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An eruption of violence

By Gabe Semenza
Dec. 28, 2008 at 6:28 a.m.


LAREDO - You step outside your ground-level motel room. Rusty Fleming's black sport utility vehicle veers into the parking lot. You hop in. Fleming puffs a cigar.

You're in Laredo to learn about the drug violence and the chances it will reach Victoria.

"I don't think Victoria's proximity to the war zone is any safety," Fleming tells you, his voice raspy. "Mexico is a tinderbox."

Fleming zips southward through the city. He discusses his run-ins with the dangerous Mexican cartels.

While fighting in the streets is largely ended, the Gulf Cartel now owns Nuevo Laredo - and its sights are set on controlling the turf that leads straight to Victoria.

Fleming should know. This Dallas-area filmmaker spent three years in Mexico to research the drug war. His documentary offers a vivid glimpse of the horrifying realities.

Until now, Fleming has never agreed to revisit this corridor to personally share stories about what he saw.

To understand how the Gulf Cartel controls Nuevo Laredo, you ask Fleming to take you deep into the city.

Before Fleming takes you into Mexico, he suggests you meet outgoing Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores. Elected in 2004, Flores became sheriff as the drug war erupted.

Fleming drives up a steep ramp, to a second-story parking lot.

"Nuevo Laredo was ground zero," he says, stopping the SUV. "This is where the drug war, in this century, really came to life. The Laredo corridor is why the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels warred. Without a doubt, the corridor is the most valuable piece of real estate in the drug world."

With more than 6,000 multi-ton trucks and 1,000 railcars crossing north over the river here each day, enormous amounts of legitimate and illicit commerce enters the United States. Laredo is the largest inland entry port in the country.

Fleming snubs his cigar, saves half for later, and leads you into the sheriff's office. He adjusts his ball cap and walks down a long hall. Deputies greet him with hugs. The sheriff shakes his hand.

Flores, 47, is an outspoken and controversial sheriff. He fights the cartels on the streets and in the press. The Federal Bureau of Investigation learned cartel leaders made killing Flores a top priority.

"The violence caught us all by surprise," Flores says. "It's disturbing. I could not believe they'd be so brazen."

Federal authorities arrested Osiel Cárdenas, leader of the Gulf Cartel, the year before Flores took office. Trying to cash in on a headless rival, the Sinaloa Cartel fought to control this lucrative corridor.

Fighting between the two cartels worsened each year for three years. The violence spilled into Laredo: kidnappings, a murder outside an auto dealershipand a restaurant shooting, for example.

In Nuevo Laredo, the cartels killed judges, politicians, journalists and other innocents - in ways rarely witnessed outside the Middle East.

The Zetas

Flores is one of only a few in Laredo law enforcement and politics who will even speak the word: Zetas.

In its battle to hold the Laredo corridor, the Gulf Cartel corrupted an elite group of Special Forces-trained Mexican soldiers, who call themselves los Zetas.

On the clock for the cartel, these black-clad commandos decapitated and tortured victims - rival cartel members, critics and innocents - and assassinated public officials.

They dismembered victims, Flores says, and fed body parts to lions. From 2005 to 2006, about 400 were murdered in the corridor, and the death toll included beheadings and torture victims.

As the drug profits soared into the billions of dollars, so, too, did the cartels' access to weapons and technology, and ability to corrupt Mexican law enforcement and politicians.

"No longer is law enforcement equipped to fight them," Flores says. "Now, there are Zetas everywhere as we speak - Laredo, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and El Paso. They can get anything they want."

Just as sudden as the daytime gunfights and assassinations erupted, the public fighting stalled in 2007.

Some say the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels signed a truce. Others say the Gulf Cartel won the war. Either way, the Gulf Cartel's presence is as strong in this corridor as ever.

Rebirth

Fleming thanks the sheriff and leads you outside. "My border buggy," he says, smiling and climbing into his SUV.

He lights his cigar and turns south toward the border. Fleming's life took a turn a decade ago.

Fleming abused drugs for 19 years. He entered rehab in 1996 and then returned to help his father save the family's ailing trucking business. His father died four months later.

Fleming later sold the business. In 2002, he founded Renovatio Productions, a film company and lifelong passion. He also started a faith-based drug and alcohol rehab.

"Renovatio is Latin for rebirth. I reinvented myself through the film industry," Fleming says. He also produces History Channel documentaries and is an expert analyst for CNN.

Out in Webb County, he turns on Espejo Road, drives under a bridge and talks about stumbling upon Mexico's drug war.

Fleming began to document meth smuggling to Dallas. Once on the border, he asked a friend - a student of his rehab - to introduce him to Laredo smugglers. The rehabbed drug addict happened to know a mid-level boss in the Gulf Cartel.

Fleming gained access to the cartel's inner workings, which instantly changed the focus of his documentary.

You ride with Fleming to a barrio in southeast Webb County, dubbed Little Baghdad. Then, you watch Mexicans gather on the riverbanks at night.

Back in Laredo, you eat enchiladas and drink tea. The next morning, Fleming will take you into Mexico.

Nuevo Laredo today

It's morning again, sunny. You hop into Fleming's SUV and head for the International Bridge. You watch the armed Mexican soldiers stationed on the bridge's south side.

Poverty is visible at once. Men stand on the street corners, staring as you pass. Trash blows over sidewalks.

Fleming drives you to an inner-city neighborhood. You visit the street where the cartel assassinated this city's police chief eight hours after officials swore him in. Then, you visit a corner store, planted at a busy intersection, where two American women were kidnapped.

A Mexican police truck pulls alongside the SUV. Four officers, who carry machine guns, pile out and question Fleming for 10 minutes, leaving only after he hands them $40 in small bills.

Downtown, and on foot, Fleming leads you toward a furniture store. The sounds of a nearby parade echo between the tall, old buildings. Peering down a busy street, and then back at you, he says Mexican cartel violence is nothing new.

"But they didn't have the Zetas, not this brutality, not the power, not the kidnappings," he says.

Fleming crosses a narrow street. You watch vehicles zip by within feet. He walks into Marti's, an upscale, three-story, salmon-stucco art and antiques store.

Inside, Jack Suneson, the 59-year-old owner, works at his desk. He greets you and Fleming, says he needs a cigarette and walks to his cobblestone courtyard. Manicured green ivy splashes from the rooftop to the ground.

Police sirens drown the parade noise spilling from the Mariachi floats.

"This is worse than when they were fighting it out because at least they were out in the open," Suneson says.

The Zetas integrated into the fiber of the city, kidnapping and extorting at will. The newspapers are too fearful to report it. Suneson says the city lost itself to narco-terrorists.

Familiar turf

Suneson walks along a sidewalk, never venturing far from his storefront.

While the public violence pushed west to Juarez - a city reeling from two warring cartels and 1,400 drug-related murders this year - the war for turf still lingers on most Nuevo Laredo street corners.

With more than 5,500 drug-related murders in Mexico - twice as many as in 2007 - this year's bloodshed reached an all-time high.

Residents here wonder if the violence will return.

In what was once a thriving downtown, only one restaurant remains. A stream of legitimate business owners fled to the U.S. Broken windows, busted doors and rent signs are common.

Suneson is building a new store in San Antonio, he says.

Within one block, he points to four locations, each the site of a daytime murder. "That way, three bodies," he says. "That way, four. Now, the Zetas are kidnapping people, extorting businesses. That's when I started getting really nervous. The Zetas muscled in on the whole town. This is a nervous city."

He turns a corner, steps into a narrow alley and walks to a taco stand. Children eat potato and cabbage tacos. Pigeons peck at droppings on the street.

Suneson says tourism no longer supports the downtown.

Victoria's Morgan Dunn O'Connor often visited Nuevo Laredo.

"I stopped going because I was afraid of the danger," she says. "I just won't do it anymore. Neither will a number of my friends - and not just from Victoria, but from all over the state."

To send a message that drug lords are still in charge, the cartels assassinated a top city official in March.

"Newspapers here used to cover the violence," Suneson says, biting a taco. "They printed the bloody pictures. So the cartels threw grenades into newsrooms. They murdered reporters. Now, they don't cover the cartels."

Is Laredo the Wild West?

After three days, Fleming says goodbye. He hugs you. You thank him for his time.

Now, you explore Laredo. You find those close to drug violence - law enforcement and business owners with a stake in Nuevo Laredo, for example - live more cautiously than others.

"I wouldn't say Laredo is fearful as much as it is guarded," said Jesse Guillen, Webb County assistant district attorney. "But these guys are close. This could be the calm before the storm."

Diana Fuentes, editor of the Laredo Morning Times, said living near dangerous drug activity is always cause for concern.

"I would say, though, the average Laredoan isn't walking on eggshells," she says. "The ones who are worried just don't go over there."

You visit Raul Salinas, Laredo's mayor and a former FBI agent. City Hall is a towering building with a wide, marble spiral staircase leading to the mayor's office. Out a top window, you see Mexico's flag wave in the distance.

Salinas, elected in 2006, is a short, stout 62-year-old who shaves his head and grooms his mustache.

"Laredo is portrayed as the Wild West. We have problems like any other city," he says. "Things on the border settled down. Nuevo Laredo is peaceful."

Salinas says those not involved with drugs are not at threat. Maybe that's why he felt safe attending a Nuevo Laredo concert with his wife in 2004. Afterward, Salinas returned home.

Yvette Martinez never has. The 27-year-old Laredo woman, and a friend, Brenda Cisneros, went to the same concert Salinas attended. On their way home, the two were kidnapped by Nuevo Laredo police and never heard from again.

William Slemaker is Martinez's 47-year-old stepfather. Desperate still to tell his stepdaughter's story four years later, Slemaker meets you outside a hotel, shivering in the morning breeze.

"For me, as a man, I fix things at home," he tells you. "When my wife is sick, I fix her soup, ease her pain. But what can you do when a loved one goes missing in Mexico?"

Cartel tries to silence Laredo family

When Martinez didn't return, Slemaker walked Nuevo Laredo's streets. He found her pearl-white car in an impound lot on the city's outskirts.

"I knew then something sinister was going on," he says. "I asked for the paperwork on the car. The paperwork showed the towing company was the one used by the Mexican police."

After knocking on doors, he learned Mexican police likely offered his stepdaughter as a gift to cartel bosses, a tip the FBI later confirmed. He also learned other Laredo families coped with similar kidnappings - 40 in all. Most couldn't find loved ones or answers.

The group formed Laredo's Missing. They protested and held vigils. When Martinez's kidnapping aired on "America's Most Wanted," the cartel decided to silence Slemaker.

The Zetas crossed the Rio Grande at night. Slemaker received a call from the FBI. Get your family out of the house, agents told him.

"Fifteen men, dressed commando style, were sent to kill me and my family," Slemaker says. "The FBI caught them before they got here. I stayed in Laredo because I hope Yvette comes home. I just hope she's still alive."

Daniela Ortiz can relate. On Jan. 2, 2003, her husband Sergio Ortiz visited Nuevo Laredo.

"He never came back. No call for ransom. Nothing," Ortiz says, teary-eyed and shaken still almost six years later.

Originally from France, Ortiz didn't know who to turn to.

"He was the only person and only family I had here in Laredo. His clothes are in the same place," she says. "What was his last minute? I can't leave the country without learning what happened to my husband."

Is it coming to Victoria?

Your head swims with the stories you've heard, the photographs you've seen and the tension you felt south of that shallow river. Can this really be happening three hours from Victoria, spilling into the corridor that leads home?

You return home to learn the Gulf Cartel now controls much of the human, cash, drugs and weapons smuggling that passes the Texas-Mexico border.

The cartel's enforcers escort their loads into this country.

Richard Valdemar, an American street gangs expert, is a History Channel adviser.

"In Victoria, the fact is that it's not a market but a crossroads," Valdemar says. "They're going to move up the drug route. They will incrementally move into small cities and take over to protect routes. Victoria would be one of the targets."

Fred Burton agrees. Burton is vice president of counterterrorism at Austin-based Stratfor, the world's largest private intelligence company. Burton is a former U.S. State Department counterterrorism special agent who orchestrated the arrest of the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bombing.

"The Gulf Cartel rules by fear," Burton tells you. "They have the ability to control all aspects of society. We have had more loss of life this year than in any year in history. It's the same with cross-border abductions. They're continuing to cross the thresholds that have reached the insurgent-type behavior we see in Iraq. We've seen child abductions as far north as Austin."

A Victoria boy died in the drug war. In late 2003, gang battles flared on Victoria streets. Two local gangs, the Raza Unida and Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos, fought for control of turf.

Six-year-old Robert Conchola Jr. died late one night when 10 HPL members stood outside his South Liberty Street home and unloaded 30 bullets, killing the boy while he slept on the floor. The barrage missed the boy's father, a rival in the Raza Unida.

Does HPL work with the cartels?

"We do have intelligence that shows linkage in the trade of narcotics," said Herb Tucker, a captain in the Victoria County Sheriff's Office, special crimes unit. "The cartels are beginning to expand their resources and going to various street gangs. We do know it's uncomfortably close."

Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor recently asked the Governor's Office of Homeland Security for $700,000 to help thwart gang counterintelligence efforts in this county.

Mexican cartels who pair with American gangs to smuggle drugs are the biggest organized crime threat to the United States, the U.S. Justice Department deemed in mid December.

"The influence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations over domestic drug trafficking is unrivaled," the report concludes.

To spot local links to the cartel, Fleming tells you to look no further than down your own street. Chances are, he says, drugs stain your neighborhood.

"These groups dictate where the next fight will break out, and who lives or dies," Fleming says. "This month it could be the Laredo corridor, next month Juárez-El Paso, and the next, Tijuana-San Diego. I don't think any one thing will fix it. We're never going to eradicate the demand. Maybe this story doesn't have a happy ending."

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