Writer-at-large Cecilia Ballí discusses the plight of violence-ridden Nuevo Laredo.
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texasmonthly.com: How did you find people such as Lydia who were willing to talk to you?
Cecilia Ballí: It was somewhat difficult. Many of the people who have been victims of crime in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo prefer anonymity out of a concern for their safety, or else they want to put their experiences behind them because it is painful to recount them. I was lucky that Lydia (for safety reasons, some names in the original story have been changed), whose story I had heard various times in Laredo, is related to a former FBI agent. When I interviewed the agent, who is now a private investigator, and asked him to connect me to some of the people he knew who’d experienced crime, he gave me several phone numbers, including Lydia’s. She was the only one from the group who was willing to talk.
Although she, too, fears for her safety, she is indignant about what happened to her and believes in the importance of publicizing the crimes. In turn, she referred me to Sylvia and to Priscilla Cisneros, who provided the other two main narratives in my story. I was amazed by how one could take a single person in Laredo and trace a whole network of people in their life who’d been victimized. Both Sylvia and Priscilla were first hesitant to discuss their experiences with me. But between those three women’s stories, I thought I had a good sampling of the different kinds of attacks that have been transpiring in Nuevo Laredo.
texasmonthly.com: When you first interviewed Alejandro Domínguez Coello, did you plan to write on violence in Nuevo Laredo?
CB: Yes, I was already reporting my story. I interviewed Mr. Domínguez because he was the president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce and had been very vocal with the government and with the press on the issue of crime. He was concerned that tourists and other visitors were turning away, making it difficult for Nuevo Laredo’s downtown businesses to survive. I found out that Mr. Domínguez had been named chief of police the same night that I found out he’d been killed, so I was doubly surprised. My story was already written then. I had to go back and make some changes.
texasmonthly.com: How did it change your story to have one of your subjects murdered?
CB: During our conversation, Mr. Domínguez was trying to downplay the level and reach of crime in Nuevo Laredo. Although he agreed that the problem of impunity was real, he argued that only those involved in shady enterprises were being hit by the violence. His murder seemed to indicate the opposite. It was also telling that within the four months it took to report and research this story, one of my sources became another victim of crime. I was shocked by the news.
texasmonthly.com: Since a significant amount of your article relies on first-hand accounts, did you ever worry your interviewees were embellishing their stories?
CB: The three crime narratives in my story are presented as testimonies of sorts, meaning they are my sources’ recollections and interpretations of what happened to them, with all of the gray areas and emotional charge that that entails. This is why I even decided to present one of the three narratives, Sylvia’s story, as a very long, word-for-word quote, just as she had narrated her story to me. There was no way I could track down the men who kidnapped her family member and ask them to verify the chain of events. So as I stated, I like to think of these as first-hand testimonies, and the article is partly about how people survive and remember crime.
But I do have to say that so much of what the three women told me resonates with what law enforcement agents had shared with me about how the cartel operates. I think it would be difficult for them to entirely make up some of the chilling details they shared. I think the most telling of these commonalities is the fact that police were present in all three of the crime stories, and they either refused to do anything to help the victims, or they participated directly in the crimes. This supports the news reports that are now emerging indicating that at least half of the Nuevo Laredo police force was on the cartel’s payroll. The rest of the article—everything that has to do with the history and evolution of the cartel—was verified through multiple human and news sources.
texasmonthly.com: Is Nuevo Laredo a safe place for an American tourist?
CB: I would hate to answer that question definitively and have someone prove me wrong. What I can say is that until now not one of the victims of crime in Nuevo Laredo has been an American tourist or a Mexican tourist, for that matter. I can also say that I and many other journalists still venture into Nuevo Laredo. You have to practice some common sense about where you can go and when. But we’ll have to see how things evolve.
texasmonthly.com: Popular tourist stops such as Señor Frog’s have shut down. Are these closings due to the drug violence?
CB: I’m not sure if anyone can attribute the closings 100 percent to the drug violence. But it’s true that residents of Laredo and even of Nuevo Laredo stopped frequenting those clubs, leaving them all but dead. Señor Frog’s was the last place where at least one kidnapping victim was seen, and various sources told me that some of the cartel’s runners socialized there.
texasmonthly.com: Who is to blame here? Corrupt Mexican cops? Indifferent border patrols on both sides?
CB: That is a big question. The issue of the drug trade is one of those subjects that we can debate until we’re blue in the face. I think there’s no denying that corruption among Mexican law enforcement and government agents is a very serious problem. It is impossible to have a rule of law when your police and judges are working for someone other than the government.
But as a resident of the border, I am shocked by how freely people who are involved in the trade roam on both American and Mexican soil. I would argue that when it comes to drugs, there is a good measure of impunity in the United States, too, to the extent that the U.S. government doesn’t have the manpower or resources to profile everyone who is suspected of drug involvement. And, of course, there’s the larger question of how markets work. In this age of advanced capitalism and the global movement of goods, it’s difficult to expect the Mexican government alone to stem the flow of drugs when those drugs are worth so much as soon as they cross the border into the United States.
texasmonthly.com: What can be done to help fix this problem? Are Vicente Fox’s initiatives working?
CB: President Fox’s most recent operation, Safe Mexico, resulted in federal police raiding various homes in Nuevo Laredo and rescuing 44 kidnapping victims. They also found a ranch where it is assumed that some victims of the cartel had been killed and cremated—a tip that emerged when prosecutors questioned the rescued kidnapping victims. I believe these are signs that the Mexican government does have the capability to obtain and use drug intelligence for the better.
But there is still a question of will. This was the fourth time that President Fox had sent the army to Nuevo Laredo in six months, and the previous times he hadn’t achieved anything long-term or tangible. And even when the federal government’s top administrators have the willpower to combat the cartels, there is the bigger question of how they can keep the rank-and-file loyal and clean.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is a realistic timetable for returning control of Nuevo Laredo to state and local Mexican police?
CB: I don’t know. This depends on many factors, including most importantly how well the federal government learns to work with local and state police and how the governor of Tamaulipas and the mayor of Nuevo Laredo manage to clean out and re-staff their state and municipal police forces. The Mexican Congress is also in the process of changing federal law so that state governments have more power in directly fighting organized crime, which could be an important move. Right now, all crimes that are connected to the business of drugs fall strictly under the authority of the federal government.
texasmonthly.com: How is this violence affecting the average citizen on both sides of the border?
CB: I think people live with a sense of fear and instability. Their movement is restricted. Few residents socialize at night in Nuevo Laredo, and even sitting in a bar on the American side, you have to be cognizant of who’s around you. Laredo is definitely not a place right now where one can feel absolutely free. But at the same time, life does go on.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the media sensationalizes the problem in Nuevo Laredo?
CB: In some ways. The crimes are serious enough that they have to be reported. There is no way to get around the fact that the newly named police chief was murdered six hours after his swearing-in ceremony. But there are some news stories that do take the crimes out of context and do little to help the reader understand the complexity of the border and the implications of the crimes for its residents. The San Antonio Express-News published an excellent article on June 26 that described how it is possible that the people of Nuevo Laredo continue to live their lives while being constantly aware of their increasingly circumscribed spaces of safety. This, to me, is something the media should explore a little more.
texasmonthly.com: What in your reporter’s notebook couldn’t fit in the story?
CB: There was so much, I had many anecdotes that described how crime happens on both sides of the border. I also had a large, interesting section of notes about how the instability caused by drug crimes produces a whole economy of rumors on both sides of the border, that then influences how people live and how they understand what’s happening to their cities.