MEXICO CITY — Printing shop owner Alejandro Dominguez Coello was the only man brave enough to seek out the police chief's job in the violence-racked border town of Nuevo Laredo.
Six police officers had been killed there since February, so when the last chief left, city officials searched for weeks before hiring Dominguez. Within hours of taking office Wednesday, the new top cop was killed in a hail of gunfire, presumably by drug traffickers.
The ambush and killing of Dominguez was one of the more audacious crimes in a string of drug-related killings that have terrorized Nuevo Laredo in recent months. Since January, 63 people have been slain in the northern Mexican city of about 315,000 people. Authorities believe most of the victims are casualties of an escalating war between rival drug gangs for control of a key transportation hub on the border with Texas.
Dominguez, the former head of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce, took a job that intimidated even law enforcement veterans. Many residents said his decision was the equivalent of pasting a target on his back. But the 56-year-old father of three told reporters at his swearing-in Wednesday that he had no fear.
"I'm not beholden to anyone. My commitment is to the citizenry," Dominguez said. "I think those who should be afraid are those who have been compromised."
Six hours later, assailants opened fire with assault rifles as the new chief climbed into his Ford pickup.
Police say they have no suspects, but residents believe that the dozens of shell casings found near Dominguez's bullet-riddled body belonged to drug traffickers who were sending a message that they controlled the streets of Nuevo Laredo.
"They are openly defying the Mexican state," Mexico City political scientist Jorge Chabat said. "They are showing that they can kill anybody at any time. It's chilling."
Violence along Mexico's northern border has left more than 500 people dead this year. Several weeks ago, the U.S. State Department warned American citizens that the drug war threatened their safety if they traveled to the region.
The travel alert crippled tourism in Nuevo Laredo, causing restaurants and shops to close. Mexican officials including Interior Minister Santiago Creel criticized the warning, saying it "went too far."
On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza called Dominguez's killing "senseless" and repeated Washington's concern about Americans traveling to northern Mexico.
"As friends and neighbors, we should be honest with each other about the rapidly deteriorating situation along the border and the near-lawlessness in some parts," Garza said in a statement. "While I have no interest in criticizing the Mexican government, given my responsibility to promote the safety and security of U.S. citizens, I will not shy away from speaking out when their safety is at stake."
Mexicans have borne the brunt of the carnage, which authorities say is being caused by a war between Mexico's two largest drug gangs, the Juarez and Gulf cartels, for control of the border drug trade. Among the dead are journalists, elected officials, law enforcement officials and drug henchmen from Tijuana to Matamoros.
Nuevo Laredo has emerged as a particularly dangerous battleground. Veteran radio crime reporter Guadalupe Garcia Escamilla was gunned down in the street April 5 after she signed off her morning program. She spent more than a week in the hospital before succumbing to her wounds.
Masked gunmen recently attacked a police convoy in broad daylight on a busy thoroughfare. Although no one was killed, authorities said the scene was littered with more than 500 bullet casings and two grenade launchers.
Law enforcement officials say drug lords covet the area for the same reason that legal businesses do: It's the largest cargo crossing point along the U.S.-Mexico border. Four international bridges connect Nuevo Laredo with its sister city, Laredo, Texas. A fifth bridge is being planned.
In 2003, the Laredo Port of Entry accounted for $79.4 billion, or 40.5%, of the total value of legal U.S.-Mexico trade, according to figures from the Laredo Chamber of Commerce.
"You've got anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 18-wheelers a day coming across the border" from Nuevo Laredo, said Rene Salinas, a special agent with the FBI in San Antonio. "That's significant because [some of them] are being used for the transport of illegal drugs.
"A lot of the problems that are occurring in Mexico are the direct result of demand for drugs in the United States. That's the truth."
The drug lords' operations have taken a toll on legitimate entrepreneurs.
Julian Vigil, manager of the Nuevo Laredo restaurant El Principal, said that visitors had been scared away by the recent violence.
"Businesses are closing," he said. "The tourists are scared ... and sales are plummeting."
Alberto Guerra Gonzalez, a columnist with the Nuevo Laredo newspaper El Diario, described Dominguez as a good businessman who was well liked. He said Dominguez felt a responsibility to the community.
Dominguez's quick execution, Guerra said, was a particularly painful slap to people in Nuevo Laredo.
"No one is going to want to be police chief now," he said.
Times researchers Cecilia Sanchez and Narayani Lasala contributed to this report.