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Violence Grips Mexican Border Cities

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, recently stirred controversy by warning Americans about rising crime levels in Mexico, especially in border towns where drug-trafficking gangs have been fighting over territory. The most violent place now is Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande River from Laredo, Texas.

This is the busiest land port in the United States, with millions of dollars in commerce flowing both ways across the border on a daily basis.

But not all the commerce here is legal. Drug trafficking flourishes, and rival gangs fight for control. In recent weeks, people in Nuevo Laredo have had to take cover, as gunmen fought it out on the streets.

Mexican President Vicente Fox has sent special federal agents to Nuevo Laredo, but he bristled at Ambassador Garza's warning about security in Mexico, saying the overall crime rate in the United States is higher than in Mexico.

But economist Pedro Albuquerque of Texas A & M University at Laredo says criminals have free rein in some Mexican border towns.

"The problem is, the law is not being enforced on the Mexican side of the border," said Pedro Albuquerque.

Professor Albuquerque, a native of Brazil, cites statistics showing very few violent crimes in Laredo, while hundreds of cases of murder and assault in Nuevo Laredo remain unresolved.

"The question that has to be asked is, why is it that the drug traffickers settle [establish] their headquarters in Mexico and not in the U.S.," he said. "They could perfectly settle them in the U.S. There are many reasons why it would be even better for them. The reason they settle them in Mexico is that the levels of law enforcement there are lower."

Laredo's new mayor, Raul Salinas, is a former FBI agent who spent time in Mexico working with law enforcement groups there. He says many citizens of Laredo are now nervous about crossing the river because of the public shootings that have occurred.

"They are fighting each other, the organized crime organizations," said Raul Salinas. "The unfortunate thing is that those bullets do not have names on them, and they hit innocent people caught in the crossfire, and I think that is what people are concerned about."

Mayor Salinas says crime in Laredo is low, even by U.S. standards, in spite of the violence across the border. He says his police force is made up of well-trained and well-paid professionals, who respond quickly and effectively to any problem. The same week in which the people of Nuevo Laredo were terrified by a 40-minute shoot-out on their streets, a gunman entered a store in Laredo with an automatic rifle threatening to kill another man. Within minutes police had both men in custody, and the case is currently under investigation.

Salinas suggests that Mexico would have better law enforcement, if the government were to provide better support for police.

"They have to pay them, and they have to pay them well, and give them good benefits, good training," he said. "You provide that, and provide a good livelihood, and make them proud of being a police officer. Unfortunately, there is a lot of temptation when you are dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars that can be made available to you, if you look the other way."

Mayor Salinas says he believes Mexican President-Elect Felipe Calderon understands the gravity of the situation, and will take decisive action against criminal organizations, once he becomes president in December. Salinas says there are many courageous Mexican police officers ready to respond to such a call.

"I worked in Mexico City for five and a half years, and I saw officers who really put their lives on the line, and they were making $600 or $700 a month. Is that worth it? I do not think so," said Mayor Salinas.

A recent report by The World Economic Forum said that crime in Mexico is harming the nation's economy, as well as its society.