By KIRSTEN CROW
LAREDO MORNING TIMES
Two days after the most recent gunbattle between suspected drug traffickers and Mexican military forces, an uneasy calm settled over this embattled border city.
Early Saturday, the pulga vendors gathered on the streets to spread their wares over the hoods of cars and wait for the bargain shoppers.
Families strolled the sidewalks, carrying bags laden with groceries.
Even areas of heavy fighting in recent weeks — including Unidad Deportiva Benito Juarez, and Fundadores Infonavit, a housing project — appeared to revive with the stirrings of daily life of the people who call it home.
Throughout the city, there was little visible military presence aside from soldiers at Bridge I and II. Police presence, too, was hard to find.
One police truck was parked near Parque Viveros, a site subject to flashpoints of violence, and another was parked outside the Televisa studios, the site of a grenade assault one week ago.
A green van with shattered windows remained in the parking lot.
But despite the seeming respite from the bloodshed that wracked the city throughout July, experts remain concerned about the escalation of the violence — its frequency, intensity and growing numbers of indiscriminate attacks.
Howard Campbell, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said that while there was once a “sort of idea of a gentleman’s agreement, the old mafia code of ‘Don’t mess with women, children and bystanders,’” it has ceased to exist.
“They are not caring anymore. There’s a bitter vendetta aspect to these intercartel (battles),” he said.
“(It’s more than) immediate claims to territory; it’s a desire to exterminate the other cartel.”
Rules of engagement
While the most recent catalyst of violence is unverifiable, the consensus among officials has been that the firefights are the product of clashes among members of the Gulf Cartel; its former enforcement arm, Los Zetas; and military forces, including the Army and the Mexican Navy.
Of the three, the Zetas, in particular, have distinguished themselves not only in their brutality, but in their innovation, Campbell said — and that goes for warfare, too.
“They’re not following any rules, but creating their own rules of engagement that other groups copy,” he said.
“The Zetas were, in many ways, innovators… in this experimental organized crime model. (It’s) not just about drugs, but extortion, kidnapping and smuggling illegal immigrants.”
But as the Zetas control has grown, and as its ranks seceded from their former employer, the Gulf Cartel, so, too, has the threat against not only other cartels who challenge the group’s power, but also the government.
“The Mexican government wants to exterminate the Zetas,” Campbell said.
“I think the Zetas are a nightmare, and for that reason, the situation in Tamaulipas is so serious. …This is an attempt to become a mini-narco state.
They want to control the (authorities), if possible, by force, not necessarily by bribery, and that is something very threatening to the state.”
Escalation of attacks
Earlier this week, a car bomb detonated outside state police headquarters in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas — the second in Mexico in the last month.
Its appearance as the newest weapon in the drug war is an ominous advent, said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company, and a former special agent in counterterrorism for the U.S. Department of State.
Although there’s no way to ultimately predict where, or if, a car bomb will be detonated, Burton noted that the “benefit of IEDs are that they are very affordable.
Place them in a car, and you can drive them anywhere.”
It’s unclear whether the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas were responsible for the bomb, but “clearly, it was a signal to police that they are vulnerable,” he said.
In a previous interview, Burton said he was troubled by what resembles insurgency attacks — what he referred to as a “natural evolution of cartel violence.”
“It’s one thing in a context of drug dealers killing drug dealers — most people look at that and say, ‘That’s the price of being in that line of work,’” he said.
But this is different, Burton said: These attacks are involving the general population.
“What is worrisome is the progression,” he said in an interview Friday.
“Bombs are very indiscriminate… they have the potential to kill a lot of people — and a lot of innocent people.
“I would expect to see these IEDs continue until the bombmaker is killed or captured,” Burton continued.
“I think it is reasonable to assume these are going to continue now that they are showing to be trending in that direction.”
A savage season
The year started with a string of violent incidents.
In February, there were at least two major shootouts, followed by several grenade attacks.
The attacks, combined with an extended period of silence from the government, sufficiently fueled rumors to the extent that officials dubbed the panic gripping the population as “el psicosis.”
Several other gunbattles and grenade attacks followed from March through June, including a highly publicized assault on the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, which injured none but sufficiently sent a new message of fear through the community.
But no other month of 2010 could rival July’s activity. Beginning July 16, the city became a virtual war zone as military forces and suspected drug trafficking organizations battled in the streets.
Between July 16 and 31, there were at least 10 documented gunbattles and five grenade attacks.
On July 16 and July 23, gunbattles lasting hours raged in the streets.
Among those killed and injured in the crossfire were unarmed civilians and children.
Meanwhile, widespread carjackings and use of narcobloqueos — barricades created by blocking streets with mostly carjacked 18-wheelers, buses and trucks to impede interference from military forces — were reported.
Grenade attacks, too, appeared to be on the rise.
An attack believed to have been carried out outside a downtown nightclub last week delayed processing at the bridge for about 10 minutes in the early morning of July 31.
A few hours prior, grenade attacks rocked the studios of Televisa and the intersections of Avenida de la Republica and Transformacion and Avenida Reforma and Paseo Colon.
It is unknown how many were killed or injured in many of the attacks this year, especially in July.
Mexican government officials have never released information about many of them.
However, in the midst of some of the heaviest combat, more and more Nuevo Laredo residents are turning to the city’s official Facebook page for information regarding dangerous situations.
Officials do not release information regarding the details of the battles, but the site is regularly updated with public safety information to advise residents about avoiding areas where fighting is occurring.