As reported by the New York Times:
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The reminders of Nuevo Laredo’s violent days still mar its streets — bullet holes and the impacts of grenades where drug traffickers once flaunted their power, boarded-up buildings of merchants who fled the lawlessness, and until they were leveled by the government a few weeks ago, garish roadside shrines to Santa Muerte, the saint of death.
What makes Nuevo Laredo so remarkable now, however, is the relative calm that envelops this border town, a small dose of good news in a country awash with bloodshed.
Tamaulipas State, where Nuevo Laredo is located, used to be ground zero in the country’s drug war, with convoys of criminals riding through the streets as if they owned them and one of the highest murder rates in the country. That distinction has since shifted farther west along the United States-Mexico border to Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, where soldiers patrol the streets by the thousands. But Nuevo Laredo’s transformation from war zone to regular town is not necessarily what it seems. Organized crime has gone underground in Nuevo Laredo, still feared, still thriving, but no longer in charge.
That uneasy peace may well be the best outcome Mexico can extract from its consuming drug war, so Nuevo Laredo could be a glimpse of the country’s future. Government officials acknowledge that their realistic goal is not to eliminate the outlaws, but to weaken them to the point where something resembling everyday life can resume.
The government, which is in the midst of a vicious, countrywide battle with the cartels, played a role in the newfound tranquillity by pouring soldiers into Nuevo Laredo, under President Felipe Calderón and his predecessor, Vicente Fox. They took up positions around the city and took over the police force, which was regarded as a corrupt adjunct of the cartels.
But the army did not actually defeat the traffickers here by rounding them up and putting them out of business. Rather, law enforcement officials on both sides of the border say, a brutal, long-running turf war between rival cartels came to an end when one side, the Gulf Cartel, came out on top. The added presence of government troops made it harder for the rival Sinaloa Cartel to continue its quest to take over Gulf territory. But many of the most-wanted criminals responsible for the violence got away and continued their business trafficking drugs, in the shadows.
What has changed and what has not in this once-besieged border city are best seen through the eyes of some of those who survived the darkest times.
Story by Mark Lacey continued…