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Town on Texas Border Hit by Violence

October 17, 2002

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NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) _ Visitors from Texas and beyond have long come to this quiet, sun-baked border town for cheap tequila, souvenirs and a taste of Mexico close to home. But the tranquility has been shattered this year by a wave of killings that has claimed 45 victims, including as many as eight police officers.

The gangland-style violence, most of it drug-related, has killed four police officers, and many believe four others missing for months also are victims of the violence.

The turbulence has rocked local police departments and thrust this relatively peaceful city into a spotlight once reserved for historically violent border towns, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. So far, there’s no sign the violence is keeping tourists or other visitors away, but the crimes are taking a toll on the city.

``I don’t want to say it’s disintegrating the department, but it affects each of us greatly,″ said Gilberto Martinez Salazar, a city police spokesman. ``It creates fear.″

Police say the violence is the work of the Gulf Cartel, a drug-smuggling empire that allegedly is headed by Osiel Cardenas Guillen, a 35-year-old fugitive with a $2 million price on his head. They say the dead are informers, drug dealers who stole money or drugs, or members of rival smuggling organizations.

Federal prosecutors in the United States believe Cardenas took over the smuggling ring after former kingpin Juan Garcia Abrego was sent to a U.S. prison. The cartel is active in 10 Mexican states, mostly in the north. It moves drugs as far as New York and Michigan, according to the office of Mexico’s Attorney General.

In mid-September, investigators searching a house in a residential neighborhood discovered three decomposed bodies, one of them decapitated. The find came on the heels of dozens of other killings and kidnappings, including a brazen, gun-slinging attack inside a local hospital that killed two people. Some bodies have been found with their hands bound behind their backs, and with duct tape over their mouths.

Meanwhile, Cardenas, who is known on the street as ``el loco,″ is believed to be hiding somewhere in Mexico’s dry, mountainous north.

Infamous for his bravado and hot temper, Cardenas has been charged in the United States with cocaine trafficking, money laundering, and with attempted kidnapping for threats made in 1999 to FBI and DEA agents who were part of a diplomatic mission to Mexico.

Police officials and others speculate that Cardenas is now targeting Mexican police officers and others here who once worked as his soldiers, but who later crossed him.

The FBI is offering a $2 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

Eliodoro Ganados, assistant chief of police in Laredo, Texas, just across the Rio Grande, said his agency is keeping an eye on the violence. So far, he said, the bloodshed has not spilled over across the river.

``The killings over there are all drug related,″ he said. ``We have only had six homicides in our town this year, and not all of them are related to drugs.″

But on this side of the river the violence is not so well confined.

Police in Monterrey, 150 miles to the south, are investigating more than 20 drug-related murders _ a 10-year record in a city better known as a high-tech business center.

To stop the killings, hundreds of federal police officers from Mexico City have been sent to the north to hunt for Cardenas’ henchman. An estimated 250 federal officers are in Nuevo Laredo alone, and another large group is working in Monterrey.

In that city, the federal agents wield semiautomatic Glock pistols as they work the streets day and night, blocking intersections and peering into the dimly lit doorways of bars known for drug activity and prostitution.

Back in Nuevo Laredo, there are few signs that the violence is scaring away tourists.

On a recent weekday afternoon at a market just blocks from the international bridge to Texas, visitors shopped for colorful marionettes, jewelry and bottles of liquor.

Some toured the city in hired carts pulled by haggard horses, while others, such as long-haul trucker Steve Herring, sipped drinks at tables between the souvenir stands.

``I’ve been here for three hours and I haven’t seen any drugs or violence,″ said the North Carolina native, who frequently visits Mexico on vacation. ``Drug dealers killing other drug dealers _ that’s normal. As long as no Americans are killed, it doesn’t get my attention.″

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