Two Mexican border cities virtually lawless

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico -- The top police officer in this unhinged border city has 300 openings on a 600-member police force, and his fearful greeting gave a big clue about why.

"Please, please don't use my name or take a photograph," the interim chief begged.


One police chief was killed last year, a second quit in the spring, and no one else appears brave, or foolhardy, enough to work this side of the law in Nuevo Laredo.

Mexican President Vicente Fox quietly withdrew the federal police that he had dispatched here with great fanfare last year, leaving the city virtually unprotected in a smuggling war that has claimed 170 lives since January.


In Tijuana, another border city where law and order are on the ropes, the rate of kidnappings ranks among the world's worst; some state police have refused postings after the killings of more than a dozen officers in paramilitary-style ambushes.

Organized crime is out of control, Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon said after a police commander was ambushed this month. The killing of police officers, he said, "speaks to the impunity of organized crime, that they think they're above the law, or protected."

As Mexico prepares for the inauguration of Felipe Calderon on Dec. 1, the president-elect must take stock of the country's 2,000 drug-related slayings this year, residents and officials say.

"Calderon needs to apply the law or reform the law," said Nuevo Laredo resident Ana de la Cruz, mother of two teen daughters. "We urgently need help."

The drug problem that bridges the United States and Mexico neither starts nor ends in these two border cities. But a healthy chunk of U.S.-bound dope lumbers past each day, leaving behind the footprints of a monster.

"The number of addicts is growing," said Adan Rosa Ramos, 24, a recovering methamphetamine user who works at a rehabilitation house in Nuevo Laredo. "There's a lot more drugs on the street."

The proximity of these cities to the U.S. is a blessing and a curse. The Tijuana-San Diego border is the busiest border crossing in the world. At Nuevo Laredo, trucks and trains ferry more than 40 percent of the goods traded between the neighboring countries.

The two cities also account for the most lucrative smuggling routes in the hemisphere. The tons of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine seized by authorities each year make up a fraction of what barrels past - in trucks, cars, planes and underground tunnels.


Here's the arithmetic, said Daniel Covarrubias, the director of economic development in Nuevo Laredo: "The U.S. checks maybe 10 percent of the trucks that pass. Any more than that and it slows commerce. You run 10 trucks and take your chances."

Battle for control of the Nuevo Laredo corridor pits the Pacific Coast Sinaloa cartel against the Gulf cartel, whose top gunmen defected from an elite Mexican army task force. The conflict has spread to the states of Michoacan and Guerrero, where nearly 600 people were believed killed in drug-related homicides this year.

In Tijuana, the August arrest of alleged drug-cartel leader Francisco Javier Arellano Felix escalated a battle among rivals believed to be responsible for many of the killings in that city this year.

With government all but ceding control of the border, civil society has fallen into disarray or been cowed into silence. Newspapers in Nuevo Laredo have stopped reporting drug killings under pressure from advertisers, government and drug dealers.

Residents learned a lesson from former Police Chief Alejandro Dominguez, who was gunned down in June 2005 within hours of taking office. He had pledged to stand up to drug traffickers.

Dominguez's replacement quit, and the interim chief closed his office door during a recent interview and said he wouldn't speak a word about the drug business and didn't want to be identified.


Even after out-of-town recruiting trips, there are no takers for 300 police jobs, including the chief's slot. Starting salaries of $600 a month apparently aren't worth it. "Last year was bad," said the La Paz funeral home's assistant director, Alvaro Ordanez Sanchez. "A lot of cops."

Tallying the 170 people shot, burned and garroted in the drug war, Sanchez estimated the murder toll in Nuevo Laredo would approach 200 this year. That would make up about nearly 10 percent of the drug-related homicides in Mexico, even though Nuevo Laredo, a city of 380,000, accounts for about 0.4 percent of the nation's population.

Sanchez - whose firm performs autopsies for the city - is one of the few people willing to talk about the drug violence.

Elizabeth Hernandez, a state prosecutor responsible for deciding whether a homicide in Nuevo Laredo should be investigated by state or federal authorities, said she didn't know how many people had been killed.

"I've only been on the job nine months," said Hernandez, who suggested a visit to the federal prosecutor's office.

Assistant federal prosecutor Jose Enrique Corona rolled his eyes an hour later. "Of course she knows," he said.


When asked whether his office was investigating the murder of Dominguez, the 56-year-old who served six hours as chief, Corona said the case was being handled by federal investigators in Mexico City. Prosecutors in Mexico City said it wasn't theirs. The truth is, few killings are investigated and almost none solved.

Sam Enriquez and Richard Marosi write for the Los Angeles Times.