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Mexico's attempt to quell drug violence falters

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico—The general who'd been in charge of Mexico's efforts to quell drug violence on the border with the United States hasn't been seen by officials here in weeks, and the program is in disarray.

Drug killings are on the rise, local news outlets have been cowed into silence, and evidence is mounting that members of two warring drug-trafficking cartels have infiltrated the program's elite anti-drug forces.

U.S. officials are concerned that the violence is crossing the border: Assaults on U.S. Border Patrol agents are up 108 percent this year, according to recent congressional testimony.

Mexican officials, recognizing that the Secure Mexico program had failed, announced a new program this week, dubbed Northern Border. Under the program, 600 to 800 more federal police agents were dispatched to this besieged border city.

But few expect that to make much difference, and drug traffickers weren't intimidated: On Thursday, they gunned down four federal police intelligence agents in broad daylight outside a school here. At least 30 shots were fired into the agents' bodies.

Adding to the confusion is the absence of Gen. Alvaro Moreno Moreno, who'd been in charge of Secure Mexico. Nuevo Laredo city officials and a Mexican diplomat on the U.S. side of the border said they'd had no contact with the general in weeks.

"I couldn't tell you where he is," said Eloy Caloca, a spokesman in Mexico City for the federal Ministry of Public Security, the agency to which Moreno reports. Asked who's in charge in Nuevo Laredo now, Caloca said: "I don't have his name right now."

The deaths of the four agents brought the number of killings laid to drug traffickers in this city so far this year to 50 in less than three months, a rate that outpaces last year's, when about 170 people total died in drug violence.

Statements Friday by Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman for President Vicente Fox, suggest that efforts to get rid of corrupt city police officers have failed. He said preliminary evidence indicated that the hit men who killed the four agents were municipal police aligned with one of the cartels.

Experts see no end to the killings as long as the two cartels battle to control the distribution routes that lead into the United States.

"It won't be resolved until this war is over, until one of the cartels wins," said Jorge Chabat, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations and border security. "It's clear that the (Mexican) federal government doesn't have the capacity to stop this wave of violence."

Mexico's federal authorities launched Secure Mexico last year after Nuevo Laredo's police chief, Alejandro Dominguez, was gunned down by suspected traffickers only hours after he took the job.

The Secure Mexico program was designed to weed out local police corruption and place all levels of law enforcement under the command of a single military official—Gen. Moreno.

But the violence has only become more virulent, often spectacularly so: Suspected drug gang members used a grenade to attack a newspaper newsroom here last month.

The Mexican government's new initiative is supposed to re-establish order. Authorities announced that they were sending up to 800 more agents from Federal Preventative Police, known by its Spanish acronym PFP. There already were hundreds here, but estimates vary wildly on the total number patrolling now.

But few are optimistic. "Last year there were over 170-something murders. I don't think anyone was charged or has been arrested in connection with those murders, and the majority of those were drug-related," said a U.S. official involved in drug enforcement who was granted anonymity because his agency doesn't allow him to speak publicly. "They've had the military employed at different occasions during those spates of murder, and they've continued to happen."

Presumed traffickers increasingly have targeted the local news media. In February, armed assailants riddled El Manana newspaper with bullets and dropped a grenade on the floor on their way out. Reporter Jaime Orozco was injured in the attack and may never walk again, his colleagues say.

Last week, a radio reporter was killed, leading many news outlets to either quit reporting stories on the murderous chaos or provide abbreviated accounts with no bylines, tucked deep inside the paper. Several journalists refused to be quoted for this story, even anonymously, for fear of reprisals.

Meanwhile, Mexican media reports and public statements have raised questions about whether the PFP forces sent to restore order under Secure Mexico have been infiltrated by elements of the drug cartels.

Public Security Secretary Eduardo Medina Mora acknowledged during a December news conference that there were PFP agents—he wouldn't say how many—who'd been involved in organized criminal activity, acts that he said were "totally intolerable" and under investigation.

In Nuevo Laredo, questions center on a Feb. 2 shootout in which armed bandits, in broad daylight near the police headquarters, attacked a marked PFP vehicle that was carrying a suspect, U.S. citizen Javier Escalera. The American was later handed over to U.S. authorities.

News accounts said two PFP agents were wounded. But since then doubts have been raised about whether one of the wounded men was really a PFP agent. Photos show him wounded, dressed in a PFP uniform.

But the man in the photos, identified as Mario Humberto Rodriguez Castillo, later fled Nuevo Laredo by bus toward the northern Mexico city of Monterrey. Along the way, he was attacked and shot again by armed assailants, according to Rafael Luque, a spokesman for the state of Tamaulipas. He survived, but his whereabouts aren't known.

Daniel Hernandez, Mexico's consul general in Laredo, said it's not unusual for law enforcement agencies to protect the identity and whereabouts of an agent who might be involved in intelligence. He also noted that corruption can be found on both sides of the border, citing the recent indictment of two U.S. Border Patrol agents who are accused of taking $300,000 in bribes from smugglers to release immigrants from detention.

The violence has become a problem for Nuevo Laredo's businesses, said Jack Suneson, owner of upscale Marti's jewelry and crafts store in Nuevo Laredo. Noting that many businesses have relocated to the U.S. side of the border, Suneson said he might have to shut his doors after five decades of operation.

"No more promises. I want them to safeguard our city," Suneson said. "I don't know how much longer we can hold out. This is the third year we've taken a nosedive."

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(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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