U.S. to reopen consulate despite cartel turf war.

Only an hour after a city councilman was gunned down in Nuevo Laredo yesterday, the U.S. ambassador announced that the U.S. consulate which was closed after a wave of violence will reopen Monday morning.

Ambassador Tony Garza ordered the consulate shut last week because of the unrelenting killings that have made the border city a symbol of the lawlessness incited by Mexican drug cartels.

The latest victim was Councilman Leopoldo Ramos, 44, who headed Nuevo Laredo's Public Security Commission. He and a police bodyguard died instantly when gunmen armed with AK-47s opened fire on Ramos' pickup in a residential neighborhood near his home. His personal secretary, who was also in the truck, remains in critical condition.

Garza fielded a barrage of questions throughout the day about the impact of Ramos' murder, but the ambassador stood by his decision to reopen the consulate.

"This morning's tragic event highlights the need for Mexico to stand resolute in its effort to rescue Nuevo Laredo from the hands of the kingpins and the capos that are actively undermining the fabric of life in both our countries," Garza said in a statement.

In the past week, the U.S. government has taken steps to protect its employees as well as the daily stream of Mexicans who apply for visas at the consulate. Details about the new security measures will not be released, but one U.S. official said people "are going to be much safer than they were in the past. We can't have long lines of people outside the consulate when we're having these public gunbattles erupting during the day around the city."

Diplomatic security experts flew in from Washington, D.C., to advise the consulate. And the Mexican government promised to increase protection for the one-story brick building, which is surrounded by a grassy lawn in a tony section of Nuevo Laredo.

President Vicente Fox's government announced that today it will launch the second phase of a program known as "Mexico Seguro," or "Safe Mexico," which was initiated in June when Nuevo Laredo's police chief was shot to death hours after taking office.

The government said it will expand and strengthen the program, which has sent hundreds of federal agents and soldiers to Nuevo Laredo in an effort to curb drug trafficking, which it branded "a cancer that affects the population."

The border city of 350,000 is caught in a deadly war between two drug cartels trying to control the lucrative corridor between Nuevo Laredo and its U.S. sister city, Laredo, Texas.

One of the cartels is led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, who escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001 by hiding in a laundry cart. The other is headed by Osiel Cárdenas, who is locked in a maximum-security prison near Mexico City, but whose reach still extends to the border.

In recent weeks, the violence has escalated as a third cartel, headed by imprisoned drug kingpin Armando Valencia, joined forces with Guzmán to defeat Cárdenas and his squad of hit men known as the "Zetas," according to U.S. law enforcement officials.

Valencia, who was arrested two years ago, had close ties to traffickers in Medellin, Colombia, and was once a crucial go-between for the Colombians and distributors in northern Mexico, Mexican authorities said.

Fox's government was stung by Garza's decision to close the consulate. The United States has not closed an American installation in Mexico since 1986, when the U.S. Embassy was shut down for four months after the Guadalajara slaying of U.S. drug agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.

A spokesman for Mexican Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca criticized the closing, saying such actions should only be taken "by countries in a situation of war."

But drug-fighting experts said the Fox government can't control the border. Ironically, part of problem can be traced to the government's success in rounding up kingpins such as Valencia, Cárdenas and Tijuana cartel leader Benjamín Arellano Félix.

Those arrests prompted a "shift from large cartels to boutique cartels, smaller organizations which have proliferated the border states and who are locked in an internecine battle for control over turf and routes and profits," said Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

"Fox hammered the Arellano Félix brothers and the Tijuana cartel, he nailed Osiel Cárdenas, and he's been harassing the inheritors of the Juarez cartel," Bagley said. "What we are seeing are the consequences, unintended, of course, of these earlier successes which were so highly applauded in Washington."

The drug war in Nuevo Laredo began two years ago, when Guzmán moved 200 hit men to the border city to confront Cardenas and his Zetas, according to testimony given in January by a protected witness in a Mexican court.

The witness testified that he was ordered to rent 15 or 20 houses in Nuevo Laredo, each furnished with 15 mattresses.

On Aug. 20, 2003, one of Guzmán's top lieutenants proclaimed, "the war for Nuevo Laredo has begun."

As the cartels fought for territory, the bodies began to pile up. At first, little attention was paid to Nuevo Laredo. But 101 people have been killed so far this year including nine police commanders and the police chief.

Valencia's cartel apparently has joined forces with Guzmán to push Cárdenas out of Nuevo Laredo. At the time of his arrest, Valencia, who once ran a successful produce packaging business, was said to be responsible for smuggling 30 percent of the cocaine, heroin and marijuana sold in the United States.

"These guys are fighting it out, but not just for control of the business, but in Hatfield and McCoy-style feuds. It is a very complex struggle where you don't know who's on whose side," Bagley said. "Much of the violence comes from the efforts of Chapo Guzmán to seize control of this chaotic situation."

Bagley says Fox and his top officials haven't responded quickly enough to the increasing violence.

"They reacted slowly and defensively," he said. "They have militarized part of the border area, then immediately demilitarized it. They don't provide continuous patrols or protection for local-level authorities. This is affecting the tourist trade. It's slowing down commerce, and it's giving Mexico a major black eye."

The Fox administration contends that part of the blame rests with the United States, which is the source of many of the weapons used in Mexican crimes.

"The paradox is that if an American dies in a Mexican border state, the gun that killed him probably came from the U.S.," said Jorge Chabat, an expert on organized crime at the Center for Economic Research in Mexico City.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the weapons question "is a completely separate issue than bringing the border under control."

But the official said the United States has "agencies actively working to interdict the exportation of illegal weapons."

With the violence now reaching a crescendo, "the Fox administration has no alternative but to send federal-level authorities to the border and station them there permanently in order to control this violence," Bagley said.

"It's going to require some kind of state of emergency and a thorough purging of institutions and their rebuilding," he said. "You can't do that in a matter of days or a matter of weeks. This is going to take years."

[Source: By Lynne Walker, Copley News Service, San Diego.com, 06ago05]

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