Nuevo Laredo: a case study in macro narco-economics

The border town of Nuevo Laredo, sister city to Laredo, Texas, has been the scene of an intense turf battle between rival drug organizations over the past couple years.

The showdown is supposedly between the armed soldiers of two Mexican narco-traffickers who are waging a battle to gain control of the lucrative trade route that runs from Nuevo Laredo, across the border into Laredo, and north along Interstate Highway 35 to San Antonio, then Dallas – from where it spokes out into the rest of the United States.

The two rival drug lords at the center of the turf war are allegedly Osiel Cardenas Guillen and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Cardenas, who has been in jail on drug charges in Mexico since 2003, reportedly oversees his narco-trafficking organization from prison. His group, often referred to in the mainstream press as the “Gulf cartel,” has controlled the Nuevo Laredo market for years.

Cardenas’ primary enforcers are the Zetas, a group composed of former elite Mexican military commandos who deserted their posts to take up arms as mercenaries in the narco-market.

However, in recent years, Guzman has made inroads into the Nuevo Laredo market by waging a bloody street war against the Cardenas organization and the Zetas. Guzman’s operation, referred to in the mainstream press as the “Sinaloa cartel,” has a couple hundred hired guns committed to the battle in the border town of some 500,000 people, according to law enforcers. Cardenas has a slightly larger force, law enforcers contend.

That is the script. However, the truth is that no one really knows whose force has the upper hand, or how many players are really making a run at gaining a foothold in the Nuevo Laredo narco-market. The attrition rate is in constant flux in this the turf war – due to murders, double-crosses and pay-offs.

Zetas and other mercenary gangs are in the game for money and the power that brings. Loyalty in that world usually goes to the highest bidder. Also in the mix as partisans in the war are corrupt law enforcers, who also play for money.  In all cases, death is the ultimate referee.

The U.S. mainstream media focuses on the Mexican “cartels” and crooked Mexican cops in the war on drugs, but rest assured that the trail of corruption and death on that front extends across the border and follows the money north throughout the narco-trafficking pipeline.

The narco-turf war now playing out in Nuevo Laredo has led to political opportunism as well. The U.S. State Department recently issued a travel warning for the Mexican border region, singling out Nuevo Laredo in particular as a destination to avoid. The warning is seen by some as a way to justify interference by U.S. officials in the affairs of the Mexican government – in particular, the upcoming Mexican presidential election.

But occasionally, though almost not certainly by design, the commercial media does let some light slip through in its otherwise dismal coverage of the war on drugs.

Case in point: A recent article in the Houston Chronicle. Make no mistake about it, the article does adhere to the script of examining the drug war as a one-dimensional beast limited to the Mexican side of the border. However, the story in the Chronicle does manage to lay out some of the market forces that are propelling the narco-turf war in Nuevo Laredo.

Here’s an excerpt from the story that does follow the script, which is best likened to a Clint Eastwood Spagetti Western:

NUEVO LAREDO, MEXICO - On a recent Saturday night, well-heeled patrons at a fashionable restaurant in this embattled border city shared part of an evening with one of Mexico's most notorious drug lords.

Accompanied by a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of a cartel of traffickers operating along the Mexican border, swept into the restaurant, shocking its 40 customers.

After his gunmen locked the doors, the drug kingpin warned the diners against leaving the restaurant or using their cell phones until he had finished eating. But to atone for the inconvenience, Guzman picked up the tab for everyone in the house.

"He was there to prove a point," said FBI agent Arturo Fontes, commenting about the separate accounts by two Nuevo Laredo residents about the visit to the lavish beef and seafood eatery. "He was there to let people know he's in town," the agent said, " that he's here to stay and he is controlling part of the (territory) in Nuevo Laredo."

The restaurant visit, which came in the midst of a nationwide dragnet for the drug-gang leader, who escaped from prison in 2001, highlights the challenge faced by the Mexican government as it attempts to put down a two-year turf war between Guzman and another powerful trafficker. Their gangs, each commanding hundreds of gunmen, are struggling for control of this border city of 500,000 people and the narcotics-trafficking routes that run through it.

Despite President Vicente Fox's deployment in March of about 800 troops and federal paramilitary police, gang gunmen armed with military-grade assault rifles, grenades and even rocket launchers continue to wage an urban street war.

Since Jan. 1, 45 people linked to organized crime have been killed here, Mexican authorities say. In addition, five police officers have been assassinated in the same period. The latest slaying of a policeman occurred Thursday when gunmen killed a 36-year-old police commander, shooting him at least 20 times, seven in the face.

One U.S. law enforcer in Laredo told Narco News that the murdered police commander had lined up on the wrong side of the turf war, which he claims Guzman appears to be winning.

The commander … was protecting the Z's (Zetas) and that is why he was killed. Seems that all people, including law enforcement, are in it for the money and drugs.

And what is this bloody stand-off all about? Like most wars, it’s about controlling territory.

Here’s where the Houston Chronicle story touches on some truth – albeit from a very one-sided point of view -- again, a vantage point that only looks south:

… Veteran supervisors and agents of the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement say Nuevo Laredo has become invaluable to Mexico's drug cartels.

The smugglers take advantage of the city's extensive trade facilities, which process more legitimate cargo than those at any other crossing point along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Last year, merchants and shippers moved $89.7 billion worth of legitimate goods from 60 countries through Laredo into the United States, exceeding the $42.7 billion in merchandise that crossed at El Paso and $22 billion in San Diego, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

In Texas, the U.S. investigators say, the gangs use the Interstate 35 corridor to move narcotics into Dallas and then to cities on the East Coast.

"Nuevo Laredo is very important because of the four bridges" to Laredo, said FBI agent Fontes, who is the bureau's border-liaison officer in Laredo. "It's also important because of 35. It's a direct route to Dallas."

… During the first two years of the turf war, 2003 and 2004, the city's (Nuevo Laredo’s) homicide rate skyrocketed, with the gangs staging ambushes and execution-style killings. More than 80 people were slain in each of those years. This year, the city is on pace to record more than 130 killings linked to organized crime.

Many of the dead were from working-class neighborhoods, men who apparently had been recruited by the cartels. Others were seasoned gangsters brought in from across Mexico or from as far away as Honduras.

The story does a service in pointing out that the narco-trafficking organizations are fighting over a major transportation corridor into the most lucrative illegal drug market in the world: the United States. Nuevo Laredo just happens to be one of the major Mexican ports of entry along that corridor.

What the story fails to put into context, however, is that the violence that marks the turf war in Nuevo Lardeo is not limited to that town, nor to the Mexican side of the border. This so-called turf war, in reality, is nothing more than an extreme form of capitalism, in which contracts and land acquisition are enforced at the end of a gun.

So to really assess the fall-out of this ongoing hostile take-over of a narco-trafficking node, we have to take into account the treachery, murder and pay-offs occurring along the entire transportation corridor, from the border, north through Texas and along the major stops of the drug-war economy – the small towns and big cities – throughout the United States.

Then, we might start to get a true glimpse of the cost of the war on drugs. We can start by putting the alleged murder rate in Nuevo Laredo due to the ongoing narco-turf war into a bit of context.

The Houston Chronicle reports that “more than 80 people were slain” in 2003 and again in 2004 as a result of the narco-battle for Nuevo Laredo.

In isolation, that number sounds extreme. But let’s take a look at the murder tally in cities in the United States that are similar in size to Nuevo Laredo (population 500,000-plus). These are U.S. cities (not metro areas) that arguably also are major markets in the international narco-trafficking economy. The figures below are culled from FBI crime statistics and are for the year 2003, the most current data available:

• Baltimore, population 644,554; murders, 270
• Milwaukee, population 594,269; murders, 109;
• Washington, DC, population, 563,384; murders, 284
• New Orleans, population 475,128; murders, 274
• Atlanta, population 431,043; murders, 149;
• Oakland, Calif., population, 407,003; murders, 109
• Richmond, VA, population, 199,968; murders, 93

And what was the homicide count for U.S. citizens in Nuevo Laredo during that same year, 2003? A big fat 0.

For 2004, according to State Department figures, a total of five U.S. citizens were the victims of homicides in Nuevo Laredo. And even in those cases, it is not clear how many, if any, of the murders were due to drug-trafficking activities – or how many of the murder victims themselves were engaged in drug-trafficking.

During that same period (2003-2004), how many murders occurred on the U.S. side of the border due to the battle over the narco-transportation corridor? As important, why has the U.S. mainstream media chosen not to commit its investigative resources to get an answer to that question?

And while we’re at it, here are a few more questions that need answering. Why are State Department and other U.S. officials so concerned about Nuevo Laredo and the Mexican border when it comes to the war on drugs? Why is the U.S. media so overly occupied with covering the Mexican markets in the narco-trafficking mecca?  

These questions are particularly vexing when it seems violence, specifically murder, is as much, if not more, of a problem right here in the states, and we have to assume that the war on drugs is playing a significant role in those murder rates.

The answer to the questions, in my opinion, is simple: Covering the real war on drugs is not part of the script.

If we were to open up that whole can of worms, look at the entire pipeline of the drug trade, we would have to be honest about all the corruption that exists within our own borders, corruption not only on our streets, but in our halls of justice and our houses of money. That wouldn’t be good for business, which by extension means it wouldn’t be good for the commercial media.

But to continue to ignore this reality is to buy into a big lie, to continue to accept a pretense that can only lead to a dead end and more misery for people on both sides of the border.

One method used by narco-traffickers to dispose of a body, according one law enforcement official along the border, is to feed it to hungry pigs.

“Just starve the pigs for a few days, throw in the body and there is no trace left,” the law enforcer says. “Pigs sure are a hungry bunch.”

It seems the U.S. media has applied a similar practice in their coverage of the war on drugs. They simply treat their audience like pigs and feed them with a steady nourishment-free diet of misinformation.  Then, every so often, they throw in a body or two from south of the border, knowing full well that it will be devoured without much thought.  …. That’s all folks.

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