Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

A city fogged in by fear and uncertainty

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 |

LA TIMES
BY: Ken Ellingwood

A visit to Nuevo Laredo, in the violence-ridden state of Tamaulipas, reveals a city in limbo. Residents try to go about their lives but with one eye out for gunfights and narco roadblocks.


A Mexican soldier stands next to a slain gunman, dressed in military fatigues, after a raid in September in the vicinity of Ciudad Mier, near Nuevo Laredo. (Associated Press / November 19, 2010)


Reporting from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — One minute you're shaking it on a dance floor throbbing with happy wedding guests. The next you're navigating darkened, forlorn streets, hoping the bad guys have the night off.

Such is the fractured feel of life in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where the death of a drug lord has intensified months-long fighting between rival cartels and left residents in a dread-filled state of limbo. They know something awful is going on around them, but usually little more than that.

In Nuevo Laredo for a cousin's wedding, I found a city fogged in by fear and not-knowing, a jittery place where people go to work, then check Facebook and Twitter for reports of gunfights in the streets.

Here, "normal" life means racing to retrieve your children from school when reports crackle of fresh fighting. It means driving down streets suddenly closed by narcobloqueos, lightning roadblocks erected by gunmen who seize cars and park them to head off police or rivals.

Residents swap tidbits on the latest balacera, or gunfight, but the versions are incomplete, like shards of a remembered nightmare. In the end, they only add to the sense of a reality that cannot be trusted. Did drug henchmen really hang a death-threat banner from the Walmart store?

When a city bus was caught in a gunfight in July, killing more than a dozen people (no one is certain of the exact toll), it wasn't reported in Nuevo Laredo's main newspaper, which itself has faced grenade attacks. Last week, as the city tensed with reports of another extended gun battle (unconfirmed by authorities), the newspaper's lead crime item was about a hit-and-run involving a bicycle.

I read that story over green tea in a trendy cafe that could have been a continent away from the drug war. Respite comes in snatches. The wedding celebrants, gowned and suited under strands of twinkling lights, sipped whiskey and water and took to the dance floor with a delight that, given the troubles outside, seemed like affirmation. You could even excuse the "Hot-Hot-Hot" conga line.

Down the street, Burger King offered a hedge against the perils: home delivery. When we arrived at a cousin's house for carne asada, she had something like news. "There was a shootout yesterday," she said in a hushed, child-proof voice. As usual, details were elusive.

If dread drapes Nuevo Laredo, panic reigns elsewhere in Tamaulipas.

Months of carnage have chased many residents from the colonial town of Ciudad Mier, about 75 miles southeast of Nuevo Laredo. During the last two weeks, more than 300 residents have taken shelter in a Lions Club in a neighboring town, huddled under donated blankets, like refugees.

Ciudad Mier residents say authorities, including the army, have failed to keep the ranching town safe.

"For more than eight months, our city has been in the hands of organized crime," reads a six-page plea for help.

The appeal said the trouble began in February when gunmen in 40 pickup trucks stormed the town's police headquarters, rounded up all the officers and stole weapons and radios. The thugs then set fire to 10 homes and hauled off a bunch of residents.

Since then, the city of 6,500 has been plagued by gunfights and kidnappings. School programs have been canceled, hospitals have shut their doors and no one goes outside after 7 p.m., according to the plea.

People fear that the clashes will grow bloodier because Mexican forces killed a top leader of the Gulf cartel, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, known as "Tony Tormenta," in a fierce battle Nov. 5 in the border city of Matamoros.

Where that eruption will occur is anyone's guess.

Tamaulipas residents know little for sure, but are braced for a bloody winter.

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