Pubdate: Fri, 24 Nov 2006
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2006 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Author: Sam Enriquez, Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times


The top cop in this unhinged city across the border from Texas has 
300 openings on a 600-member police force, and his fearful greeting 
gave a big clue why.

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

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 with great fanfare last year to bring peace, 
leaving the city virtually unprotected in a smuggling war that's 
claimed 170 lives since January.

This isn't the only border city where law and order are on the ropes.

In Tijuana, the rate of kidnappings ranks among the world's worst, 
and some state police officers 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 
this month.

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 teenage 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.

"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 United States is a blessing and 
a curse. The Tijuana-San Diego frontier is the world's busiest border 
crossing. 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 hemisphere's most lucrative 
smuggling routes. 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.

Officials in Nuevo Laredo say about 200 people will be shot, burned 
or garroted this year in the drug war. That would make up 10 percent 
of the drug-related homicides in Mexico, though the city's 380,000 
people account for about 0.4 percent of the nation's population.

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, the government and drug dealers.

Residents take pains to dodge the menace of drug trafficking. Some 
deny it exists.

"If you behave on the streets, you won't get into trouble," 
Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez Flores told potential investors 
during a recent business forum in Nuevo Laredo.
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