http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1904756,00.htmlDrug Gangs’ Kin Ensnared in Mexico Crackdown
In Mexican City, Drug War Ills Slip Into Shadows
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The reminders of Nuevo Laredo’s violent days still mar its streets
— bullet holes and the impacts of grenades where drug traffickers once flaunted their power,
boarded-up buildings of merchants who fled the lawlessness, and until they were leveled by
the government a few weeks ago, garish roadside shrines to Santa Muerte, the saint of death.
What makes Nuevo Laredo so remarkable now, however, is the relative calm that envelops
this border town, a small dose of good news in a country awash with bloodshed. Tamaulipas
State, where Nuevo Laredo is located, used to be ground zero in the country’s drug war, with
convoys of criminals riding through the streets as if they owned them and one of the highest
murder rates in the country. That distinction has since shifted farther west along the United
States-Mexico border to Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, where soldiers patrol the streets by the
thousands. But Nuevo Laredo’s transformation from war zone to regular town is not
necessarily what it seems. Organized crime has gone underground in Nuevo Laredo,
still feared, still thriving, but no longer in charge.
That uneasy peace may well be the best outcome Mexico can extract from its consuming drug
war, so Nuevo Laredo could be a glimpse of the country’s future. Government officials
acknowledge that their realistic goal is not to eliminate the outlaws, but to weaken them
to the point where something resembling everyday life can resume.
The government, which is in the midst of a vicious, countrywide battle with the cartels, played
a role in the newfound tranquillity by pouring soldiers into Nuevo Laredo, under President Felipe
Calderón and his predecessor, Vicente Fox. They took up positions around the city and took over
the police force, which was regarded as a corrupt adjunct of the cartels. But the army did not
actually defeat the traffickers here by rounding them up and putting them out of business. Rather,
law enforcement officials on both sides of the border say, a brutal, long-running turf war between
rival cartels came to an end when one side, the Gulf Cartel, came out on top. The added presence
of government troops made it harder for the rival Sinaloa Cartel to continue its quest to take over
Gulf territory. But many of the most-wanted criminals responsible for the violence got away and
continued their business trafficking drugs, in the shadows.
What has changed and what has not in this once-besieged border city are best seen through
the eyes of some of those who survived the darkest times.
A POLICE OFFICERWavering Allegiances
“I’ll never go back,” said Homero Villarreal, a former Mexican federal police officer who used
to investigate the cartels. Mr. Villarreal spoke from an Italian restaurant across the border in
Laredo, Tex., with his wife, Dora, at his side. They fled from Nuevo Laredo in 2005 after two
of their sons, who were in their 20s, were abducted by gunmen and not heard from again.
Mr. Villarreal is not sure exactly why his sons were singled out, although he acknowledges
that he, like many officers, accepted money from the cartels on occasion to look the other
way. He makes a firm distinction between the money he took not to act and the payments
that other officers took — and continue to take — to commit illegal acts themselves.
Mr. Villarreal has not been back since he fled because, he says, the traffickers who once ran
the city still lurk below the surface. Drugs continue to flow north, and money and guns return,
as recent seizures of huge shipments make clear. In recent weeks, the haul at the bridges
connecting Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, for example, has included nearly three tons of marijuana
and cocaine heading north, and two caches of weapons and ammunition, as well as $1 million
in cash going south.
Mr. Villarreal has joined a group called Laredo’s Missing to try to find out what happened to
his sons. Disappearances were commonplace in those days, and the police sometimes acted
in cahoots with the criminals, Mr. Villarreal said. “The cartels would call the police and say
they were looking for someone,” he said. “The police would find the person and turn him
over to the cartels, who would take him away.”
Those police officers who did not play along were killed. It was in June 2005, after a police
chief was killed hours after being sworn in, that the federal government of Mr. Fox launched
Operation Safe Mexico and sent hundreds of soldiers and federal police officers into Nuevo
Laredo. On their way to the city from the airport, the federal forces were fired upon by
none other than the municipal police
, which had all but turned into a protection force for
the drug cartels. Dozens of officers were arrested after that morning shootout, which left one
federal police officer wounded and offered a stark example of Nuevo Laredo’s lawlessness.
A scrubbing of the police began, with all 700 officers removed from their posts and investigated.
What brought the explosion of violence to an end, however, was not just revived law enforcement
but the fact that a long intercartel war over the lucrative transit route through Nuevo Laredo had
run its course. Some law enforcement officials say that the Gulf Cartel, backed up by a feared
paramilitary group, the Zetas, defeated its rivals from the Sinaloa Cartel outright and sent them
packing. Others say the cessation of hostilities was the result of a pact in which the Sinaloa Cartel,
unable to dislodge its rivals, agreed to pay what amounts to a transit tax for drugs that passed
through Tamaulipas. Emerging from the conflict stronger than ever were the Zetas, which now
operate semi-independently from the Gulf Cartel.
The soldiers stationed in an armored vehicle at one of the bridges connecting Laredo and Nuevo
Laredo are only a temporary solution, government officials say, until the police are able to handle
the outlaws on their own. That time has not yet come. “It’s quiet, but that doesn’t mean they’re
not around,” Mr. Villarreal said of the drug lords. “Believe me, they’re there.”
A JOURNALISTMuted Media
Long ago, journalists here stopped covering the drug violence in their backyard. They still do not.
They avoid mentioning the Zetas and would not even consider writing about one of the group’s
top men, Miguel Ángel Treviño, whom law enforcement officials hold responsible for much of
the bloodshed here.
When the Drug Enforcement Administration in April named Mr. Treviño and his younger brother
as 2 of the 11 most wanted Mexican fugitives, the local press took a pass. “We’re self-censored,”
said one Nuevo Laredo newspaper editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid
angering the outlaws. “We’re in the mouth of the wolf. We hope one day to again have the
freedom to publish what we want.”
Some papers did publish photographs recently of banners that the traffickers hung from overpasses
criticizing Mr. Calderón’s government for detaining the relatives of some drug traffickers. “Families
are sacred and should be respected,” the traffickers said, a gibe that the papers reported straight.
Army transgressions receive extensive coverage. In May, the military prosecutor’s office arrested
12 soldiers and said it would court-martial them on charges that they murdered three local
residents and then buried them in a hidden grave.
The editor says that the drug barons do not contact newspapers as much as they used to offering
suggestions, which were really not optional, on which articles should be printed and which should
not. But they continue to lurk in the background, issuing occasional threats to keep the news
media in line. They mean business. In 2006, the newspaper El Mañana was invaded by attackers,
who opened fire on the newsroom and hurled a grenade in as well. One journalist, struck in the
back by shrapnel, was paralyzed. The battle scars are still visible in that newsroom. Journalists
continue to be singled out, but in recent years they have been killed in other parts of the country.
“I’m concerned the problems could come back, but I’m not afraid anymore,” the editor said. “We’ve
all been through too much. Everyone. Society, little by little, is recovering its voice. They are talking
about what happened.”
A CHILDREN’S ADVOCATEOutlaw’s Philanthropy
On Children’s Day in 2004, tractor-trailers full of food and gifts pulled up outside the orphanage that
Guadalupe Carmona de González runs on the outskirts of the city. There were bags of rice, toys
galore and cakes in the shape of cartoon characters. The children were giddy and so was Ms. Carmona,
who founded Casa Hogar Elim in the mid-1980s with her own money.
Even after she learned that the donations were sent by one of the area’s most notorious drug dons,
Ms. Carmona remained thankful. “The gifts weren’t for me,” she said in a recent interview. “It was
for children who had nothing.”
The gift giver was Osiel Cárdenas, who was in a Mexican prison at the time, accused of being
the leader of the Gulf Cartel, which ran drug operations in Nuevo Laredo and points east. It was
his jailing, authorities say, that emboldened a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera,
who is known universally by the nickname El Chapo, or Shorty, to launch his bold and bloody
takeover attempt in Nuevo Laredo.
Mr. Guzmán failed. Mr. Cárdenas was eventually extradited to the United States, where he awaits
trial on drug trafficking charges. Filling the void were the Zetas, ruthless ex-soldiers who cared
much less about their public image than Mr. Cárdenas did and who sent no gifts to Ms. Carmona’s
orphanage, which now houses about 100 children.
Her chief patron now is the government, a normal state of affairs. Ms. Carmona credits Nuevo
Laredo’s mayor, Ramón Garza Barrios, with bringing air-conditioning to her orphanage, helping
to build a library and outfitting the children with school uniforms. Gone are the days when her
calls for the city to pave the road in front of her orphanage would go unheeded, and
Mr. Cárdenas would step in to hire a crew to do the job.
Mr. Garza was also one of the officials behind the destruction of the shrines to the saint of death,
worshiped by traffickers, which had been set up on the highways leading into Nuevo Laredo. He
banned the sale of images of the saint on public property. One of Mr. Garza’s spokesmen said
the mayor was so intent on eliminating Nuevo Laredo’s image as a drug haven that he would
not comment for any newspaper article on the subject.
Ms. Carmona, a religious woman, said she welcomed the government support. As for her former
patron, she said she never knew Mr. Cárdenas personally but appreciated his humanitarian gestures
and prayed for him during his travails. She agreed that drugs break up families and result in even
more orphans. But she was somewhat philosophical about those who were engaged in the business,
saying they were not evil people but were lured into the easy money by dire poverty.
“We’ve all committed sins,” she said.
A SHOPKEEPEREnduring Reputation
Nuevo Laredo’s violence may have calmed, but the border city’s reputation has not changed as quickly.
Nuevo Laredo is still frequently mentioned in the same breath as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, the more
That frustrates business owners like Jack Suneson, who sells Mexican artifacts, or rather tries to sell them,
from a stylish boutique in Nuevo Laredo. Customers are so few that he recently bought land in San Antonio
and is on the verge of closing his Mexican store, which his mother first opened in 1954. “I can’t begin to tell
you how bad business is,” he said inside his sprawling store, which was full of merchandise but not buyers.
The other day, he took a walk around his store, pointing out the events that took place on his block alone
during the dark days. There were the dead bodies — “There was one there,” he said, pointing down the
block. “And another there. You never knew when you’d come across another victim.” There were the
boarded-up buildings. Some were once well-known restaurants that catered to the Americans who used
to stream across the border for a taste of Mexico. Others were casinos that were similarly filled with
foreigners but closed their doors when cartels began demanding more and more in protection money.
Mr. Suneson said the cartels have always steered clear of his store. But the collection of taxes by the
criminals continues. In but one example, the pirated movies that are sold across the city bear stamps
from the particular organized crime group that produced them. Many movies carry a photograph of a
gold Hummer, referring, authorities say, to “El Hummer,” one of the top leaders of the Zetas in the
area until he was arrested in 2008.
“There’s a psychosis,” Mr. Suneson said of the fear that Americans still have about crossing the border
into Nuevo Laredo these days. “I won’t deny we had a bad period. I won’t say we weren’t in the middle
of a drug war. We were. But we shouldn’t be the poster child of violence in Mexico. We had our bad
period, and now it’s crept along somewhere else.”