IT WAS DUSK ONE EVENING IN FEBRUARY when Alejandro Domínguez Coello lit a series of cigarettes and philosophized about Nuevo Laredo’s crime problems in his raspy smoker’s voice. Except for a phone book, a coffee mug, a bottle of Tylenol, a calculator, and a cigarette lighter that lay on his desk, the office of the 55-year-old chamber of commerce president was barren. The freight-forwarding company he operated, part of his printing business, and his customs brokerage firm were all situated across the border in Laredo, as was his home. Like dozens of other chamber members, Domínguez had shifted some of his life to the American side to escape the drug gang turf war and the ensuing wave of violence that had gripped Nuevo Laredo since the summer of 2003.
“We’re the number one commercial port in all of Mexico,” he said, blowing out a lungful of smoke. He had silver hair, thick eyebrows, and a prickly mustache, and he wore gold chains around his neck and wrist. “We’re a magnet that attracts all of the importers and exporters, obviously legal commerce. But we can’t prevent the fact that this magnet also attracts bands of narcotraffickers and people who smuggle undocumented migrants.”
Domínguez was hopeful about the city’s odds of overcoming the drug lords. It all still seemed to him like a bad dream that would eventually end, nothing more than an unusually violent episode in the latest struggle for power and territory. As he spoke, he contemplated the problem of police corruption and the barriers that had been created by jurisdictional boundaries between Mexican law enforcement groups. He described how the mayor had been working to clean up the police force and how every neighborhood needed to be patrolled by a local cop to deter crime. But, he assured me, “The problem is no more serious than in New York or Chicago. I go and come all the time to Laredo, Texas, and to this day, I personally haven’t been stopped, kidnapped, bothered, or caught up in gunfire.”
Four months later, on June 8, Domínguez surprised the Nuevo Laredo business community when he stepped down as chamber president after the mayor named him chief of police, a job nobody had been willing to accept for more than a month. That same evening, he left the downtown office where we had last talked and got behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 pickup. A vehicle pulled up next to him, and the crack of an AR-15 assault rifle ripped through the air. Domínguez was shot more than thirty times. The new police chief died in the driver’s seat, his white shirt shredded by bullets, his chest and chin bathed in blood.
His murder is only the latest example of the escalating violence that has taken place in 2005, which promises to be the deadliest year in Nuevo Laredo’s history. Seventy-seven people, including six other cops, have been murdered in the Mexican border city, many of them gang-style like Domínguez . The U.S. State Department has issued two warnings to American travelers venturing across the Texas border, and Mexican President Vicente Fox has sent in the army four times in six months. The violence has continued unabated now for two years, yet since last fall, there has been a palpable increase in its reach. More and more American citizens, some with no apparent ties to the drug world, are being caught up in the horror, proving how deeply entrenched the drug trade has become on both sides of the border. Of the 173 people who have disappeared in the state of Tamaulipas, 42 have been from Laredo. Many border residents are now asking themselves: Just how many degrees of separation does anyone here really have from the underworld?
LYDIA WAS SITTING BEFORE AN ORNATE GLASS dining table in her condominium on the north side of Laredo when I met her, her shapely legs crossed, her foot swaying in a hot-pink slipper. She is a striking woman with heavy cheekbones, deep eyes, and a thick mane of black hair that grazes her shoulders. She wore short jean shorts and a bright-colored tank top. When she spoke, she sometimes rapped the table with her long fingernails for emphasis. Lydia (for safety reasons, some names in this story have been changed) had recently survived a terrifying experience in Nuevo Laredo. “I’ll give you my story,” she had told me in her low, unself-consciously seductive voice when we spoke over the phone, “but only if you write that my insurance has put me through hell.”
A no-nonsense woman who speaks her mind, Lydia is a schoolteacher in one of Laredo’s rougher neighborhoods. “I work at a tough school, so I know the walk, the talk, and the whole shebang,” she told me with a laugh that filled the room. A divorcée and a disciplined nickel-squeezer, every birthday she rewards herself with a big present. Last May, in honor of her thirty-sixth year, she bought a brand-new, diamond-black Mercedes C230 Kompressor sedan. “I bought the loaded version, honey. I didn’t skip out on anything,” she said.
One Saturday night, just after New Year’s, Lydia was out with her friend Claudia and her nephew Hector at a Laredo club called 57th Street. They had been there about an hour when Claudia announced that she wanted to join one of her friends from the club who had an unopened bottle of expensive scotch and was heading to another club in Nuevo Laredo.
Lydia was hesitant about going with them. She hardly crossed the border anymore. In the previous six months, she’d gone into Nuevo Laredo just four or five times, to buy things she couldn’t get in Laredo, like cheap medicines and good avocados. “I don’t want to go in my car,” Lydia told her niece Christina, a slim 21-year-old who had joined the group. “I’ve heard over there they’re killing for free.” But Claudia was persistent. “He who owes nothing has nothing to fear,” she said snidely.