MATAMOROS, Mexico — When the killings of six guards at the nearby maximum-security prison horrified even this bloodied border city, civic leaders came up with an interesting solution to their image problem: change the name of the prison.
Matamoros, where mass kidnappings and assassinations have become common, was rocked by the incident in which six guards were kidnapped after they left work Jan. 20, and found two hours later, hands bound, shot dead and jammed into a van. Authorities say the killings are "message murders" from narco-traffickers that the government should back off on its effort to clean up the prison system.
As the home of the so-called Gulf cartel, one of Mexico's most vicious drug trafficking gangs, Matamoros has witnessed ebbs and flows of violence. But the executions of the guards set a new standard for ruthlessness, and may have been the last straw for the U.S. State Department, which days later issued a travel advisory warning of the dangers in Mexican border towns.
Although U.S. officials later softened their warning, saying it was not meant to discourage visitors to the border region, its effect was swift. Tourism declined sharply, and truck crossings from neighboring Brownsville, Texas, fell 15%. Late last month, a meeting between Texas and Tamaulipas state lawmakers to discuss border issues was moved from Matamoros to Brownsville after the Texas delegation refused to cross into Mexico because of safety concerns.
Alarmed, the City Council and business community are calling for drastic measures. They've asked that the 400 federal police and army troops sent here after the killings remain permanently. And they want the prison, known as the Matamoros Federal Center for Social Re-Adaptation, to be renamed the Saltpeter prison. Or the Mesquite prison. Anything but Matamoros.
Although some observers say the city and region are suffering from much bigger problems than a name change can fix, Mayor Baltazar Hinojosa Ochoa says the town of Matamoros is being unfairly tarred by the grim goings-on at the prison, about 12 miles west of the border crossing.
"It's as if Alcatraz were San Francisco, but Alcatraz is one thing and San Francisco is another, yes or no? Well, it's the same here in that [the prison] is one thing and Matamoros is something else," he said. "The city is calm and not what has been portrayed internationally."
But human rights advocate Luz Armenta of Matamoros says the city is dangerous and that people on both sides of the border have reason to be afraid here.
"You don't honk your horn here at anyone," she said, "because you never know if they are going to jump out of the car and shoot you with AK-47s in the middle of the street."
Talk of more police and image improvement is of no interest to Alma Lilia Gonzalez, the 23-year-old widow of Jose Isidro del Valle, one of the six slain guards. Gonzalez said her husband, who started work at the prison just four months ago, hadn't been threatened before he was killed.
"He was so happy to get the job because he started earning much more than before," she said of the $700-a-month salary, twice what factory workers in the city's maquiladoras make. "We were going to have another baby and buy a house."
Tears slipping down her cheeks, Gonzalez said she still had not told their 4-year-old son, Kevin, that his father was dead
Public Security Ministry officials said that since the shootings, 40 prison guards have requested transfers, out of a staff estimated in the local media at 150. The prison is one of three maximum-security facilities in Mexico.
As is common when law enforcement officials here are killed, some in the Mexican press speculated that Del Valle and the other guards were targeted because they somehow had been involved in drug trafficking.
But official information so far indicates the killings were random. Del Valle's neighbors described him as honest and hard-working.
"God takes the good ones and leaves the bad ones here," said Dora Elena Cabrera, owner of a small store near Del Valle's house in the El Popular barrio. "I've known him since grade school and only saw him being a good father, trying to improve himself and help others. He was so happy because he had found work after looking a long time," she said.
Since the killings, Mexican army soldiers have patrolled the streets of Matamoros and are camped at the downtown public swimming pool complex.
But some say the deployment is too little, too late. The State Department advisory followed an unusual public letter from U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza criticizing Mexico for not doing enough to stem the narco-based violence and kidnappings along the border. The letter was a departure for the Bush administration, which had lauded President Vicente Fox's anti-drug efforts.