S. highway systems that provide transit routes into the United States.
Street violence has become a way of life for the nearly 380,000 residents of Mexico’s most violent border city. According to law-enforcement officials in Mexico and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials, more than 500 people were assassinated in Nuevo Laredo in 2005. Official estimates, in news reports, put the 2005 death toll at 186.
This year, there have been nearly 500 assassinations, and the death toll continues to rise. Many of the dead either belonged to the cartels or were innocent victims of the carnage.
The violence has also changed the lives of American citizens living in Laredo, on the Texas side of the border, where kidnappings, narcotics trafficking and corruption have become common.
Laredo Police Officer James Boyd, who used to travel to Nuevo Laredo on archaeological projects, is now terrified to enter the city.
This year on a trip into Nuevo Laredo, he said he was chased by four SUVs and his car shot at several times by cartel members.
“People should know that the border has been taken hostage by the cartels,” Boyd said. “So many officials try to cover up what’s going on. Why? I guess they don’t want the public to know the truth.”
The truth is tied up in trucks, trade and transcontinental smuggling.
The World Trade Bridge between Nuevo Laredo and its sister city, Laredo, as well as Interstate 35 and highways 59, 359 and 83, are like veins feeding the Mexican syndicates, running from south Texas to as far north as Canada.
For Mexico’s most powerful drug lords, controlling the routes and protecting the cargo sent along them—drugs, weapons and people—is worth the cost in lives.
It’s also reason to focus U.S. border patrol efforts sharply on Nuevo Laredo, say law-enforcement officials, since the city is the largest inland port from Mexico into the United States and is a major point of origin for truck traffic into the U.S.
Not one local Mexican or U.S. newspaper reported the April street violence. Reporters don’t go into Nuevo Laredo’s streets often, and when they do, they don’t report on the cartels.
Comandante Enrique Sanchez of the Nuevo Laredo Police Department said he couldn’t recall the April shootings, although he compared the violence in Nuevo Laredo to that in Iraq.
His department has been plagued by trouble. President Vicente Fox’s administration has described the city’s police as corrupt, and residents said many police officers work for the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful narcotics-trafficking organizations.
The dead are often forgotten. The cartels dispose of bodies on the outskirts of the city in vats of acid, mutilate them in factory machines, feed them to animals or set them ablaze in gas containers until all evidence of their existence is gone.
Not one of the city’s nearly 400 official murders since January 2005 has been solved.
“The attention that the assassinations have brought to the cartels has caused them to change their tactics,” said Nacho, a resident who sometimes assists U.S. law enforcement with information. “The bodies are destroyed before people even realize someone’s missing.”
Although Colombian cartels control most of the world’s production of cocaine and heroin, the most profitable part of the trade—transport to the U.S.—happens in Mexico, said Jorge Chabat, a drug expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.
Distribution of narcotics has come under the control of various Mexican cartels, Chabat said, including Osiel Cardenas’ Gulf Cartel; Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel; Francisco Javier Arellano Felix’s organization in Tijuana; and the Juarez Cartel, said to be led by Vicente Carrillo.
‘Nothing has changed’
“Silver or lead,” said the middle- aged, white-haired man as he sipped a martini at a hotel bar in Laredo. “That’s the code in Mexico. Either you pay up or you’re killed.”
James Kuykendall Sr., a former special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who now runs his own business in the city, knows Mexico well.
His friend and DEA partner, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the drug cartels in 1985 while working undercover in Guadalajara. His death brought national attention to the Mexican drug war and the corruption that plagued the Mexican government.
Kuykendall’s book, “O Plata O Plomo,” (“Silver or Lead”) published last year, focused on the events surrounding Camarena’s death and how the Mexican government failed to cooperate with the DEA in the investigation.
“Nothing has changed in Mexico. If anything, it’s worse,” Kuykendall said.
“Kiki died a hero. He gave his life for his country. The tragedy is that the U.S. government gave up on the war on drugs decades ago. They choose to ignore the corruption that is deeply embedded in the Mexican government.”
The arrests of some of Mexico’s most notorious drug traffickers—the recent capture of reputed drug kingpin Francisco Javier Arellano Felix being one example—are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cooperation, Kuykendall added.
“Every once in a while, Mexico throws us a bone,” he said. “It gives the appearance of cooperation. It’s a way of making everything look like it’s OK. Well, it’s not.”
Nuevo Laredo once was noted for its tourism, colorful street vendors and booming border economy. But the drug violence has made this city of 400,000 a wasteland of lost businesses and lost lives.
More than 100 businesses have moved from Nuevo Laredo to Laredo over the past three years. And while its Texas sister is reaping the rewards of the World Trade Bridge and a growing economy, Nuevo Laredo residents are struggling to make ends meet.
Roll-down security shutters cover the large display windows of shops in the artisan district near the border. Dental offices and pharmacies that once thrived off American consumers have closed because the violence is keeping those customers away. For Sale and For Rent signs posted on the closed doors are pointed reminders of what the city has become.
“In Laredo, life is different,” Hector said. “Here we are prisoners. In our city, we learn to live with the devil.”
More than 400 journalists have been killed in Latin America over the past four decades. Since 1992, 13 journalists have been murdered in Mexico in connection with narcotics reporting, according to the U.S.-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, which offers detailed accounts of journalists killed around the globe.
“Journalists are front-line victims of the social crisis in Latin America, where official corruption, drug trafficking, unrestrained criminality, social violence and a background of political instability has made an impact in many countries,” stated Gregorio Salazar, Latin American regional coordinator for the International Federation of Journalists.
Because of the growing violence in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican federal government sent soldiers and federal and state police into the city in March 2005. In June 2005, President Vicente Fox’s administration began Operation Safe Mexico, which targeted the cartels. But it couldn’t stop the growing violence and ultimately was a failure, said residents interviewed by The Sun’s sister newspaper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin of Ontario. A little more than a month after arriving, the federal soldiers were gone.
The government announced a new operation—Northern Border—in mid-March 2006. Under the program, 600 to 800 Federal Protective Police officers were deployed to Nuevo Laredo, according to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
In a July interview, a Mexican police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said many of the agents under the Northern Border initiative have either left the city or are working for the cartels.
Shortly after the new initiative, assassins gunned down four federal agents working for the intelligence unit of the Federal Protective Police. The agents had been conducting surveillance of an office building where Federal Investigative agents, similar to FBI agents, were stationed. Residents said municipal police passed through the area just minutes before a group of gunmen in SUVs opened fire on the agents.
Orozco Tey couldn’t write that story.
He is paralyzed after suffering spinal-cord damage in the February attack. His location and that of his family are well guarded from those who still may want revenge, said a source close to the family.
“He should’ve died that evening,” the source said. “He is a great journalist, father and husband. He was courageous and searched for the truth. But no one has ever been brought to justice—and I don’t think anyone ever will.”
Other Nuevo Laredo journalists who became casualties of the drug war include:
In April 2005, radio journalist Guadalupe Garcia Escamilla was shot at least nine times outside her office and died a week later.
According to several sources inside the city, the cartels have blackmailed, threatened, killed and forced reporters to slant stories to the benefit of the drug kingpins.
“What people don’t realize was that Guadalupe was under the control of the cartels as well,” said a source with ties to El Manana. “She was spouting propaganda for the rival cartel. It was a planned attack to shut her up. They had already warned her with death threats in the past.”