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In a City of Killings, Silence Is Golden

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, is a battleground in a drug cartel turf war. But talking about the crimes can be deadly, especially for journalists.

April 23, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Here, it's better not to know.

Information can be poison in this border city. Hard-boiled police reporters would rather you didn't tell them the names of certain criminals. When there's a shootout downtown, even the most ambitious radio reporter will not necessarily rush to the scene.

So it went the day last month that four undercover federal police officers were ambushed and killed in thick lunch-hour traffic on the city's busiest street. The offices of several newspapers and radio stations were just blocks away -- but the news broke 700 miles to the south, on the Mexico City wire services.

"I don't mention groups, I don't mention names.... I don't want to know anything," said Leonardo Herrada Garcia, president of the Assn. of Journalists of Nuevo Laredo and a newspaper editor here. His paper will publish only the barest facts of the crime wave sweeping the city.

"It's not fear, it's being prudent," he explained. Three journalists have been killed here in the last year. "We're not going to try to be the hero of the movie."

The war between the so-called Gulf and Sinaloa drug cartels has been blamed by Mexican federal officials for more than 230 killings in the city in the last 16 months. The journalists who ordinarily would report on such violence have been silenced by cartel operatives who kidnap reporters and repeatedly phone in threats to newsrooms.

Violence and intimidation have created a culture of silence in this city of 500,000 people. Municipal officials rarely comment publicly on the killings. Law enforcement authorities seem powerless. And people here are hard-pressed to remember the last time anyone was arrested or prosecuted for such sensational crimes as the killing of more than a dozen police officers.

"When a crime is committed there should be an investigation, an accused, a punishment," says Carlos Galvan, the owner of two newspapers here. "As long as those things don't happen, speculation eats up [the reputation of] the victim."

Indeed, rumor and mythology are filling the information vacuum in Nuevo Laredo.

Ask why so many people have died here, and there's a good chance you'll be told that the dead have only themselves to blame. The vox populi has it that no "good" or "innocent" person is ever killed in Nuevo Laredo.

"They must have been involved in something," a taxi driver said just a block from the site where the four police officers were killed.

The refrain is reminiscent of dictatorships in other Latin American nations, such as Argentina, where for years people were taken away by soldiers and police officers and "disappeared" without explanation.

Told that the dead were police officers, the taxi driver responded, "The police are all corrupt."

Another popular saying here draws on the Mexican myth that killers are fated to forever drag around the remains of their victims: "Only the person who carries the sack of bones knows why they were killed," people say.

Newspaper and radio reporters here say they would like to tell the full story of the killings. The names of certain drug kingpins circulate among journalists and in other border towns, but have never been printed. Facts might help dispel the myths, they say, as well as the aura of omnipotence that surrounds the cartels. But facts can get reporters killed.

"Some fortunate people who have not been touched directly by the violence can give themselves the luxury of thinking that honest people are not affected," said one journalist who, like many other people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of not being named. "That's not true."

The cartels are a shadowy but ubiquitous presence. Longtime residents fear their wealth, their armaments and their apparent infiltration of institutions, such as the police force.

"Here, everyone knows who is a narco and who works for them," said one Nuevo Laredo resident, a university student.

"The important thing is not to get mixed up with them and keep a normal life. I even know some narco juniors," the student said, using a term for the young assassins from well-off families recruited to the cartels. "They're very obvious. They show up with the armored pick-up trucks, with guards and all that."

More than 60 people have been killed in the city this year.

The pictures of the dead run in the local newspapers alongside screaming headlines such as "A Rain of Bullets!" Some papers routinely run stark pictures of open-eyed corpses torn up by high-caliber bullets. But rarely will a local newspaper, or a local official, explain why a person was killed or who the killer might be.

Are all the dead drug dealers, or connected with them, as many say?

When a police officer is killed, is it in retaliation for a police raid, or because the officer was mixed up with criminals?

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