By Christopher Sherman and Olga R. Rodriguez
The Associated Press
Reynosa, Tamaulipas — This border city had escaped the worst of Mexico's bloody drug war for years, but now the bodies are piling up and its once-busy streets are empty after dark.
The crumbling of an alliance between two drug gangs has plunged the 200-mile stretch of border into violence, raising fears of a new front in the drug war, a U.S. anti-drug official said.
In Mexican border cities stretching from Matamoros to Nuevo Laredo, gunfire has been heard almost daily, and at least 49 people have been killed in drug war-related violence in less than six weeks.
Reynosa's main plaza and Calle Hidalgo, a pedestrian shopping street, still bustle during the day. Shoeshiners were doing brisk business on a recent afternoon in the city across the Rio Grande from McAllen. But the streets are deserted by evening, clothing store manager Manuel Diaz said.
"I imagine they are scared, because there are no customers in the street," he said.
Diaz kept his children home from school last month when rumors of abductions terrorized parents and many schools suspended classes.
Drug gangs have set up vehicle checkpoints along highways to the U.S. border, apparently to look for their rivals, according to the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, two hours south of the Texas border.
As a result, U.S. Consulate offices in the area had restricted travel of their employees to Reynosa, although the ban was lifted Monday.
While the Baja California city of Tijuana and Juárez, across from El Paso, have long been torn by open warfare among rival cartels, border cities to the east had enjoyed relative calm under the Company, a drug-trafficking duopoly formed by the Gulf cartel and the Zetas.
The tenuous union was broken when a member of the Zetas was killed in Reynosa in January, perhaps because he was in the Gulf cartel's territory without properly announcing himself, said Will Glaspy, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in McAllen.
The Zetas — a gang of former Gulf cartel hit men — demanded that the cartel hand over the men responsible for the slaying. Battles followed when the cartel refused, Glaspy said.
The Gulf, Sinaloa and La Familia cartels appear to have united against the Zetas, Glaspy said.
The clash is the latest of several power struggles among drug traffickers that have led to an upsurge of violence throughout Mexico, said Jorge Chabat, a Mexican expert on drug cartels.
There were four major cartels a decade ago, Chabat said, "and now we have at least seven."
Drug violence has killed almost 18,000 people across Mexico since President Felipe Calderón began a military-backed offensive against traffickers in December 2006. Most of those killings have been among rival smugglers, according to the federal government.
Whether the new surge in violence from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros is a taste of the bloodshed to come or a brutal blip has yet to be seen. But it has been an unwelcome glimpse of the violence seen more commonly in other parts of Mexico since 2006.
A banner hung in Reynosa's main plaza last week addressed to Calderón asked for the withdrawal of the military so that the gangs could fight it out among themselves. It was signed by the "fusion of Mexican cartels united against the 'Z' (Zetas)."
Ramiro Sanchez, 72, a retired construction worker in Reynosa, said people are staying inside their homes at night, and Americans aren't crossing the bridge to shop anymore.
Asked if an all-out drug war was a possibility for his city, Sanchez said, "You can't know where it's going to go, but I think we're still far from that."
Glaspy, the DEA official in McAllen, said there are "multiple scenarios that could play out," and he added, "We're hopeful that cooler heads will prevail."