Residents of this scruffy border town thought they had seen the worst of the violence five years ago, when rival drug gangs staged wild gunfights in the streets and a new police chief was slain just hours after being sworn in.
The warfare gave way to an uneasy calm after one of the warring groups took de facto control. The number of deaths here ebbed, even as violence soared out of control in other border cities, such as Ciudad Juarez, about 500 miles to the northwest.
Now, like a recurring nightmare, dread again hangs over Nuevo Laredo amid a new bloody feud that has ignited widespread fear of a return to the earlier carnage.
Dozens of people have been killed along the border in recent weeks in clashes between northeastern Mexico’s most powerful gangs: the Gulf cartel and onetime allies known as the Zetas. Both are based here in Tamaulipas -- a pistol-shaped state that hugs the Texas border and Gulf of Mexico.
Adding to the potential for skyrocketing violence, the Gulf cartel has reportedly reached out for help against the Zetas by enlisting the heavily armed trafficking group headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, based in the northwestern state of Sinaloa.
U.S. officials say they have yet to confirm the alliance, but take the reports seriously. Such an alignment would reshuffle Mexico’s drug underworld and could produce prolonged and bitter warfare here.
“You’d hate to have that, where Sinaloa does reinforce Gulf or Gulf is able to sustain itself in a way that this conflict between them just keeps going on and on and escalating,” said a senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico City.
If so, Tamaulipas would be the latest battle zone along the U.S.-Mexico border. In Ciudad Juarez, a turf war between the Sinaloa group and a locally based cartel has left more than 4,000 people dead since early 2008. Last weekend, gunmen in Juarez killed two U.S. citizens -- a consular employee and her husband -- and a Mexican man married to another staff member at the U.S. Consulate there.
Here in Tamaulipas, friction between the Gulf group and the ultra-violent Zetas, which once served as its armed wing, erupted into open fighting after a Zeta leader, Victor Perez Mendoza, was slain in the border city of Reynosa in January, apparently by a member of the Gulf group.
Violent jousting may also have been stoked by the closed-door sentencing of the former leader of the Gulf cartel, Osiel Cardenas. Cardenas was sentenced on drug and money-laundering convictions Feb. 24 in a U.S. federal court in Houston to 25 years in prison, a surprisingly light sentence that has led many people to conclude that he gave authorities information about his former colleagues.
In recent weeks, a broad triangle along the Texas border from Nuevo Laredo east to the Gulf of Mexico and south into neighboring Nuevo Leon state has seen hours-long shootouts, grenade attacks on police stations and cases of gunmen commandeering cars from motorists to use as roadblocks against foes.
Residents in the area of Matamoros and Reynosa, near the Gulf of Mexico, have reported convoys carrying armed men and emblazoned with the letters “CDG,” the Spanish initials of the Gulf cartel. Banners promising to extinguish the Zetas were signed by the “Cartels of Mexico United Against the Zetas.”
Officials and some analysts said the feud has the potential to draw in even more Mexican trafficking groups, such as La Familia in the western state of Michoacan.
Amid a spate of shootings in late February, the U.S. Consulate in the northern industrial hub of Monterrey warned Americans to avoid traveling to Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. It has since advised against traveling the main highways between Monterrey and those two cities.
In addition, the Texas Department of Public Safety has advised college students not to venture into Mexican border cities over spring break.
In Nuevo Laredo, a major crossing for cargo trucks, the clashes have revived frightening memories of the rampant killing that erupted when the Sinaloa group made a push for control. During the worst of the mayhem in 2005, gangs traded automatic weapons fire in the streets in broad daylight.
The conflict turned Tamaulipas into a forerunner of the extreme violence that has raked many spots around Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched his government’s war against cartels in December 2006. More than 18,000 people have since died in the drug-fueled slaughter.
The relative calm in Tamaulipas since 2005 was attributed by residents to an agreement that left it under the control of the Gulf cartel and its Zeta allies, who have used extortion and kidnapped businessmen and muzzled local reporters through threats.
Now, Nuevo Laredo is on edge again, a feeling expressed in lowered voices, sentences that trail off and vague, fear-laced references to “they” and “them.”
“It is very easy to scare people who have lived for years under threat from el narco,” said Gustavo Rodriguez Vega, the Roman Catholic bishop in Nuevo Laredo. “If someone says, ‘They’re coming,’ it scares everyone.”
Residents say their plight is made worse by a lack of reliable information. Local news organizations, which for years have censored themselves for fear of angering drug bosses, are not reporting on the recent violence, including shootouts that were widely witnessed.
“We can’t publish anything,” said one newspaper executive.
In Reynosa, about 125 miles to the southeast, two Mexico City-based journalists were seized and beaten two weeks ago. At least five other border-area journalists are missing, their colleagues say, and a radio reporter died under suspicious circumstances. Authorities said he succumbed to a diabetic coma, but colleagues say he was kidnapped and tortured, according to Reporters Without Borders, a press advocacy group.
Tamaulipas residents have been barraged by terrifying rumors -- many of them unfounded -- delivered via e-mail, text message, Twitter and Facebook.
Parents across Nuevo Laredo raced to take their children out of school in late February after word went out of an impending gun battle, a rumor that proved untrue. A separate report, also false, said the city’s mayor, Ramon Garza, had been assassinated.
Garza, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which dominates the state, blamed the cascade of untruths on an effort by organized crime or political opponents “to destabilize and generate mistrust in the public” during an election year. “This was manufactured,” he said in an interview.
The Tamaulipas state government has added a breaking-news feature to its website, listing incidents that are officially confirmed. But many residents distrust what they see as spin control. They swap tips by e-mail and watch anonymously posted YouTube videos showing the aftermaths of recent shootouts: charred, bullet-riddled cars abandoned next to carpets of spent bullet casings.
“Rumor, that’s how everyone is getting information,” said a Nuevo Laredo restaurant owner, gazing over a room of empty tables at lunch hour. He said customers have stopped coming amid the recent violence.
Nearby, machine gun-toting soldiers stood guard on the roof of a funeral home where the bodies of four gunmen were said to be stored. The troops appeared to be guarding against a possible raid by hit men to seize comrades’ bodies.
Some analysts say the latest clashes in northern Mexico may yet amount to a relatively brief jostling for position in the aftermath of the Cardenas sentencing.
Alberto Islas, a Mexico City-based security expert, compared the feuding to a corporate boardroom tussle. He predicted that the Gulf cartel and the Zetas would soon make amends and get back to the lucrative business of smuggling drugs to a hungry U.S. market.
“Like businessmen, they are negotiating,” Islas said. “Here they kill people. That’s the difference.”