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Mexico steps up patrols in violence-plagued Nuevo Laredo

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico—On Monday morning, police found the body of 30-year-old Jose Luis Rodriguez in a city street. He had been shot once in the back of the neck.

Police declared him the 105th execution carried out so far this year in what has become a pitched battle between rival drug gangs here. His body was placed in a refrigerated locker at the La Paz funeral home, which doubles as this city's morgue, next to one of an unidentified woman found handcuffed two weeks ago. She had been burned alive.

"We're getting about three executed bodies a week, killed by AK-47s and 40 mm guns," said Ricardo Ollervides, 39, whose job is picking up Nuevo Laredo's dumped bodies and taking them to the funeral home. "It hurts me to see the sadness of all the relatives. I can't control my tears."

Mexican soldiers and federal police, armed with high-powered rifles, stopped cars and patrolled streets throughout this city just south of the U.S. border Monday. It was a continued effort to gain control of violence that last week featured a pitched battle that seemed better suited to Iraq than to this dirty Mexican city of half a million souls.

Unknown forces exchanged fire with bazookas, grenades and automatic assault rifles for at least 30 minutes late Thursday in a barrage so violent that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City announced Friday it was suspending operations at its consulate here for at least a week to assess security.

Mexican officials denounced the move. The Mexican Foreign Ministry on Sunday said "in no way" does the closure "help our bilateral cooperation about the situation that prevails on the border."

"The Mexican ministry doesn't agree with the reasons given by the U.S. Embassy to temporarily close its consulate," the ministry's statement said.

The violence continued, however. Another shootout Sunday night killed one man.

On Monday, U.S. officials were unrepentant about their decision. The stucco and brick consulate in the Jadin neighborhood—it takes up nearly a full city block—appeared barren except for private security guards, who said dozens of Mexicans seeking visas to travel to the United States had been turned away.

The bulletproof window to the consulate's main entrance showed the scars of the violence here—several bullet holes pocked the glass. The guards said the damage occurred a year ago but provided no other details.

The violence began two years ago, and Mexican President Vicente Fox has sent in the army four times in the last six months in an effort to separate the warring gangs.

But the violence has grown. Since last fall 173 people have gone missing throughout the state of Tamaulipas, 43 of whom are Americans from Laredo, Texas. There have been no arrests in the disappearances.

Mexico has long complained that the United States is as much to blame for the violence because it is the world's No.1 drug consumer. Mexicans say drug traffickers buy their guns in the United States and that U.S. law enforcement officials do nothing to stop it.

The governor of the state of Tamaulipas, Eugenio Hernandez Flores, pleaded with the U.S. government to reconsider its decision to close the consulate. He said Mexico's growing drug violence is a problem of both nations.

"It is necessary and important that we work together," Hernandez said.

"We have a common goal, and we need to coordinate between our two countries so that we can improve on the development we have built up in the past few years."

The governor pledged that the state would guarantee the safety of tourists, despite the high levels of drug-related crime.

The U.S. consulate here, established in 1872, is America's oldest continuously active diplomatic post. There are eight other consulates in Mexico.

The consulate is a five-minute drive from the oldest of three bridges linking Nuevo Laredo to Laredo, its twin on the U.S. side of the border. Monday was the 150th anniversary of Bridge No. 1.

Usually jammed with vehicles and pedestrians going back and forth between the two cities, the bridge was all but barren of cars and visitors on Monday.

In downtown Nuevo Laredo, a tour guide who would give his name only as Joel, complained that U.S. officials were overreacting. "Most of the violence occurs late at night because the drug gangs don't hurt innocent people. But sometimes the innocent get caught in the middle," he said.

Housewife Maria Guadalupe Ibarra's concern was less dramatic. She was turned away from the consulate when she went to pick up a visa for her 16-year-old daughter to travel this week to Houston for a vacation.

"This was the only week we had to take our vacation because our daughter returns to school in a week," she said. "I think this is a bad measure because it's hurting everybody."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-BORDER

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