Borderline Insanity

In what is shaping up to be the deadliest year in Nuevo Laredo’s history, 77 people have died in Mexico’s drug cartel turf war. Now the violence is seeping into Texas.

August 2005By Comments

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. Christina, meanwhile, refused to drive her own sports car into Mexico, and Hector had a pickup, which was not big enough to fit the group. After reviewing her options and remembering the promise of free scotch, Lydia finally relented. The four of them loaded into her Mercedes and rolled down the highway to the international bridge. When they arrived in Nuevo Laredo, Hector struck a deal with a parking lot attendant. “Here’s five extra dollars if you guard it with your life,” he said, motioning to the Mercedes.

Inside Señor Frog’s, a neon-splashed bar with oversized drinks whose names read like alcoholic snow cones, the music was pounding. It was close to three o’clock in the morning when they arrived. Lydia immediately spotted some men Claudia had been talking to at 57th Street. Drug dealers, she thought. It was a distinction she’d learned to make automatically from years of living on the border. Who else wears gold chains that could pull trucks? Lydia recognized one of the men as Miguel, a friend of Claudia’s who lived in a neighborhood near Lydia’s. Rumor had it that Miguel and his friends were runners for a notoriously violent arm of the Gulf Cartel. Claudia had brought him over once, and when he’d seen Lydia’s new Mercedes, he’d sneered and said, “I’ll give you five hundred dollars for your car. All you have to do is claim the insurance.”

Claudia joined Miguel and the rest of his group on the other side of the bar. A few minutes later, a strapping young man in his early twenties named Robert walked up to Christina with tears in his eyes. He said one of the men with Claudia had elbowed his face because he was talking with one of Claudia’s girlfriends. Christina was livid. She bounded over to the offender and elbowed him. “What’s wrong with you?” she snapped. Lydia was relieved when Claudia came up and suggested that they drive about four blocks to a different bar, called Luxor. But when they arrived, Lydia spotted the same bunch of men and realized that this was a group trip. Luxor seemed even shadier to her than the previous two clubs. “Oh, my God,” she said to Christina. “Drug dealer galore.”

Lydia had just made herself comfortable when Claudia approached her. “I need your car key,” she said. “I’m leaving with Miguel, and I need to get my keys out of your car.” Lydia replied, “I don’t have it. Go ask Hector.” Hector arrived a few minutes later. “Claudia wants to get her keys out of your car,” he said. “Should I go with her?” Lydia shrugged. “Let her get her own keys.”

“You don’t want me to go with her?” Hector asked.

“No. Just give it to her.”

Fifteen minutes later, Lydia glimpsed Claudia, who had supposedly left the club. She panicked, sensing immediately that something had gone wrong. “What happened?!” she barked at Claudia, but her friend’s face was blank. “Where is the key to my car?”

“Miguel has it,” Claudia said.

Lydia shouted a string of curse words and derogatory names. She followed Miguel, who began to head out of the club when he saw her face. Lydia stepped outside and noticed that her car was gone. Her heart stopped. She spotted a pickup parked nearby with at least eight policemen with assault rifles in the cab and in the bed. “Hey, I need your help!” she shouted desperately. But none of them moved; it was as though she had never opened her mouth.

“What’s going on here?!” Lydia yelled as she pursued Miguel, who was now striding across the street. “Please, give me my car. Look, you’re a drug dealer. You have tons of money. I’m an educator.”

Miguel smirked. “The police put a gun to my head and took your car,” he said.

Hector had followed Lydia out of the club and was now surrounded by Miguel’s friends. They were standing at the rear of the club’s parking lot, near a dark alleyway. Lydia heard the ring of cell phones all around her, as about ten men began to emerge from the shadows, as if they had been summoned.

“I’m an American citizen!” Lydia said. “You’re violating my rights!” The men laughed.

Her blood was boiling, and she was trying to think of the worst words she could use for self-defense. “You’re all pieces of shit!” she shouted at them, using the loaded Spanish word mierda. “I’m somebody in the United States!” She remembered how close she was to the border. She turned to her nephew and said in the most threatening tone she could muster: “F— all this shit! Dial 9-1-1 and see if these f—ers won’t listen to me.”

One of them pulled out a gun.

THE CITIZENS OF NUEVO LAREDO have witnessed the violent effects of organized crime for more than twenty years. In the eighties, a group called Los Texas ruled much of the territory in the city, but they were more interested in smuggling immigrants than drugs. At the time, the violence they caused was mostly small-scale, and there were implicit agreements between local gangs that women and children were not to be hurt. That began to change in the mid-nineties, when the well-organized Mexican drug cartels, armed with assault rifles and heavier weapons, began reaching their tentacles into the city. One of the most powerful was the Gulf Cartel, headquartered only two hundred miles down the Rio Grande in Matamoros. When its new leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, stepped into power in 1996, the style of the cartel shifted dramatically. Victims were no longer shot and abandoned on the street; now they were often tortured gruesomely and sometimes incinerated.

Cárdenas had a wide jaw, protruding ears, a receding hairline, and a menacing stare. He was a former federal police officer and a native of Matamoros. Unlike his predecessors, he was known for his abnormally defiant and vicious streak; according to federal authorities, he ordered his own boss shot so that he could take over the cartel’s operations. From his new perch, he came to understand the importance of Nuevo Laredo. U.S.-Mexico trade was increasing, and more and more eighteen-wheelers were rumbling across the international land port. The financial stakes within the drug business had grown too. Cárdenas inherited a $2 billion cocaine business with ties to the Cali Cartel in Colombia, and he continued to expand it. He co-opted fourteen federal special-forces agents who’d been sent by the Mexican government to the border to fight organized crime. They were part of a larger group—the equivalent of the U.S. Navy Seals—that had received training in small-group tactics, mission planning, aerial assaults, and sophisticated communications methods at army bases throughout the world, including the United States. The men became Cárdenas’s enforcers and dubbed themselves Los Zetas, after their radio code name. With time, their ranks would multiply, and they’d become the most mythologized gang on the border.

Cárdenas extended the reaches of the Gulf Cartel in unprecedented ways. His operation evolved into an elaborate nexus of criminals, cops, politicians, and businessmen who controlled every form of contraband, from drugs to weapons to migrants to cars to fine jewelry—even used clothing. Anybody who wanted to dabble in these enterprises had to pay the organization. The money was funneled to Matamoros, where the group’s leaders took care of sending some of the cash to high-ranking government officials for protection. At a minimum, dozens of local and state police officers were put directly on the cartel’s payroll, with payments determined by their rank and their usefulness to the group. The Zetas also controlled their physical territory. They carved up cities into sectors and placed lookouts on main roads and at airports, police and bus stations, and government offices. They purchased sophisticated wiretapping devices and bought off their prey’s cell phone codes from phone companies and service providers. Information became a priceless source of power. Cárdenas also understood the importance of the media, and his men began monitoring and kidnapping journalists.

In 2000, when President Fox’s administration came to power, the Gulf Cartel faced its first serious law enforcement threat. Fox announced that he was unleashing “the mother of all battles” against Mexico’s drug traffickers. His team shared intelligence with the DEA and began arresting high-profile leaders from at least four major drug groups. Mexican federal agents raided one of the Zetas’ properties in Nuevo Laredo and discovered a twelve-page list of payees who were receiving anywhere from $300 to $1,500 a week, including two commanders and a supervisor from the Nuevo Laredo police department. Cárdenas became ever more insolent. He directly threatened U.S. drug agents, Mexican army leaders, and the federal attorney general, and he instituted a style reminiscent of Colombia, where the drug trade had flowered in opposition to the government—not, as in Mexico, in collusion with it. But on March 14, 2003, a shoot-out erupted in downtown Matamoros, and the unthinkable happened. Cárdenas finally became a hostage of the government.

Drug agents and border residents cheered the president. But in retrospect, Fox’s seemingly heroic action produced a power vacuum, one that some have dubbed the “gelatin effect”: The once highly organized Gulf Cartel was left leaderless and in disarray. The Zetas shifted from enforcing for Cárdenas to moving their own drugs. Confusion ruled the streets, especially in Nuevo Laredo, where most of the men left to run the cartel’s operations were young, irreverent, and inexperienced. Ranging from their mid-twenties to early thirties, they were criminals whose résumés consisted mainly of using drugs and stealing cars. Overnight, they became bosses. They began taxing, kidnapping, and extorting whom they could, and any remaining boundaries of respect toward certain citizens of the border were quickly forgotten.

WHEN SHE SAW THE GUN, Lydia’s body froze,but the words that tumbled out of her mouth would later make her roar with laughter. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know you had guns!” she blurted. “Please, please, please. If you want the car, it’s yours.”

She saw the man point the gun at her, and she saw her nephew grab the man’s arm and the gun. She remembers thinking: “One of them is going to die.” It occurred to her to change her strategy, and she considered trying to negotiate with the criminals. But her voice was still pleading. “I’ll give you whatever you want!”

“Shut your mouth, you whore.”

Another man leaped forward with a gun in his hand and smacked Hector across the brow. He stumbled forward, and Lydia caught him to keep him from falling. His blood spattered her white blouse. In the dizzying blur of events, she had a gruesome vision. She pictured herself on the ground, dead. Then she pictured something different. She saw the face of Priscilla Cisneros’s daughter.

At the time, Lydia knew Priscilla simply as Ms. Cisneros, a colleague she’d met at a school in her district. For the past three months, a chilling story had circulated quietly among Laredo teachers that in September, Priscilla’s daughter, Brenda, had been kidnapped with her friend Yvette Martinez across the border.

The disappearance of the two American women in Nuevo Laredo would eventually make headlines all over the U.S. and be a featured story on CNN, America’s Most Wanted, and Geraldo. But that fall, the incident was still only local news, and Lydia had not talked to Priscilla about it. After Brenda’s disappearance, Priscilla spent most of her time at work inside her small, spare office. When she walked out, she smiled at her co-workers meekly. Every morning, she woke up with the agonizing question of whether Brenda might return that day.

Brenda was a business accounting student at Laredo Community College. The last night her family spent with her, they were celebrating her twenty-third birthday at Logan’s Roadhouse in Laredo. Afterward, her friend Yvette, an attractive 27-year-old mother of two, had said she wanted to take her out. In the Logan’s parking lot, Brenda fished for her driver’s license and some cash, then handed her purse to her mother. She told her they were going to a club called Graham Central Station and waved good-bye with a smile.

But Brenda and Yvette did not visit the club that night. Instead, they crossed the border and attended a concert in Nuevo Laredo featuring Mexican singer Pepe Aguilar, whom Brenda admired. Yvette had apparently surprised her friend with the tickets. After the show, the women were supposed to have met up with a male friend of Yvette’s at a makeshift nightclub on the fairgrounds where the concert took place, but he never showed. The same young man—to date, his identity remains unknown—reached Yvette on her cell phone as she and Brenda drove back home at roughly four-fifteen in the morning on September 18. They were about five blocks from crossing the international bridge when her phone rang. That’s the last anyone heard of them.

After weeks of searching for clues, Yvette’s stepfather, William Slemaker, found her pearl-white Mitsubishi Galant in a towing yard in Nuevo Laredo. The towing company’s workers said that they’d picked up the car from the local police station under orders from the cops themselves. But when Slemaker spoke to the police, they denied having any record of the vehicle. There were no clues inside the car that would point to the women’s fate, but there were two fresh dents on its rear bumper that suggested someone may have bumped them from behind until they stopped the car. Their families concluded that this must have transpired shortly after Yvette received the mystery phone call from her friend. But to this day, no other clues have been uncovered.

After the women’s disappearance, Yvette’s and Brenda’s parents searched out other kidnapping victims’ families and organized a group called Laredo’s Missing. They presented their cases to law enforcement authorities and created a Web site and billboards asking the public for tips. When I spoke with Priscilla in March, she was tired of the press. Still, she continued to hope that the next journalist might be the angel who would somehow deliver her message to her daughter’s captors. “I don’t want to know who you are or why you did it,” she said, as though she were speaking to them directly. “Simply put her on the phone.” She finished our interview with a weary plea. “If I could talk to President Fox or President George Bush, I would tell them, ‘Please. Do something on our borders. Because they are no longer secure.’”

FIVE MONTHS AFTER OSIEL CÁRDENAS GUILLÁN’S ARREST, downtown Nuevo Laredo was momentarily paralyzed by what seemed like a war scene. It was a little past two in the morning on August 1, 2003, when a group of agents from the Agencia Federal de Investigaciones, the Mexican counterpart to the FBI, came across a convoy of late-model sport utility vehicles and tried to stop them for interrogation. The passengers, dressed head-to-toe in black, fired at the federal cops with assault rifles. The agents radioed desperately for help, and local police and the army came to their aid. The police returned fire at the men in the SUVs. Two of the cars’ gas tanks exploded with the hits, killing the drivers. The shoot-out, which occurred in the heart of downtown, lasted nearly an hour and was carried over to at least one other street intersection. Three men were killed, six were injured, and seven were detained. An investigation concluded that the armed convoy had belonged to a group allied with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a notorious and dangerous drug lord from Sinaloa, the birthplace of the Mexican drug mafia. It was the beginning of the turf war between El Chapo’s men and the Zetas for control of Nuevo Laredo.

“That was the day we lost our peace,” said Raymundo Ramos, a freelance journalist and human rights worker, recalling the shoot-out as he pulled out the day’s newspaper. We were sitting in a small office with peach-colored walls and maroon lace curtains that houses his human rights organization, Comité de Derechos Humanos Grupo 5 de Febrero. Its domesticity contrasted sharply with the ghastly photos of bloodied bodies that appeared on Ramos’s computer screen. “You tell me if you wouldn’t need psychological help to overcome this,” he said as he ran his mouse over the pictures. The images showed all the signatures of the business: the plastic bag, the silver duct tape. But instead of faces, there were red masses of flesh and brains. Ramos explained each photo as he clicked through them: This one was buried alive. This one had his head busted with an iron bar. This one had his mouth and nose taped up. Before he founded his organization, Ramos had worked for El Mañana,Nuevo Laredo’s largest newspaper, for more than a decade. During that time, the most shocking image he’d ever come across was a stabbing victim. “We’d never experienced the bazooka; now we have,” he said. “We’d never experienced shoot-outs in restaurants; now we have. What message do you send a society when you find a group of victims murdered in such a violent way? What is this group of people trying to sell? Terror, terror, terror.”

The spread of fear has been a potent method of social control. Locals say that some federal agents assigned to Nuevo Laredo have opted to resign from their jobs rather than move to this part of the border. From the infamous La Palma maximum-security prison near Mexico City, Cárdenas continues to manage his empire. He employs prison guards and attorneys, uses cell phones to communicate with his people, and negotiates with leaders of other cartels who are being held in the same prison, sometimes in adjoining cells. Fox’s plan of taking out the cartels’ heads has accomplished little on the streets or among local and state police, where corruption and secret alliances still flourish. Although he sent federal troops to the border several times in the first months of 2005, the rampant corruption among local law enforcement and state authorities made cooperation impossible. And perhaps the most disconcerting fact about the recent deluge of violence is its unabashedly democratic nature; even the cops are dying, including four police commanders by mid-June. FBI agents say those policemen had most likely aligned themselves with one of the battling groups and paid the price.

On the U.S. side of the border, an entire infrastructure of financial and human capital supports the trade. In Laredo, there is a surplus of young males looking for work. With few traditional job or educational prospects, they are no less easily lured by the promise of riches than those wealthy businessmen whose banking and trade businesses are tainted by drug money. The Zetas have formed alliances with major prison gangs in South Texas, including the Mexican Mafia, the Hermandad de Pistoleros Latinos, and the Texas Syndicate. In turn, these groups hire juvenile gangs from Laredo and other border cities to move drugs, pose as lookouts, execute drive-by shootings, and steal. In this way, the narcotics trade has become a very American, very local crime problem that lately has emulated the style of the Mexicans’. Laredo police have raided homes where they’ve confiscated high-caliber weapons, as well as assault rifles, and have rescued kidnapping victims. Already in 2005, the city has witnessed at least nine drug-related murders, some of them resembling the gang-style executions of Nuevo Laredo. And although the United States has a vastly more effective law enforcement system and a rule of law, impunity related to drug crimes is a problem here too. Most of the homicides in Laredo that appear to be drug-related remain unsolved. “These people are hiring hit men from somewhere else,” Laredo police lieutenant Jesus Torres, who is in charge of investigating kidnappings and homicides, told me. “They’re complete strangers. They move on to another city. They just completely disappear off the face of Laredo.”

“If before we were only twenty, now I’ve lost count./Disposed to die, they know us as Zetas./We’ve earned our position, that’s why we’re respected.” This ballad, sung in a nasal voice to the raw riffs of an accordion, is recorded on a CD that sells in the street markets of the border. It contains nineteen swaggering songs that describe the history and workings of the Zetas. They document perhaps most faithfully the vast cultural transformation that is unfolding in tandem with the crime on the South Texas—Mexico border. An army of young men nicknamed the Zetitas, or Zetillas, has coalesced in Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo, where members do odd jobs for the cartel in hopes of climbing up the ranks and tasting power and money in a way that never seemed possible in their low-end, dead-end lives. The struggle to control the trade is also a class war, a hybrid of American economic promise and Mexican-style justice. It is the poor imitating the lifestyle and business strategies of the rich. They have bought homes in the most expensive neighborhoods in Nuevo Laredo, which they use as stash houses or meeting places, sending the original residents scurrying quietly across the border. They are stealing and driving the upper crust’s cars. These new gang leaders have little tolerance for rich kids or for anyone who they think might be encroaching on their turf.

PRISCILLA CISNEROS wasn’t the only person Lydia knew who had been caught up in the random violence. One afternoon I visited Sylvia, who manages the building where Lydia lives. Like other women of her class in Laredo, she was very put together, with curls folded into her golden-brown hair and blue eyeshadow brushed over her eyelids. She recounted the December day, just a few weeks before Lydia was held at gunpoint, when her 22-year-old nephew lived the most frightening day of his life. As she told the story, her voice ran a range of volumes, at times reaching an extremely high, barely audible pitch.

“My nephew’s got a home in Sabinas Hidalgo, which is a town near Monterrey, but he also owns property here in Laredo. His family owns a forwarding agency—you know, the trailers, the import and export. He had been taking courses at TAMIU [Texas A&M International University], and he finished a course, his English course. So he says, you know what, I’m going to start doing the business here in Laredo—all the business that goes into Mexico. And the family in Mexico ship the merchandise over to the U.S.

“It was mid-December when he was coming to Laredo from Sabinas. He was driving a Grand Marquis. I guess it was probably a 2002. He was coming on Degollado Avenue, and a cop just puts on the lights and stops him. This was daylight. It was probably about three-thirty, four o’clock. And he’s freaking out: Why are they stopping me? [The policeman] radioes in some other officers—well, my nephew’s thinking they’re officers. All of a sudden, an unmarked car gets behind him so he couldn’t move backward, and a guy gets out and opens his door with a machine gun. You see how the police are involved in this?

“The guy comes over with an AK-47 and sits right next to [my nephew] and says, ‘Let’s go.’ In my nephew’s car. ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ My nephew says, ‘What’s going on? What have I done?’ He says: ‘Let’s go.’ He had him driving for two hours around Nuevo Laredo. Right around five-thirty, when it started getting dark, he says, ‘Turn here. Go here. Go there. Go there.’ And he took him into the ranches. My nephew didn’t know where he was going. He doesn’t know Nuevo Laredo.

“It was pitch-black, and they drove him into, like, a warehouse. They asked him to get down, and they asked for his little credential for voting—your picture identification in Mexico. And so they start interrogating him and all this go-around. There was a bunch of men, older men around him at this warehouse out in the boonies. They start asking him all these questions, and it was the same questions: Who’s your father? Who’s your mother? What do you do? Where do you live? The same questions, over and over. Kind of like what cops do to try to get the truth out of you, and if you mess up, they know that you’re lying. He says all these were cops that had gone bad. None of them were dressed in uniform, only the one that stopped him. He kept thinking, ‘I can’t mess up.’ He started crying. He said, ‘God, help me. I can’t mess up.’

“Finally, they grabbed his cell and they started going down his directory. And he thinks that the one that saved him was his grandmother. Because he had Tío I-Don’t-Know-What and Tía I-Don’t-Know-What and just different names of uncles and aunts and nieces and whatever. And then finally, it said, ‘Abuelita.’ ‘Grandmother’? They said, ‘You know what? This is a momma’s boy.’ But, of course, they used the word cabrón. ‘This guy is nothing but a joto,a faggot.’ Like he doesn’t amount to anything. By that time, they had already hit him here in the back with a gun—oh, they had guns, machine guns all around him. And they kept on asking him who he worked for. He said, ‘All I do—I have a forwarding agency.’ He told them, ‘That’s all I do, and it’s my parents’, and I’m on dispatch, trying to get customers. I’m the one who connects the U.S. to the Mexican side.’

“They hit him in the back, and he made sure he wouldn’t fall because he kept on thinking, ‘If I fall, they’re going to get me on the ground.’ So he never fell, but they kept on kicking him. Finally, they threw the cell on the floor, together with the ID. They told him, ‘Hurry up and leave, before we kill you.’ So right away he fell to the ground and grabbed his stuff. And they’re going, ‘Go, go, go!’ Like, ‘Hurry, hurry!’ He was all nervous. He grabbed his things, and then he went into his car and turned it on. This was late. Six-thirty or seven o’clock. By the time he reached the road, he didn’t know where he was at. He was freaking out, crying and crying. Finally, he saw some lights far away. So he started heading towards those lights, and he was able to get to Nuevo Laredo.

“The next day, his mother came into my office, crying. It was as if they had just murdered her son. She was so scared of how she was seeing him. He couldn’t go in the car. He was 21 at the time. He’s young, but it just hit him real bad.

“What I found out—or what I think, from talking to people—I heard that in the Zetas, there’s a lot of young kids involved in their twenties, and very good-looking. Like, there’s ‘La Barbie,’ and they call him La Barbie because he’s so good-looking. He’s murdered many, many other ones. His name has come up a lot. My nephew is also very handsome. And they said that at that time, [the police and rival gangs] were checking any young, good-looking kids with nice vehicles, just stopping them at random to say, ‘Hey, what the heck?’”

THE BUSINESS OWNERS I spoke with in Nuevo Laredo were deeply frustrated over their city’s deteriorating image. While they agreed that the drug war violence had wreaked havoc on their lives, they argued that it had not affected any tourists. They blamed the U.S. government and the media for scaring away visitors and demanded nuanced news coverage, reports that would help outsiders understand the issue of security on the border in all of its complexity. “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t say what’s happening,’” said Jack Suneson, a perfectly bilingual Mexico native who sells high-end handcrafted furniture, clothes, jewelry, and pottery out of a 24,000-square-foot downtown store called Marti’s. “It’s how you say what’s happening that really makes a big difference.” Suneson pulled out an advertisement that he had clipped from the San Antonio Express-News, which touted a news report on Nuevo Laredo done by one of San Antonio’s television stations. The teaser declared the border city a “Kidnapper’s Hunting Ground.” Suneson became irate as he recalled how he’d sent copies of the paper all the way to the Tamaulipas governor’s office. “The way the news is being sensationalized is really having an effect on the livelihood of many people,” he said. “This is not open season down here on Americans, where they’re being kidnapped right and left. It’s curious that the people missing are all from the border area. They’re all local people.”

On that point, Suneson is right. But there are still serious problems that the drug enterprise has created for the entire border region that remain unresolved. The most glaring of these is the freedom with which the criminals prowl through their communities, even when many people know who they are. Ironically, the many jurisdictional boundaries that have been constructed on either side of the border create a porosity that enables crime. Even if Laredo residents suspect a neighbor—someone like Miguel—of being involved in the drug trade over the border, neither the DEA nor the Laredo police can pursue him until they can implicate him directly in a drug deal or some other crime carried out on American soil. And the DEA, the agency whose mission is to fight drugs, is tied up targeting higher-level traffickers and processing confiscations in the region’s various checkpoints. “They’re not going to take one of their high-paid DEA agents and go work this guy, this little insignificant guy,” said James Kuykendall, a retired DEA agent who appraises real estate in Laredo.

Once in a while, when the crime spreads to American soil, U.S. authorities get a glimpse of how bad the situation is on the other side of the border. Last November, four young men found themselves in a stare-down at an intersection in Laredo during the early hours of the morning. Their Lincoln Navigator was shot twice by men in another vehicle. After giving up on trying to track down their assailants, the young men taped up the bullet holes and drove across the bridge, venturing into Boystown. But once they were there, a security guard saw the tape and stopped them. Unconvinced by their answers to his questions about what had happened to their car, he called his boss. Soon, two Suburbans arrived, delivering a squad of men dressed in black. The Laredoans disappeared.

Their relatives publicly denounced their kidnappings. Four days later, the four men were released, and they returned home wide-eyed, with stories to tell the Laredo police. “All that is very confidential, because they gave us a window into what’s going on in Nuevo Laredo,” a Laredo police detective said. “All the way from the corruption of the police department, working with the drug cartels, to what their activities are with kidnapping victims. I can’t tell you more than that. If I ever tell you more, you can’t print it. Because all that we learned out of that is, like, man. If somebody makes a movie of this—man, it’s incredible to see what’s going on over there.”

In May a group of fed-up Nuevo Laredoans initiated a peace campaign, walking the streets with white balloons and holding forums trying to find local solutions to the continuing violence. Some remained hopeful that this wave, like those of the past, would turn out to be episodic. But the death toll continued to rise. Domínguez’s murder in June shook the nation, raising the difficult question of whether the government had any authority left over the traffickers. President Fox responded directly to his death, launching a program called Safe Mexico that put more than a thousand federal soldiers, special agents, and police officers in the drug-infested states of Tamaulipas, Baja California, and Sinaloa. The program, Fox promised, would specifically seek better cooperation in resolving organized crime among all three levels of government. Nuevo Laredo mayor Daniel Peña Treviño reacted too. He pulled all 760 of the city’s municipal police officers off the streets to screen them for drugs and look into pending criminal records. Ten days later, after the first stage of screening, only 319 cops were left on the force. Forty-one had been sent to Mexico City to be investigated for shooting a convoy of arriving federal agents. Eighty-nine had failed the drug tests. The rest—311 police officers—had simply quit. Meanwhile, the city was left without anyone to answer emergency calls, and the criminals, again, seemed unfazed by the presence of the army. Domínguez had been victim 61 in 2005; three weeks after his death, the toll was at 77.

A business friend of Domínguez’s in San Antonio, who sends bulletproof vehicles to Iraq, Nigeria, and Mexico, later told the Mexican press that the chamber president had called him six days before his execution asking for a bulletproof vest. His friend tried to persuade him not to take the police job, but Domínguez assured him that his duties would be entirely administrative. “What you need is a bulletproof truck,” the associate said. Domínguez had bought dozens of these from him through his import-export business. He replied, nonchalantly, “We’ll see. Maybe later on.”

LYDIA AND HECTOR STOOD IN SILENCE as the man continued to point his gun at them.

“I’m sorry, Hector,” she whispered to her nephew, blinking back tears.

Then Hector clutched her hand and said, “Vámonos, Tía.” They ran “like crazy people,” Lydia recalled. She was wearing two-and-a-half-inch heels, but she doesn’t remember feeling anything on her feet. They heard shots, several of them, as one of their assailants emptied his semiautomatic pistol into the night. They ran in the only direction they knew: toward the international bridge to Laredo.

Lydia’s white blouse was soaked with blood. “Check me!” she yelled at Hector, so full of adrenaline that she thought she’d been hit. She screamed as she approached three policemen on the Mexican side of the bridge. She grabbed the back of her head with her hand, which was trembling.

The men looked at her curiously. Lydia explained the sequence of events to the three policemen, who stood facing her with their hands on their hips. “You have to come with us to file a police report,” they told her. But there was no way she was turning back. She grabbed Hector’s hand and they ran again, across the bridge, over the river, to the customs agent who stood on the other side. She smiled when she recounted that. “I don’t even remember if we said we were American citizens or not.”

The law enforcement authorities on the American side of the bridge had been as useless and indifferent to her pleading as those on the Mexican side. “They just looked at us like we were weirdos,” she said. They told her that they couldn’t help her because the crime had occurred in Mexico; she’d have to go back to Nuevo Laredo and file a report. In Laredo, only the FBI would listen to her story, and an agent informed her that their biggest priority was to investigate kidnappings. For three days Lydia remained in her bedroom, unable to eat, certain in her nervousness that the assailants, some of whom knew where she lived, were going to return to finish the job. She popped pills to sleep and lodged a chair under the knob of the back door. It was still there when I visited her nearly three months later.

One day, Lydia was crawling through bumper-to-bumper traffic in front of a Laredo middle school when she spotted Miguel, who was driving in the opposite direction. “I noticed him right away because he’s got big ears and a big nose, and he’s mother-ugly,” she said. She did her best to act defiant. She rolled down her window and motioned for him to do the same. When he could hear her, she declared: “You stole my car. Why did you do this to me?”

“The police put a gun to my head,” said Miguel.

“Follow me to the police department,” Lydia replied, “and tell that to them.”

Miguel sped away. She never saw him again.

In March, Lydia was still borrowing a car from a family member. Her insurance company argued that there was nothing she could do to recover the $10,000 that made up the difference between what she had paid for her car and what she would be receiving from the bank for her loss. She was debating what kind of car to get next. “Not another Mercedes,” she shuddered. “It would be too traumatizing.”

She had not returned to Nuevo Laredo since her incident, nor did she plan to. “Believe me,” she said, and I believed her. “I’ll never go to Mexico again, not even to the beaches. You think I’m going back into Mexico? Hell, no! And when I say I’m not going back into Mexico, I’m not going back into Mexico. Why are they not putting in the news that you can’t go into Nuevo Laredo? You need to put that: Do not go to Nuevo Laredo, period. Do not go unless you want to die.”

For the story behind this story, read our interview with writer-at-large Cecilia BallíBorder Patrol”.

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