Feb. 12, 2006
Houston Chronicle, 12 February 2006
Free trade fuels drug smuggling
By JAMES PINKERTON
NUEVO LAREDO, MEXICO - The five bridges spanning the green waters of the Rio Grande bustle with more than 21,000 cars, trucks and buses every day. This border town - and its American sister city across the river - see more than $100 billion in commerce rumble through every year.
They’re known as "Los Dos Laredos," and few dispute the towns are one of the great NAFTA success stories.
But U.S. drug agents say that free trade with Mexico has had an ugly and unintended consequence: Just as legitimate business people have flocked to Nuevo Laredo, so have criminals. And they have quickly turned it into one of the most dangerous and violent towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, agents say.
Last week, gunmen swept into the newsroom of Nuevo Laredo’s main newspaper, sprayed it with gunfire and tossed at least one grenade, critically injuring a reporter. Mexican authorities haven’t arrested anyone, but say warring drug traffickers are widely suspected.
U.S. drug agents say they aren’t surprised the city of 310,000 has become such a coveted outpost for smugglers. They’ve worried for years that free trade unwittingly fuels trafficking.
In May 1997, a federal, state and local task force called Operation Alliance issued a confidential 57-page report, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, saying that Mexican gangs were already exploiting NAFTA to smuggle drugs.
"This, in large part, is because of the excellent cover commercial trade activity provides," said the report, entitled "Drug Trafficking, Commercial Trade and NAFTA on the Southwest Border."
It’s no wonder, American agents say, that traffickers from the Pacific state of Sinaloa are trying to wrest Nuevo Laredo from a gang known as the Gulf Cartel.
America’s largest land port is just across the river.
Customs officers in Laredo handle more trade than the ports of Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas combined, according to the Laredo Development Foundation, a private economic development group.
Laredo is the only border city strategically positioned between the industrial heart of northern Mexico and Interstate 35 and other major highways and rail lines.
"You’ve got this major corridor into the United States, and with the vast numbers of vehicles coming in daily, the traffickers are hoping they can move their product mixed in with legitimate cargo going north," said Tom Hinojosa, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in Laredo.
Customs officials in Laredo say they do their best to stop smuggling while trying to keep legitimate trade flowing.
"We’re not naïve," Gene Garza, the Customs and Border Protection official in charge of the five Laredo bridges. "We’re not going to say it doesn’t get by us," he said of illicit drugs. But "it’s impossible to search every truck."
On average, 4,500 trucks enter Laredo from Mexico every day. They are examined on a 75-acre lot near Laredo’s World Trade Bridge. Officers look for contraband using sniffer dogs and X-ray equipment.
"I would say our officers look at every truck. They don’t all get searched," Garza said. "We have to balance trade facilitation with enforcement."
Inspecting every truck would cripple trade on the border, and disrupt automobile production and other industries in Mexico, he said.
To be sure, the pressure to keep trade moving along is intense.
By one estimate, even a 1 percent permanent drop in cross-border commerce triggers a loss of 1,549 jobs, $76 million in sales and $726,000 in bridge revenues in Laredo, Brownsville, McAllen and El Paso alone.
But some Nuevo Laredo merchants are so tired of the drug violence, they’d prefer tougher inspections, no matter the economic consequences.
"To stop this, you search every single truck," said Jack Suneson, vice president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce. "And when you do, it will form a line that will stretch from here to Monterrey. You would put pressure on the Mexican government, and it would cut into exports."
As it is, Suneson said, traffickers seem to operate with little interference.
"They are here because this is an easy place to get drugs across," he said. "It’s an embarrassment to the United States and to Texas. They are doing it right under our noses."
U.S. agents say police corruption in Nuevo Laredo is a big problem, a point that Suneson concedes.
"Corruption runs deep, deep in Mexico," said Suneson, whose family has owned Marti’s, an upscale Nuevo Laredo arts, crafts and jewelry store, for 52 years.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
Americans buy more than $62 billion in cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines per year, according to a February 2005 report by the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center.
And Texas is one of the country’s leading drug-distribution centers.
In Nuevo Laredo, criminals wanting to get in on the act must pay tribute to the gangs who control the territory, known in Spanish as "la plaza."
"We have information that one cartel is charging $20,000 a week if you want to smuggle undocumented aliens," said Alonso Peña, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Antonio.
Cartel enforcers also extort payments from legitimate business operators, he said.
"If you’re going to shine shoes in Nuevo Laredo, you are going to pay a tax to somebody," he said. "The cartels control everything. Restaurants, businesses - they have to pay protection money so their businesses won’t be messed with."
Traffickers use their profits to buy posh homes, late-model SUVs, weapons and communications gear, U.S. agents say. They also try to sway media coverage of their turf battles.
But the violence goes on, whether it makes the morning paper or not.
"I think the struggle for control will continue until one group maintains an advantage or until there’s a truce," said Hinojosa, the DEA agent. "The violence is ongoing, and it doesn’t appear that it’s subsiding