Mexican special forces take control in border town
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico - (KRT) - Residents of this besieged city awoke Monday to find their police force gone, replaced by Mexican special forces troops who took over this border community stung by drug violence.
Following a gradual buildup over the weekend, Mexican troops - some of whom were trained by the U.S. military - swept into the city before daybreak and took control of a number of strategic operations, including city hall, the communication tower and police installations.
They also detained hundreds of local police officers suspected of being in cahoots with drug traffickers.
Nationwide, officials said, 71 people have been arrested in Operation Safe Mexico, which the government says will target 14 cities that are being overwhelmed by drug traffickers and their paramilitary armies. At least 600 people have been killed nationwide in drug-related violence this year, most of them in border states.
The attorney general's office in the border state of Tamaulipas made a point Monday of telling reporters they are making progress in their fight against traffickers and have seized more than 10 tons of marijuana and arrested 113 people this year.
In a country where police of all stripes - federal, state and especially local - often work for drug traffickers instead of citizens, the sight of dozens of federal agents and special-forces soldiers toting AR-15 assault rifles left many residents elated.
"What took so long? It was about time," said Eduardo Garcia, 37, surveying the scene outside city hall as a paratrooper stood in the back of a dark green Ram Charger with his finger on the trigger of a sniper rifle. "I love the sight of this."
Mayor Daniel Pena said he was given little information prior to the start of the operation.
Faced with intense criticism for his inability to stop a wave of violence that has claimed the lives of some 61 people this year, including a newly appointed police chief last week, Pena appealed for calm.
The mayor insisted that everything was normal in the 500,000-population border community, whose economy relies heavily on Texas tourism, foreign-owned manufacturing plants and international trade.
Pena's comments drew chuckles from residents and reporters. In the absence of local police, state police officers were on hand to respond to calls from residents.
"We're trying to see who the real cops are and weed out the bad elements," Pena said. "This is for the good of Nuevo Laredo."
Most of the 1,200-member police force underwent drug tests and background checks, local officials here said on the condition of anonymity. More than 700 officers were loaded onto trucks and detained for further questioning here and in Mexico City.
Some U.S. law enforcement officials praised Mexico for the action, but said, "We have sent them addresses, photographs of suspects. Let's see if they really mean business or if it's just a show."
In Mexico City, Fox administration officials called on the U.S. government to assist in stopping the entry of illegal weapons into the Mexico that have contributed to widespread bloodshed. Many of those weapons - assault rifles, Uzis and AK47s - are often purchased at gun shows throughout Texas, U.S. and Mexican intelligence officials say.
Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar denied the government was militarizing the border and said the operation has been in the planning stages for weeks.
"There are very clear signs of a relationship between elements of the Nuevo Laredo police and drug smuggling, hence the decisive action," Aguilar said.
Nuevo Laredo represents the largest hub for land trade and a key transshipment point for South American cocaine and Mexican-produced marijuana and other narcotics heading for the United States.
"We stand ready to assist Mexico in virtually any fashion to secure its borders, which in turn will allow us greater security of our borders," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in Washington. "What I heard was a concession or admission that they are not yet able to do that, which is partly surprising because ... (violence) is just a fact of life."
Despite the federal presence, locals took the latest drama in stride. A small Army convoy of four Hummers slowly cruised downtown Nuevo Laredo. Some parents joked that they felt like Iraqis in Baghdad, questioned by federal agents at outposts as they drove their children to school.
At city hall, employees pressed their noses to the windows, watching the bizarre scene unfold outside.
"I've lived all my life and I've grown used to watching federal agents parade in vehicles, but never have I seen them take over buildings," said 62-year-old Guadalupe Gutierrez, who works for the city auditorium. "If it helps our city, if we can finally live in peace, then I'm all for it. If it's more show, then stop wasting our time, our money and stop playing with our hopes."
Across the street, food vendor Francisco Murad, 53, recently deported from the United States for working illegally in Florida, debated the pros and cons of the operation.
"Business is dead, but things looked calm because people are too scared to come out. I hope they clean this city once and for all because this can kill business for good."
Lines for pedestrians trying to enter Laredo, Texas, were unusually long, covering almost the length of International Bridge One. Lines into Mexico were virtually nonexistent.
"I'm here to look for bargains and to get away from the stress over there," said Macario Sanchez Cantu, pointing to the city of Nuevo Laredo as she joined other shoppers in downtown Laredo.
Meanwhile, south of here, in Reynosa, Mexico, convoys of federal agents rumbled through the streets on Monday, drawing little attention in a town where many believe that the police - and not drug traffickers - are the worst criminals.
"People are apathetic," said Arturo Solis, a journalist and human rights activist in Reynosa. "They don't see these patrols as being very important. . . . All the things that have happened to the Mexican people for so many years has left them castrated."
To be sure, people in Reynosa weren't paying much attention to Monday's patrols.
"I don't know that they're really doing anything," said Elizabeth Garcia, 26, a vendor who sells black t-shirts emblazoned with skulls and the letters AFI, the Spanish initials for Mexico's elite Agencia Federal de Investigacion or Agency for Federal Investigations. "It looks to me like they're just cruising around."