The April 2012 murder and dismemberment of 14 people whose bodies were methodically placed in front of a lengthy and detailed narco-banner apparently didn’t make enough of an impact to satisfy Sinaloa Federation Cartel leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. One week later, Mexican authorities found nine more corpses hanging from a bridge. The heads of fourteen additional bodies were discovered near Nuevo Laredo’s city hall. The brutality reportedly was El Chapo’s work – he was sending a message to rival transnational criminal organization (TCO), The Los Zetas, that he would exact punishment on them for invoking negative media and law enforcement attention to this city just south of Laredo, Texas. A portion of the banner read: “This is how I am going to finish off all the fools you send to heat up the plaza.” It was followed with the warning , “We'll see you around, you bunch of parasites.” The border crossing from the Tamaulipas state city of Nuevo Laredo into Laredo, Texas is one of the busiest along the southwest border, particularly for commercial vehicles. The port of entry (POE) consists of five bridges over which more than 13,000 cars, 32,000 passengers, 4,000 commercial vehicles and 9,000 pedestrians cross on average cross each day. In fiscal year 2011, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the Laredo POE seized almost 17 tons of narcotics, $4.7 million in currency and made 1,746 federal arrests. Thanks to the endless possibilities for smuggling drugs in so many cars and trucks, the Nuevo Laredo-Laredo corridor is one of the most lucrative for TCOs -- and thus one Mexico’s TCOs frequently fight for control of. The first major battle over Nuevo Laredo started around 2003. At that time, the fighting was between El Chapo’s Federation Cartel and the Gulf Cartel (or, CDG for Cartel del Golfo). However, the Los Zetas Cartel also were part of the mix at the time because they were working as CDG enforcers. The head of the CDG at the time, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, was arrested in 2003, and it’s possible that Los Zetas felt it now had a bit more freedom to engage in increasingly brutal behavior due to his absence. The ensuing battle between these cartels introduced beheadings and dismemberments -- a style of violence that is commonplace today. Many experts though believe the warring between these ruthless TCOs at the time marked the start of Mexico’s modern drug war, and not the inauguration of President Felipe Calderón in December 2006 and his widely touted “war on drugs.” But while drug-related deaths spiked in Nuevo Laredo at that time, they didn’t reach the sorts of astronomical numbers that occurred years later in cities like Ciudad Juárez, and this is probably why this shift is often overlooked. While border violence spillover today is hotly debated, there is little doubt that the conflict between the Federation and CDG in Nuevo Laredo between 2003-2006 had a negative impact on its American sister city to the north. During this time, the murder rate skyrocketed in Laredo, Texas. Murders increasing from seven in 2002, to 29 in 2003. The surge in killings was largely attributed to members of Los Zetas crossing the border and carrying out assassinations in the city. A major drug dealer in Dallas had partnered with Miguel “Z-40” Treviño Morales -- now second in charge of Los Zetas -- to move cocaine through the corridor into Texas, and the TCO needed to establish control over the “plaza.” Morales set up drug stash houses throughout Laredo and dispatched at least four hit squads to eliminate dozens of people. Media and law enforcement reports indicate the Los Zetas’s hit list at the time had the names of at least 40 people in the United States, many of them in the Laredo area. The situation in Laredo has greatly improved since then. After the hostilities between the TCOs stabilized, the murder rate dropped from 22 in 2006, to ten in 2007. Last year there were 11, and in 2010, there were nine. So far this year, there have only been seven homicides in this city of 236,000 people. In addition, between 2009-2011, the rates for robbery, theft and auto theft were all down -- the latter by 67 percent. Laredo Police Department Public Information Officer, Investigator Joe Baeza, believes the security situation in Laredo is calm and relatively stable, especially compared to their sister city across the border. “It’s not what people believe, when it comes to the situation in border cities,” Baeza said. “Law enforcement agencies here are very in tune with what’s happening in Mexico, and they’re doing a good job of mitigating any crossover violence.” Asked about his city’s past role in the drug war, Baeza acknowledged there were problems. “We learned a lot from those years [2003-2006],” he said. “We saw not so much cartel-on-cartel violence, but a lot of directed hits.” Thanks to that unfortunate, but important experience, Baeza said he believes his department and other agencies in the region are prepared to deal with any potential spillover from this current battle over one of the border’s most lucrative smuggling corridors. Consequently, the outlook for The Los Zetas in Laredo today looks very different than it did nine years ago. It’s less likely they’ll go on a killing spree there simply because they’re expected, and law enforcement will be waiting for them. Still, it’s important to note that their members, as well as members of the CDG, continued to engage in violent behavior this past year in south Texas. The main problem is that it’s usually the younger, less experienced recruits and co-opted US-based gang members employed by the cartels who are the ones who are trigger-happy and get themselves into trouble. Hopefully the Zetas and the CDG will remember that violence on the US side -- especially in a lucrative smuggling “plaza” like Laredo -- is bad for business and take measures to rein in their hot-headed foot soldiers. That way, US law enforcement in Laredo can focus on stopping narcotics rather than bullets.
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