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City's crime creeps to twin

As abductions of Americans mount, two cities known as the site of the "two-nation vacation" now share drug war stories.

Published May 9, 2005

[Times photos: John Pendygraft]
Guadalupe Garcia's brother, Hector Contreras Escamilla, left, her son, Luis Garcia, and a family friend look at Garcia's coffin before the police reporter's body is taken to be cremated after her funeral April 19 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Garcia was killed outside the Stereo 91 radio station.

Pablo and Priscilla Cisneros pose with a missing persons poster of their daughter, Brenda, and Yvette Martinez.

A Mexican flag marks the crossing point between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

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.

The violence had been contained to Mexico, but the drug war increasingly is creeping across the border. The abductions are straining relations between the twin cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, long known affectionately as " "los dos Laredos ."

Late last month, the State Department issued an unusually blunt travel advisory confirming that more than 30 Americans have been kidnapped or murdered in the past eight months in Nuevo Laredo. "U.S. citizens are urged to be especially aware of safety and security concerns when visiting the border region," it stated. "While the overwhelming majority of victims of these crimes are Mexican citizens, U.S. citizens nonetheless should be aware of the risk posed by this uncertain security situation."

The Mexican city is bigger (population 350,000) than the American (200,000). A five-minute walk across the international pedestrian bridge that spans the muddy green waters of the Rio Grande is all that separates their downtown shopping districts.

For years the bridge afforded tourists what Laredo city officials dubbed the world's most affordable "two-nation vacation."

"I've been coming here for more than 20 years. I love this place," said Solly Hemus, a sprightly 82-year-old Houston oil executive.

Each year during an oil scouts convention he and his wife walk the bridge to Nuevo Laredo's tourism district to sample the fine dining at El Dorado and the famous Cadillac bar. After lunch they stroll through the shady Plaza Juarez to shop at Marti's, an elegant boutique that sells Mexican jewelry and ornaments.

At day's end they deposit 30 cents to pass through the turnstiles on the bridge back into Laredo.

With three other bridges open to commercial traffic by road and rail, the Laredo crossing has become the busiest inland trading port along the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

For some, the trip is business, as American companies have set up shop on the Mexican side, where labor costs are cheaper. For others it's personal. Generations of cross-border integration mean many families have relatives on both sides. Some cross over to Nuevo Laredo to fill prescriptions, visit the dentist or get eyeglasses, all of which are less expensive in Mexico.

Mexico's famously lax drinking laws lure American teenagers to the bars and clubs.

It was into that scene that Brenda Cisneros and 27-year-old Yvette Martinez ventured. They had tickets to a concert featuring a popular ranchero singer, Pepe Aguilar, a surprise treat Martinez arranged for her friend.

From cartels to cartelitos

The families and police suspect the women ran into a bad crowd, probably linked to local traffickers.

"We heard later that a bunch of 70 armed men dressed in black uniforms turned up at the concert," said William Slemaker, Martinez's stepfather.

Slemaker, a railroad worker who speaks fluent Spanish, filed a missing persons report with police in Nuevo Laredo. Pablo Cisneros, a U.S. citizen who was raised in Nuevo Laredo, went with him.

Unsatisfied with the cooperation of Mexican police, the two fathers began their own investigation. Said Slemaker: "Every day I would go to Nuevo Laredo and cruise up and down the streets hoping to see her car," a pearl-white Mitsubishi.

He received a tip in October from police in Laredo to check out a towing company that worked with the Nuevo Laredo police department. Sure enough, a few days later he found the Mitsubishi tucked away in the back of a yonke (junkyard).

Towing company records showed that the car had been picked up from the police a month after the women vanished. A form bore the signature of the duty police officer. But when Slemaker checked the police logs, he found no mention of the vehicle.

Nuevo Laredo's director of Public Security, Jose Valdez, declined to discuss the case of the missing Americans. "That's out of our hands. It's being investigated by federal authorities," he said.

But Slemaker and Cisneros are convinced of a police coverup. "Basically, it's a crime for beautiful young women to be walking the streets of Nuevo Laredo," said Slemaker.

Mexico's drug wars had mostly left the Laredos untouched. After Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000, Mexico improved coordination with U.S. drug agents and cracked down on the major cartels. That success fragmented them into smaller cartelitos.

"Fox's government has had major success in going after high-level trafficking," said Bruce Bagley, a drug policy expert at the University of Miami. "But the move from cartels to cartelitos has produced a free-wheeling warfare for turf and routes in which people are being killed on all sides. It's happening all over the country, and the border is the choke point."

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."

Last year, the news editor of El Manana, the city's main daily paper, was stabbed outside his home. Roberto Mora was well known for writing stinging criticism of local government corruption. One of the men suspected in his killing was murdered in jail after saying he had been tortured into signing a confession.

"Nothing like that ever happened before here. It changed all our lives," said Ramon Cantu, El Manana 's publisher. "Now we are censoring ourselves. We don't investigate. We don't speculate. We just report what happened."

More brazen was the recent murder of Guadalupe Garcia, a police reporter for the main Nuevo Laredo radio station, Stereo 91. She was gunned down outside the station's office in the city center.

A security camera captured images of a lone gunman lying in wait outside the station when she drove up. She had just filed a report on the assassination of a prominent attorney.

Garcia's crime reporting won her high ratings and numerous death threats. Reporters say intimidation is common; several described a favored tactic of traffickers, who pick up reporters for a ride around town with a pistol in their ribs.

"It's like the Italian Mafia," said the FBI's Fontes. "They are victimizing an entire community."

City Hall downplays the violence.

"The media are being very alarmist," said the mayor's spokesman, Ramberto Salinas, 35, clutching the morning newspaper, with gruesome front page pictures of a bloody, bullet-riddled body in a bar. "They are doing the city a disservice. Sure, there's a drug war. But it's between traffickers. The tourists go home safe and sound."

Salinas and other city officials suggested most of the victims had only themselves to blame. They like to quote a saying oft heard in Nuevo Laredo, " "Quien anda mal, termina mal ," which translates roughly as: Bad things happen to people who deserve it.

Know where to go

In the Plaza Juarez, a shady square lined by souvenir shops and bars, three despondent young city tourism promoters sat on a park bench. Most American visitors shunned them, despite valiant efforts to offer assistance in fluent English.

"The tourists are scared of us," said Alfonso Lopez, 21, wearing a brightly printed baseball cap and T-shirt identifying him with the city tourism office. "They see someone in uniform, and they think we are going to ask for a bribe."

The city is safe for tourists by day, they said, though visitors should steer clear of the local clubs.

"I hardly go out at night, just to family gatherings," said Lopez. "I don't go to bars or clubs. That's asking for trouble."

Local familiarity is key. "If you live here, you know where to go and where not to go. You see a certain type of car or person and you know to stay out of their way," said Lopez's colleague, Ivonne Alarcon, 19.

As if on cue, a late model king-cab pickup passed the square blasting ranchera music. The three tourism promoters swiveled their heads and offered a knowing look.

Across the Rio Grande, the other Laredo is battling an image crisis, as well. Last year a survey of living conditions in 331 U.S. cities ranked Laredo No.331.

Laredo is trying to support its neighbor but keep its distance from the violence.

"We are working very closely with Nuevo Laredo because we are los dos Laredos, but the river is widening," said Clema Owen, 60, chair of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce. "This is a Mexican issue. They have created a monster, and they are going to have to find a way to tame the monster."

Laredo has mostly turned its back on the parents of the missing, suggesting that most of the disappearances were the result of ties to the drug trade. The families bitterly reject such insinuations.

Brenda Cisneros' parents say they were close to their daughter, who lived at home and was studying at Laredo Community College. They said she liked to visit clubs but rarely crossed the border.

Yvette Martinez led a more complicated social life. Her husband, from whom she is separated, is serving 12 years on drug money-laundering charges.

Her stepfather admits she made mistakes early in her life, but defends her passionately. "She was a lovely, go-get girl, a very confident young woman," he said, a dedicated mother raising two young girls on her own.

"They say she was into bad things. Well, if that's the case, press charges against my girl instead of slandering her name."

The families have started a campaign to alert parents to the dangers for youths who stray from Nuevo Laredo's tourist district.

A silent protest on the bridge was joined by Mexican families who also have suffered kidnappings. They have written open letters to President Bush and Mexico's first lady.

"I just want my daughter back, dead or alive," said Pablo Cisneros. "We won't give up until the kidnappers are tired of hearing our voices."

--David Adams can be reached at

[Last modified May 9, 2005, 01:54:14]

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