Pubdate: Sat, 22 Sep 2012
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2012 San Antonio Express-News
Author: John MacCormack


LAREDO -- The official welcome for the Logistics and Manufacturing 
Symposium here last week was delivered by Mayor Raul Salinas, who 
gave a rousing endorsement of his booming border city.

"Laredo is open for business. Make sure you enjoy this safe and 
wonderful city," he told the assembled customs brokers, manufacturers 
and transporters, American and Mexican, and all involved in the auto industry.

Salinas spoke with passion about the importance of cross-border 
cooperation and friendship, and Nuevo Laredo Mayor Benjamin Galvan 
offered similar sentiments. The two mayors then shared a hearty "abrazo."

And by most measures, Laredo, the busiest land port to Mexico, is 
doing very well. The city is growing, violent crime is down and 
spillover from drug-war violence in Mexico is minimal, police say.

But when a city shares a name and a riverfront with a neighbor that 
is home to a violent drug mafia, where bodies are hung from bridges 
and even the mayor's office gets bombed, the perception elsewhere can 
get blurry.

"The assumption is Laredo is not safe. We've had to respond when 
people were calling Laredo a war zone," Salinas said afterward.

Recent events on both sides of the river haven't helped change this 
jaundiced view.

In the space of seven days earlier this month, 54 people were killed 
in Nuevo Laredo as drug cartels battled for dominance, prompting the 
U.S. Consulate to warn Americans to stay away.

Last month, prominent local gun dealer Robert Jacaman was charged 
with illegal weapons sales to Mexican criminals. Another round of bad 
press followed when American federal veterinarians refused to inspect 
cattle in Mexico.

Adding insult to injury, Laredo -- with only 10 homicides this year 
and a violent crime rate that is lower than in San Antonio or Dallas 
- -- often is confused by outsiders with its sister city, headquarters 
of the Zetas, the most feared gangsters in Mexico.

"We get calls from people asking 'What the heck is going on there? 
It's a war zone. The killing. The smuggling. The drug wars. How can 
you live there?" remarked Blasita Lopez, director of the city's 
Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Everyone knows how to handle those calls. Everyone has the (crime 
statistics)," she said of the staff.

The bureau has a mail-out kit packed with crime statistics that touts 
Laredo's safety and its attractions. But, Lopez concedes, it's tough 
to overcome the misperceptions, particularly when trying to persuade 
someone to book a group event.

"It makes the selling part very difficult. It's an extra barrier," she said.

Hurt by stereotype

Far worse than image problems, the old "Centro" historic district is 
withering rapidly. The American tourists and tour buses stopped 
coming years ago, and Mexican shoppers are deterred by the long 
bridge lines and the dangers of Nuevo Laredo.

This summer, Salinas responded by launching a "Laredo is Safe," 
campaign that has brought the message on 17 yellow billboards around 
Texas, including San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Austin.

"For six years, there has been a stigma, a stereotype, that we are 
not safe," he said, blaming lazy journalists, cheap-shot television 
pundits and would-be security experts, in particular Gen. Barry 
McCaffrey, who did a study last year of the border commissioned by 
the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Department of Public Safety.

The study concluded that drug cartels posed a serious threat to 
border residents and called for more federal spending, but was 
quickly criticized as being exaggerated and unfairly tarnishing the border.

"It was a totally nonfactual, politically motivated slap in the face 
to the people of Laredo," the mayor said.

In another instance, cited by city police, California Congressman 
Duncan Hunter, in a speech to Maricopa County Republicans in support 
of a border fence from Texas to California, claimed there were 600 
unsolved murders in Laredo.

The mayor, a former FBI agent, said that after he appeared several 
years ago on the Glenn Beck show in opposition to a federal plan to 
build a steel barrier between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, he was deluged 
with hateful e-mails and phone calls.

He recalled one caller, who referred to him as a "Meskin Mayor," 
offering some advice.

"He said, 'Let me tell you something boy. If you like Mexico so much, 
why don't you go be the mayor there,'" he recalled.

And, Salinas acknowledged, there is no magic fix to bringing the 
tourists back or reviving the old downtown where, just a couple of 
generations ago, all of Laredo and most of Nuevo Laredo went to shop.

"People are still coming, but with less money. It's not like the old 
days," he said of the Centro.

Struggling Centro

Once a bustling commercial warren of blaring pop music, merchandise 
spilling out of storefronts and shoppers jostling on uneven 
sidewalks, the Centro has become a forlorn backwater of vacant 
businesses and window signs shouting "Remate! Liquidaction! Descuento!"

For decades, the equation for business success was simple and reliable.

On the weekends, American tourists came to Laredo to book a hotel 
room, browse the Chinese-made religious figurines, improbable colored 
lingerie and other goods peculiar of the Centro, and then walk across 
the bridge to shop, drink and dine in Mexico.

Meanwhile, all week long, mobs of shoppers and wholesalers from Nuevo 
Laredo and across the region crossed over to buy household goods, 
electronics, jewelry, perfume and cheap clothing and shoes.

But because of the drug violence in Mexico and heightened security 
measures at the bridge, things have gone badly awry.

Americans rarely are seen in Nuevo Laredo, and the once speedy 
pedestrian crossing to this side now can be measured in hours.

"All you need to do is walk around downtown. We have 70-plus empty 
storefronts. We're down 50 percent to 70 percent in our business 
here," said Les Norton, 63, whose family has operated a clothing 
store on Convent Street for 72 years.

A block away, jeweler Sanjay Rupani, 47, who once sold wholesale to 
shop owners from Guadalajara, San Luis Potosi, Monterrey and even 
Mexico City, said few now risk the middle passage.

"Mexicans from the interior are afraid to cross the city of Nuevo 
Laredo to get here," he said, adding that the anxiety extends to 
American shoppers.

"People in Laredo fear coming here. And all the customers from San 
Antonio, Dallas and Austin are afraid to come. As long as Nuevo 
Laredo is a violent city, we're hurting," he added.

A recent seasonal measure of business vitality, Mexican Independence 
Day, confirmed how bad things are.

"In the past, the whole week of the 16th of September was like a 
second Christmas for us, with all the Mexicans coming. This year, we 
had a good Saturday, and that was it," Rupani said.

Norton, who is head of the downtown merchants association, blames the 
city government for not coming up with a plan and resources to save 
the old downtown. The Centro has magnificent 18th-century 
architecture, beautiful plazas and an authentic border ambiance 
embodied in the La Posada Hotel.

"Laredo is notorious for spending money on all kinds of studies. But 
here it is 2012, and they've done nothing," he said of city officials.

Critics and hope

Others, who have no direct stake in the Centro, also fault the city, 
which they say appears to have no strategic vision for its future 
beyond increasing commercial trade and truck traffic with Mexico.

In contrast to downtown, commerce is booming with 1,000 trucks a day 
crossing the bridge and shipments that surpassed $200 billion last 
year, according to the city.

Gene Belmares, 48, a native Laredoan and former city councilman who 
in 2010 was trounced by Salinas in the mayoral election, recalls 
playing with cousins and shopping with his parents in Nuevo Laredo.

While he still has relatives there, he no longer crosses because his 
wife refuses to let him renew his passport.

And since the tourism industry has faded away as the border for many 
became a place of dread, he said Laredo has been unable to reinvent 
itself as an attractive destination.

"San Antonio has a River Walk. We've got a river. McAllen has been 
able to create a thriving downtown, and they don't have any of the 
history we have," he said. "In the 30 years I've been an adult, no 
one has taken advantage of the one jewel we have on the Rio Grande. 
The downtown is a jewel, unpolished and decaying."

Maria Eugenia Guerra, publisher of the local monthly newspaper, 
"LareDOS News," echoed these thoughts, saying the city seems 
incapable of coming up with a vision for itself and plan to revive tourism.

"What can you say about a place that doesn't know what it is? We 
don't have a definition of ourselves. We can't tell people, 'Come 
here for this.'" she said.

But, she said, there is reason for hope. On Monday, the City Council 
agreed to begin negotiations over a partnership plan proposed by a 
private Laredo nonprofit group to reopen and restore the Plaza Theater.

Closed for more than 15 years, the green-tiled Plaza once was one the 
Centro's anchors.

"All of us have fond memories of the Plaza Theater. It could do for 
downtown Laredo what the Majestic Theater has done for downtown San 
Antonio," Guerra said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom