Pubdate: Sun, 26 Nov 2006
Source: Napa Valley Register (CA)
Copyright: 2006 Lee Enterprises
Author: Sam Enriquez, Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times Writers


The top cop in this unhinged border city 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 begged.

One police chief was killed last year, a second quit in the spring, 
and no one else appears brave enough, 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 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 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, 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 United States is a blessing and 
a curse. The Tijuana-San Diego frontier 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 
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'd 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.

His name isn't important, and apparently neither is his job. Nearly 
the entire police force of nearly 800 was fired last year for 
corruption. About 300 recruits are now working, but they spend their 
days mostly staying out of sight and out of trouble.

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 so far 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 father 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 is solved.

"This is a city of lies," said one of the local reporters whose daily 
newspaper no longer covers drug killings. He was afraid to be 
identified by name. "Last year we reported on all the killings, and 
business and government officials blamed us for disrupting commerce. 
Now police say nothing happens here. What a paradise."

Residents take pains to dodge the menace of drug trafficking. Some 
deny it exists. Look at the peaceful plazas, say boosters, and the 
thousands of trucks that ferry commercial goods daily to and from the 
United States.

"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. An unofficial tally 
by the newspaper Milenio showed that a dozen of the 145 Mexican 
police officers reportedly killed this year were in his state.

When the Tijuana mayor favorably compared Tijuana's crime rate with 
that of San Diego, some residents were stunned.

"Apparently, he's living somewhere else," said Genaro de la Torre, 
leader of a citizens' safety group that helped organize a recent 
anti-violence march. "He needs to suffer what the people have 
suffered to realize what is really going on."

Calderon has proposed better police training, consolidating federal 
law-enforcement units and creating a national crime database.

"During the last few years, and really the last months, violence and 
organized crime has grown in an alarming way," Calderon told a 
business group last week. "We can't accept that as the image of 
Mexico. We can't have a daily image of executions and other bloody 
acts that go unpunished."
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