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Immigration grabs the headlines, but drug war rages on

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas—At a Circle K convenience store in this desolate border town, where drugs and illicit earnings flow back and forth almost freely, a man parks his black Ford pickup with tinted windows and begins hawking a live zebra.

The animal, bleeding and abused, usually is found on the African Serengeti. But in this poor town in one of the poorest counties in the United States, the asking price is $6,000 cash—no questions asked.

Welcome to the U.S.-Mexico border, where just about anything can and does happen. The zebra salesman is a grim reminder of the Wild West atmosphere that prevails along much of the 2,000-mile border, where drugs, aliens and money are smuggled 24-7.

Before the arrest last week of Javier Arellano Felix, the alleged leader of Mexico's ruthless Tijuana drug cartel, the national debate over illegal immigrants crossing the border drove the drug war off the front pages.

But make no mistake about it, America's drug war rages on. Here in the Rio Grande Valley sector, cocaine seizures by Border Patrol agents have more than doubled so far this fiscal year and now account for more than half of all Border Patrol seizures along the southern border.

Halting the flow of illicit drugs here, much like the flow of illegal immigrants, is nearly impossible. There are about 1,400 Border Patrol agents assigned to cover an area that spans 18,584 square miles, including along the Rio Grande river and the Gulf of Mexico. That's about one agent for every 13.2 square miles.

On any given day, traffickers smuggle cocaine into and around border towns such as Roma and Rio Grande City, where 60 percent of the children live in poverty and only 6 percent of the population has attended college.

Go west of McAllen and walk along the banks of the Rio Grande—called the Rio Bravo, or Angry River, in Mexico—and evidence of illicit activity abounds. On the Mexican side of the river, smugglers and would-be undocumented workers loiter, waiting for night to fall. Several have established camps in what appears to be the middle of nowhere.

On the U.S. side, discarded tires, clothes and assorted trash litter the most remote riverbanks—the byproduct of drug and immigrant smuggling.

"We see a steady flow throughout the whole Rio Grande Valley sector," Jose Vicente Rodriguez, a Border Patrol agent and spokesman, said during a tour of an inland highway checkpoint in Falfurrias.

The vast open spaces and proximity to major U.S. highways make South Texas a point of preference for the powerful Mexican drug cartels.

"The infrastructure in both Mexico and the United States, mainly the highway system, allows traffickers quick access for getting their product through Mexico and into destination cities in the United States," said Will Glaspy, the head of operations in South Texas for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "Here we have highways, so it's easy for drug loads to be hidden in with normal traffic on the highways to get out of Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley."

Highway access is what drug cartels are fighting over a few hours to the west in Laredo. Drug violence there is spilling over from Mexico as the Gulf and Juarez cartels, and the Sinaloa cartel, run by violent fugitive Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, battle for dominance of a route that feeds into U.S. Interstate 35 and the American heartland.

In the Rio Grande Valley, such violence is rare. The Gulf cartel is thought to dominate, and its competitors are willing to pay for access to the collection of ranch state roads that feed into the interstates that spread out from Houston to the East Coast.

"The Gulf cartel doesn't care if Chapo Guzman is moving a load of drugs through here, as long as he pays," said a senior U.S. law-enforcement official, who requested anonymity because of his ongoing work in the drug war.

For years, Mexicans thought the drug trade was a U.S. problem that needed to be tackled by quelling the demand of addicts and recreational drug users.

Today, Mexico is experiencing its own drug plague. It's wrestling with an alarming increase in drug use among its youth and an explosion of violence deep in its interior. Existing and up-and-coming drug gangs are gunning it out for control of entry routes in the south and domestic distribution.

U.S. officials say Mexico's outgoing president, Vicente Fox, has done more than any other leader in Mexican history to cooperate in the drug war. After Dec. 1, the task falls to the country's apparent president-elect, conservative Felipe Calderon, to reverse the mounting drug violence and distribution.

"Relations with Mexico have never been better. We're getting (intelligence) from Mexico that we've never gotten before," said the law enforcement official, referring to federal-level cooperation. "Six years ago, we would have gotten, `You're going to do what with Mexico?' We're hopeful that we'll be able to build on the progress we've made with the Fox administration."

During Fox's six-year term, Benjamin Arellano Felix, the alleged former leader of the Tijuana cartel, was arrested, as was Osiel Cardenas, the leader of the Juarez cartel.

Calderon has acknowledged that Fox's success in disrupting the cartels has come with a price: escalating violence within Mexico and along both sides of the border. On the campaign trail, Calderon has discussed the idea of a new super-agency to combat drug trafficking.

That sounds a bit like reinventing the wheel to some U.S. officials, who prefer to see Calderon focus on legal revisions that would make it easier to prosecute and extradite trafficking suspects.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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