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Laredo, Texas, battles an image problem

There's been an explosion of drug cartel violence across the Mexican border, in Nuevo Laredo. Local officials on the U.S. side seek to assure everyone that the danger hasn't spread north.

April 28, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • People cross the border from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to Laredo, Texas. Crime has surged in Nuevo Laredo but remained relatively low in Laredo.
People cross the border from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to Laredo, Texas. Crime… (Molly Hennessy-Fiske,…)

LAREDO, Texas — This border city is trying to clear its name.

It is so conjoined with its Mexican sister city across the Rio Grande, Nuevo Laredo, that the two are often referred to as "Los Dos Laredos," or simply Laredo.

That was great for tourism in happier days. But as drug cartel violence exploded in Nuevo Laredo in recent years, pictures broadcast around the world of gunfights, decapitated bodies piled in abandoned minivans, and severed heads dumped in coolers often bore the same headline: "Laredo."

Now officials in Laredo, Texas, the largest inland port in the nation, are trying to distance themselves from those images.

Last year, Laredo officials launched a website and billboard campaign to lure visitors: "Laredo is Safe." The year before, Laredo welcomed television crews to show their crackdown on crime in the A&E series "Bordertown: Laredo." Officials challenge reports of violence spilling over from Mexico, contending that in recent years the city of 240,000 has become safer and that the crime rate remains low, like in many border cities.

Interim Police Chief Gilberto Navarro noted that four years ago Laredo led the nation in car thefts, with 1,792 a year — cars often used to smuggle people and drugs to and from Mexico, he said. By last year, even as Laredo's population grew, annual car thefts had decreased to 381.

During the first half of last year, Laredo police reported 540 violent crimes, including eight homicides, according to police and the most recent FBI crime statistics. That's on pace with the year before, Navarro said, when Laredo reported 1,120 violent crimes, including 11 homicides — half the number of homicides reported five years before.

Meanwhile, violent crime in border counties was down 26% in California, 33% in Arizona and 30% in Texas between 2004 and 2011, according to a congressional report this year.

"This report verifies that the border is as safe a place to raise a family, build a business or enjoy retirement as nearly any other area of the country," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat whose district includes his hometown of Laredo.

Laredo officials credit the concentration of federal and local law enforcement in town with deterring spillover cartel violence, and border experts agree.

"There's no incentive for these groups to operate on the other side of the border," said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, who leads the government department at the University of Texas at Brownsville. "Numbers tell us that crime has gone down. Why? Because they are spending more money on getting crime down."

But public perception of Laredo is another matter. Ray Keck, president of Texas A&M International University in Laredo, said parents still call him, wary about sending their children to the city. Hospitals have to persuade doctors to come work in Laredo, emphasizing that it's not a war zone. Families have to lure relatives to local weddings.

When Nuevo Laredo's police chief disappeared in February, his brothers found shot dead in the trunk of a car, Laredo's mayor started fielding calls — was the Police Department still open?

"The misperception has been a problem. It's always this cloud overhanging us, that it's going to come across the border, but it has not," said Norbert Dickman, general manager of the company that runs Laredo's La Posada Hotel on the banks of the Rio Grande. They have seen far fewer tourists in recent years due to concern about violence, he said.

Miguel Conchas, president of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce, which launched the "Laredo is Safe" campaign, said that his daughter calls regularly from San Antonio to check on his safety, and that colleagues in San Antonio and Austin share her concerns.

"The first comment people always make at a meeting is, 'How are you guys? Is it safe?'" Conchas said.

For longtime residents such as Keck, the violence in neighboring Nuevo Laredo not only unjustly harms their city's reputation, it has also ripped apart the harmony of Los Dos Laredos. Keck, who raised his bilingual family in both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, has not crossed the border in years, and called the separation "a heartbreak."

"We lived on both sides," he said. "You didn't have to choose."

Local lawyer Baldemar Garcia agreed. He and his family no longer cross the border weekly to visit family, dine out and attend bullfights.

"The symbiosis is gone," he said.

Helen Blanco, a supervisor at Dr. Ike's hardware store, won't be attending her niece's quinceanera in Nuevo Laredo this year. But she's had to explain to relatives in Austin that security is better in Laredo, where she plans to hold her August wedding at a church called Paz en la Tormenta, Peace in the Storm.

"They're afraid," Blanco said of her out-of-town guests. "They say, 'Are you sure? Are we safe?' I said, of course — I wouldn't risk my family."

A. Marcus Nelson, Laredo schools superintendent, moved here four years ago having worked in Austin, Dallas and his native San Antonio. He said the violence he sees is not big-city crime, certainly not cartel-level.

"We don't have dead bodies in the streets of my neighborhood or gunshots all night," Nelson said during a weekend luncheon at the Laredo Country Club in the Plantation gated development.

Nelson lives in "old Laredo," a low-income area where much of the A&E series was filmed.

Near Nelson at the luncheon, two women visiting from College Station, Texas, said they were pleasantly surprised by Laredo. They had passed a "Laredo is Safe" billboard on their 330-mile drive south. "We went to Wal-Mart last night in the dark and were fine," said Tish Wilkins, 46. "We've already planned a trip to bring our friends back."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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