Where The News Can't Be Reported
Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe.
NUEVO LAREDO, Tamaulipas, Mexico -- This bustling city along the south Texas border is the latest hot spot in Mexico's ongoing drug war. The body count during the second week of September totaled some 77 people, the deadliest week so far this year.
The deteriorating security situation not only makes Nuevo Laredo a dangerous place to live, it also makes it close to impossible for reporters to do their job safely.
On the morning news show broadcast out of Nuevo Laredo six times a week, listeners can hear announcements about a lost green card or a 7-year-old's birthday. One thing they won't hear is the latest body count or anything remotely related to organized crime.
Reporters put themselves at risk when they write about drug violence, so most choose self-censorship.
The smuggling routes in and around Nuevo Laredo are tightly controlled by the Zetas drug cartel. This territory used to belong to the Zeta's former allies, the Gulf Cartel, before they broke away two years ago. The Gulf Cartel has been trying to recover their former plaza ever since, which has resulted in continuous spikes in violence.
Journalists familiar with this city caution colleagues that reporting on the drug violence is far too dangerous. They warn that no one can be trusted. Locals, including government officials, don't recommend out-of-towners take taxis or wander alone. Reporters can be harassed for conducting interviews in public.
It's said the Zetas have lookouts, or halcones, everywhere. For locals, even uttering their name is taboo. People refer to them as 'los de la letra' or 'the letter people'. In Spanish 'Zeta' stands for the letter 'Z'.
“It's very hard to gather any information,” said Gilberto Navarro, the police chief of Laredo, Texas right across the border from Nuevo Laredo.
“In Nuevo Laredo there is a turf fight,” he said. “Basically the Zeta cartel is the one that has the territory. The Gulf cartel also is battling for the same turf.”
On Sept. 14 nine corpses were dumped near the outskirts of the city, one hanging from a bridge. Some speculate the killings may be a result of an arrest earlier that week of Gulf Cartel boss, Jorge Costilla Sanchez, also known as “El Coss.”
To make matters worse, three days later 131 inmates escaped from a prison in Piedras Negras, about two hours outside Nuevo Laredo. The onslaught of violence has choked the city with fear.
“You start changing your way of life,” said Humberto Palomares, a local college professor. “Most of the people now are not going out in the evening. Most businesses in the city are closing earlier.”
As a reporter who's covered conflict zones in the past, I traveled to Nuevo Laredo with a specific reporting plan. That plan quickly fell apart after I arrived. The army colonel I planned to interview was caught in the middle of a gun battle. A radio host refused to answer his phone and business owners were afraid to talk on tape. Finally I was able to get a driver who agreed to take me around the city.
For his own safety I agreed not to reveal the driver's name. As we drove around, he asked me to keep my microphone below the windshield.
First, he took me to his own neighborhood.
“When I'm at home with my family, all of a sudden we hear gunfire in the mornings and in the evenings,” the driver said. “It sounds like a car crash, but louder.”
From the car window, the city appeared deceivingly peaceful. A neighborhood yard sale featured soccer jerseys and bicycles. Houses were neatly kept some shaded by lush pecan trees. Downtown, people were catching the bus and shoppers streamed into local businesses.
But then we weaved into another neighborhood. A convoy of soldiers whizzed by on the cross-street ahead of us.
“We're coming up on a house that was recently raided by the federal police,” the driver said.
He points to a vacant house riddled with bullet holes.
“It once housed kidnap victims,” he said.
Next he drove by a yellow house with an ornate wrought iron gate. The house looked brand new, except for the garage, which was a burnt out shell. Local gangsters are known to set fire to rivals' homes.
Hernan Rozemberg's account of reporting in Mexico.
But in this case, my driver said, they hit the wrong house.
The family of three who lived in the yellow stucco house was killed, including a 5-year-old girl. Like most crime stories, this one didn't make the local news.
Unlike their American colleagues, local reporters don't have the option to cross back into United States after their work is published.