Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Incoming mayor pledges to make town safe

Interesting article goes into the attempts by the cartels to start electing politicians.

AP NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico – For Ramón Garza, the incoming mayor here, the reminder is never too far away.

The last time a public official – a police chief – promised to restore law and order in a city many consider lawless, he was shot at least 40 times, seven hours after taking office.

Mr. Garza, a 45-year-old father of two, knows all too well the challenges ahead for his city and himself as he prepares to take office Tuesday.

"Look, I don't need to be reminded, but I'm here to tell you that the situation has improved," he said in a recent interview. "Three months ... after I take office, this city will be the safest border city; this city will be open for business for all Texans who have been coming here for generations."

Once a tourist attraction and a place to find cheap prescription drugs, Nuevo Laredo has been a staging ground for two warring drug cartels over the past five years.

The feud between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels has left hundreds dead, forced hundreds more to flee their homes, corrupted city officials and police alike, and led to heavy censorship of the media.

Some residents say the city is run more by powerful members of organized crime – cruising in their large black SUVs with tinted windows – than by elected officials.

Mr. Garza declined to be specific on his strategy, except to say, "This war will be won with intelligence, not with chaos."

Days after Mr. Garza's election – and after his interview with The Dallas Morning News – Mexico's President Felipe Calderón warned that narco-money had infiltrated elections in Tamaulipas – the state where Nuevo Laredo is located – and Michoacán.

Mr. Calderón and other officials said drug cartels are trying to penetrate electoral politics to protect themselves against the federal government's offensive.

"I strongly urge governors, mayors, legislators and the leaders of all the political parties that we unite against this," Mr. Calderón said, referring to the execution last month of the former mayor of Rio Bravo, Juan Antonio Guajardo, an unsuccessful candidate in the Nov. 11 mayoral race. He had denounced drug trafficking groups' participation in the electoral process. Rio Bravo is also in Tamaulipas.

Mexico's top law enforcement official, Genaro García Luna, has said that police intelligence confirms that drug groups are attempting to place allies in government, especially at the local level.

"There are indications, in terms of how they attempt to penetrate and seek to corrupt these [political] structures, and we are watching this," said Mr. García Luna, the public security minister.

Denies dirty money

During the interview, Mr. Garza, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, insisted that neither dirty money nor other influence from organized crime – namely the Gulf cartel and their enforcers, the Zetas – played any role in his second campaign for mayor.

"This was a campaign carried out by citizens who want to believe again, people who want to have pride in their community again," he said, noting his 50,000-plus vote advantage over his nearest rival. "My job is to generate confidence and help – along with citizens – return Nuevo Laredo to being a normal, vibrant city again. This is for everyone's good, including the narcos."

The former state legislator said he has no communication with criminal groups but refused to answer any other questions, citing fears of being misunderstood by residents or the criminals themselves.

He promised to restore order, to help residents overcome a "terrible nightmare," and to lure back those who out of fear fled across the border to Laredo. He said that he had met with more than 120 people from Nuevo Laredo now living in Laredo and that 80 of them pledged to return home.

Mr. Garza also embraced the Merida Initiative, the $1.4 billion U.S. aid proposal to give Mexico training and equipment to fight drug traffickers, whose high-tech weapons are often more deadly and sophisticated than anything the government has.

Funding of the initiative awaits approval in Congress, but in Mexico worries of a perceived loss of sovereignty dominate the debate. Mr. Garza minimizes those concerns, stressing, "There is no sovereignty without security."

Mr. Garza also proposes an institute to train to police officers become better public servants. He declined to provide more details, such as whether police officers would get a raise. Some believe the pay for police officers in Mexico is too low, making them vulnerable to corruption.

Asked whether he feared for his life, given the fate of other public servants, Mr. Garza paused before answering.

"We can't live in fear," he said. "I'm doing this for my children. I want to rescue our town again, making the vibrant border community that it has always been."

'Tensed calm'

Nuevo Laredo today shows signs of what Mr. Garza calls a "tensed calm."

Small groups of men – some of them holding hand radios – can be seen on street corners. They're believed to be falcones, or lookouts, paid weekly by the Zetas to keep an eye on anyone and anything.

Many businesses have "For Sale" signs, a reflection of the city's tough economic times.

Mr. Garza vows to restart the economy by luring back tourists and turning Nuevo Laredo into a high-tech hub, complete with free Internet service.

As Mr. Garza ate a steak at a restaurant on the U.S. side of the border, local politicians, waiters, the cook and former Nuevo Laredo residents stopped by to greet him and wish him well.

"Ramón is an excellent guy," said J.O. Alvarez, a customs broker in Laredo and one of Mr. Garza's friends. "He has a big job ahead, but if anyone can turn things around, it's him. We'll be rooting for him from this side."

But Mr. Garza's promises are met with some skepticism in Laredo.

One Mexican businessman, who would give his name only as "Miguel," said he had attended the expatriate meeting with Mr. Garza and had said he would return to Nuevo Laredo, a promise he fidgeted about.

"I drove across the border to vote for Ramón 'cause I believe in him," he said. "But it's not easy to defeat the monster there. Three months? Is he crazy?"

Staff writer Laurence Iliff in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Nuevo Laredo's incoming mayor pledges to make town safe in 3 months | Dallas Morning News | News for Dallas, Texas | Texas Regional News


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