Across the Border: Hard times on the streets of Laredo

Nuevo Laredo is the main location at which merchandise crosses the Mexico-U.S. border, with $89.7 billion moving in both directions last year — an amount that will be easily surpassed this year.

Although it serves the logistics industry, this city which once bustled as a tourist destination is now nearly a ghost town. Drug gangs have taken over much of the town's life. Mexican army authorities have no credibility, and heavily armed gangs freely roam the mean streets of Nuevo Laredo, despite the presence of 800 Mexican soldiers who patrol the city.

Tamaulipas State government authorities have pledged an 18-month security program to cleanse the city. Alvaro Moreno, the local federal military garrison commander, recently met with business leaders demanding that they "place their bets" on Nuevo Laredo.

"Where do you think our money is?" responded Gerardo Gonzalez Juaristi, president of the local Committee for the Industrial Development. "We locals have always bet on Nuevo Laredo. But before we invest any more, there has to be a tranquil city."

Moreno, appointed by the Mexican Army, could only promise to increase federal efforts to bring the gangs under control.

Nuevo Laredo had long made much of its living through tourism from southern Texas. Throngs of under-21 Texas kids used to flock there every weekend since the minimum drinking age in Mexico is 18. But this is 2005, and though it should be celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding, tourists are afraid to visit.

In addition to some 110 murders in recent years, it's estimated that as many as 200 Americans have been kidnapped or killed. This has caused diplomatic tension between the two countries when Antonio Garza, the U. S. ambassador to Mexico, shut down the local consulate in protest against a Mexican government which seems to be doing little to nothing to combat the warring street gangs whose indiscriminant shootings sometimes involve bazookas.

It's rumored that several Mexican entrepreneurs have been subject to extortion by the gangs. "But," says Mario Ramon Serna, director of Centralized Cargo Services, a government agency, "no one dares to confirm or deny the allegations." "The impunity with which these people are operating is very scary," says local crafts shop owner Jack Suneson. "We need the Mexican government to come here and clean up this mess."

The drug gangs have stationed themselves near the bridges over the Rio Grande, from where they use any and all available means to ship cocaine to Dallas. At this crossing, large amounts of legal containerized merchandise move into the U. S., not just from Mexico, but also from 23 other nations that use fast transit lanes. With four bridges and the NAFTA expressway — Interstate 35 — to Dallas, Laredo serves the gangs as a perfect hub for drug smuggling.

Surprisingly, trade has not been affected by the violence in the streets, according to Gabriel Martin, president of the Mexican Customs Brokers Association, because the city lives two separate lives, with brothels, tourism and organized crime on one hand, and cross-border movement of merchandise on the other.

"It wasn't this way back in 1988," claims Martin. "In those days the logistics industry and city living blended. When it was decided to build a third bridge — called the Free Trade Bridge — international commerce activity moved away from the city. The new bridge devoted exclusively to cargo brought with it the separation."

Except for scant local maquiladora industrial work for some assembly of goods, nothing else is produced in Nuevo Laredo. Most cargo moves from interior industrial cities such as Monterrey, Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puebla.

"Practically nothing originates in Nuevo Laredo," says Martin. "And nothing passes through the city, either — it just moves over the bridges."

In fact, cargo trucks have limited and appointed routes. At the end of August, the trucks were being rerouted from city streets to the airport via new, specially built avenues which lead on to the Free Trade Bridge. This is being done because of the large number of trucks that have been involved in traffic accidents. The shift is aimed at keeping international trade traffic off regular streets.

Keeping a close watch on the merchandise being taken across the border is no small task. For Fema Transport Services, one of Mexico's largest "transfer" companies, with some 175 "burrero" trucks moving containers and trailers to and from Laredo, the best way of staying out of trouble is by good document and database handling.

Carlos Fernandez, Fema's president, says the company's success stems from its database, which matches that of Mexican Customs. "If we notice some dubious data," Fernandez explains, "we prefer not to handle the service. But in case we do, we relay the information to Customs on both sides of the border so they can observe the cargo."

As Fernandez notes, all "burrero" operators are well trained to handle red tape and everyone is aware "of the risks you run if you try to illegally introduce merchandise into the U.S."

As for Nuevo Laredo, there seems to be general acceptance of the situation. No one seems willing to take on the drug operators, who are heavily armed — with weapons as well as money. In the meantime, radio stations are taking a wry eye to the situation. As one announcer says just before a commercial break, "We'll be back in a bullet."

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