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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 August 2005, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Gang wars plague Mexican drugs hub
By Claire Marshall
BBC News, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

Damaged wall in Nuevo Laredo
Gang violence has left its mark on Nuevo Laredo
Raul Llamas inspects the gaping holes gouged in the wall of a house in Nuevo Laredo by a rocket-propelled grenade.

"It's like Iraq, isn't it? We are in the middle of a war here. Two narco-trafficking gangs are trying to get control," the Mexican radio journalist says.

He used to report on the cartels for a local radio station. But one of his colleagues was killed earlier this year.

Now he does different stories. "It's very difficult to be a reporter here," he says. "People are too scared."

Police deaths

The violence stems from a turf war between the powerful Gulf and Sinaloa cartels.

Mexico is like the ham in the sandwich, between the supplier, which is Colombia, and the consumer, which is the US
Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos
Organised crime investigation unit
They both want to control Nuevo Laredo - the busiest port of entry into the US, just over the border from Texas.

An estimated 110 people have been killed this year, including 15 members of the police force. The most recent was a female police officer, killed last Wednesday.

The US recently had to close its consulate for a period, after the warring cartels attacked each other using bazookas and machine-guns.

'Sad situation'

The bridges which cross the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo to Laredo, Texas, tell the story.

The stream of people seeking a better life flows one way only.

The US side is still relatively free from trouble, while on the Mexican side, there are almost daily kidnappings and assassinations.

Jack Suneson runs one of Nuevo Laredo's most well-established arts and crafts shop.

"It's a very sad situation right now. It's never been this bad," he says.

"The impunity with which these people are operating is very scary. We need the Mexican government to come here and clean this up."

Criminal control

Nuevo Laredo's last police chief was gunned down just seven hours after starting the job.

Police chief Omar Pimentel
Police chief Omar Pimentel (right) is optimistic about his task
Omar Pimentel has just replaced him in what must be one of the most difficult jobs in law enforcement.

But he is upbeat about the future.

"We are going through a difficult time for our city, but our will to go forward is stronger than the problems we face," he says.

Mexico has paid a high price in blood for its geographical location, according to the deputy head of its organised crime investigation unit, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos.

Can't they capture anyone? Can't they arrest someone?
Mother of kidnap victim
"Mexico is like the ham in the sandwich, between the supplier, which is Colombia, and the consumer, which is the US," he says.

American officials see Nuevo Laredo as a dangerous hotspot.

"The level of violence is just incredible, and the level of corruption in the local law enforcement is significant, so local criminal groups pretty much control what is going on," says Patrick Patterson, the regional FBI agent in charge in San Antonio, Texas.

'Narco Laredo'

In a story which has entered local legend, one of Mexico's most wanted men recently had supper in a smart downtown restaurant.

Alleged Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman arrived with about 30 of his armed henchmen, and announced that they didn't want any trouble.

Border with the US at Nuevo Laredo
Many crossing the border into the US hope to flee rising crime

The mobile phones of other diners were collected to ensure "security" for the group.

The gangsters then ate their meal and left - paying for everyone else in the restaurant.

This impunity brings much pain for the victims.

"In Nuevo Laredo there are terrible shoot-outs, and there are people who kill in broad daylight," says Priscilla Cisneros, whose 23-year-old daughter Brenda was kidnapped 10 months ago.

"Can't they capture anyone? Can't they arrest someone?"

But Nuevo Laredo is also known as Narco Laredo.

Its inhabitants are now eerily accustomed to killing. One jingle on a popular local music station is the sound of machine-gun fire, with a voice saying cheerfully: "We'll be back in a bullet."

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