NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico—Last September, Brenda Cisneros was celebrating her 23rd birthday with her family at a restaurant in Laredo, Texas, when she begged her father to let her go to a concert with a friend across the border in Nuevo Laredo.
"Please, Daddy, I'm a grown-up now," her father, Pablo Cisneros, remembers her pleading. Reluctantly, he said yes. "I know you're legally an adult," he recalls telling her, "but remember, you'll always be my baby."
His daughter and her best friend, Yvette Martinez, set out for Nuevo Laredo and a concert featuring the popular ranchero singer Pepe Aguilar on Sept. 17. Cisneros hasn't seen them since.
The last he knows is that she and Martinez, a 27-year-old mother of two, called a friend at 4 a.m. to say they were heading back from the concert and were just five blocks from the U.S. border.
Since January, at least 107 people have been killed in a fierce war that pits rival drug gangs in an increasingly violent struggle to control this key crossing point into the United States. Bodies are found in streets showing evidence of painful deaths: tortured, bound and gagged, handcuffed, with missing limbs. Some have been burned alive.
But the deaths are only part of the story. Since last fall, 23 Americans and at least 400 Mexicans have disappeared here, and their relatives complain that little is being done to investigate the disappearances or stop the gangs who perpetrate them.
No one knows who's doing the kidnapping. Some residents and police blame the abductions on the same gangs that are battling for drug turf. They talk of "safe houses," where victims are taken until ransoms are paid. Some say young women are housed there for drug lords "to play with" until they're used up, ending with death.
Others, such as Martinez's stepfather, William Slemaker, blame the police. He claims he spotted his stepdaughter's 2001 pearl-white Mitsubishi in a municipal police parking lot about a month after her disappearance but that when he pointed it out to police they denied it was hers. Later, the car turned up in the lot of a private towing company, which sought $2,500 for storage before it could be released. Slemaker said he didn't have the money, and the car remains in one of the company's lots.
"There're fingerprints, DNA, who knows what else inside that car," said Slemaker, who quit his job as a railroad worker to help Pablo Cisneros found a Web site called laredosmissing.com.
Every week, Cisneros and Slemaker cross from Texas into this gritty city of nearly a half-million residents to continue searching for their loved ones. They paste up posters asking for information. In return, they get death threats and anonymous calls: Their daughters were killed by drug traffickers, who used them for sex until they were "done" with them; they were fed to lions; their bodies were submerged in acid and only bones remain.
Cisneros and Slemaker said the calls were painful to hear, and they worry that they may be true. Forty-three Americans are known to have been kidnapped so far this year; 17 either escaped or were ransomed, though police will provide little information about them. Three others were found dead.
Mexican officials said they were concerned that the reports of kidnappings and violence were hurting this border city's reputation as a tourist destination. They said most of those who'd disappeared had ties to drug traffickers and that others were safe.
"In my experience, most of the missing and murder victims are involved in organized crime," said Daniel Hernandez, Mexico's consul general in Laredo. "Sometimes, it's involuntary; it can be a cousin of a cousin and they're at the wrong place at the wrong time."
U.S. officials are less certain. The State Department, at the urging of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza, has issued a travel advisory for Mexico, warning U.S. citizens to stay clear of Nuevo Laredo.
The United States can do little to solve crimes in Mexico. U.S. authorities can't go into Mexico to investigate a crime against an American unless Mexican authorities invite them. So far, there's been no such invitation.
"Mexico is very protective about its national sovereignty. That's the issue. It could become a political problem," said Laredo-born Raul Salinas, a burly and congenial 27-year veteran of the FBI who once worked at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and now is running for mayor of Laredo.
The suggestion that their daughters might have had drug connections enrages Slemaker and Cisneros.
"Our daughters didn't have criminal records. But suppose they came in contact with a trafficker or Mafioso; is it all right to kill and kidnap people because of this?" said Slemaker, who's been Yvette's stepfather since she was 8.
Slemaker acknowledges that Martinez's estranged husband is in a Texas prison for drug crimes, but he said Martinez had been seeking a divorce for the past six years. He and Cisneros also said it was possible the women ran into a bad crowd.
"We heard later that a bunch of 70 armed men dressed in black uniforms turned up at the concert," Slemaker said.
Police refuse to discuss the Cisneros-Martinez case, or any case for that matter, saying doing so would endanger current investigations.
The local police chief said drug trafficking and related crimes were the problem of Mexico's federal police, not him.
"My priority is to prevent assaults, burglaries and auto theft," said Omar Pimentel, 37, whose predecessor was gunned down after just seven hours in office. "The federal police are in charge of drug crimes."
Cisneros said the months since his daughter disappeared had been hard. He said he could barely eat and that his chest burned.
"My heart and soul are broken," he said. "All my energy is spent on finding our daughters. But I know what will cure me: Brenda."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-KIDNAP
Need to map