This Man May Be Dead By The Time You Read This

The new, 37-year-old police chief of Nuevo Loredo, Mexico, has the world’s most dangerous job—to stop the feuding drug lords who rule this lawless town (and who killed his predecessor on his first day in office).

(Details, September 2005. Photos: Jeff Riedel)

TWO HOURS AFTER Nuevo Laredo’s back slapping mayor assures me his city is safe again—driving us in air-conditioned comfort between elementary-school dedications in this Mexican border town on the Rio Grande—I return to City Hall to find this: two bullet-riddled cops dying in their car, not 100 yards away. I have missed the ambush by maybe 30 seconds.

Petrified store owners and shoppers are coming back up for air—then, en masse, running toward the car. I am among the first to reach it. The windshield and hood are pocked with some 50 bullet holes from AR-15 assault rifles, the favored weapons of the ruthless drug traffickers who rule the city. The off-duty and uniformed cops, in their late twenties, sit upright in the front seat of their silver Altima, as if waiting for a light to change, their bodies drenched in blood.

For two years, rival drug cartels have been turning this once-bustling tourist town of broad plazas and tree-shaded cafés into a war zone reminiscent of Al Capone’s Chicago. Their battle to control the cross-border cocaine trade has left nearly 80 people dead this year in a city of 400,000 (compared with 68 in all of 2004). U.S. officials say 30 Americans have been killed or kidnapped since last summer—some while visiting the city’s nightclubs, a two-minute hop across the International Bridge from Laredo, Texas. In June, the only man with the cojones to take the job of police chief, a former print-shop owner, was gunned down—just six hours after being sworn in to office.

Since then, federal troops in pickup trucks, sheathed in Kevlar and armed to the teeth with assault rifles, have been patrolling the city. But their presence has hardly been enough to stop the slaughter. One of the biggest reasons is the crooked cops.

At one point, an estimated 30 percent of the city’s 724-member police force was working for the cartels. Following an incident in June in which cops fired on a convoy of plainclothes federal police, the mayor confined the entire force to their barracks, confiscated their guns and badges, and ordered them to take drug and lie-detector tests. Eightynine failed the drug test; 311 simply up and quit. And a substantial number of the 319 cops who remained on the force are believed to be corrupt.

For a month, no one seemed crazy or crooked enough to take the dead police chief’s job. But in July, a 37-year-old former pharmacy owner, who once dreamed of being an airline pilot, stepped up.

His name is Omar Pimentel. He’s a fleshy, affable, slightly nerdy father of two whose qualifications for the office consist of a law degree and a six-month stint directing the local police academy, a reward for helping with the state governor’s successful election campaign. I’ve come to meet Pimentel on this brain-sizzling Tuesday in July to find out why a man would take such a job, and as the streets outside City Hall swarm with army troops, state police, and members of the AFI (the Mexican FBI) brandishing rifles and shoving us back from the slaughtered cops, I assume Pimentel will have to cancel our meeting. Instead, an aide calmly watching the chaos unfold behind a pair of gold-tinted Oakley sunglasses tells me that the chief is waiting to see me.

“It’s sad, very sad,” Pimentel says as I meet him on the second-floor landing of City Hall, a squat stucco building with marble floors and blinding lights. The mezzanine overlooks the lobby and is ringed with glass offices, many of them empty.

The chief and I go into a front office with windows facing the street. “I don’t know these officers, but maybe they had compromised themselves,” Pimentel says. “Maybe they had business with some guys that they didn’t finish. I don’t know yet.”

Pimentel is wearing a blue Tommy Hilfiger shirt, dark slacks, and the largest fanny pack I have seen outside Disney World. His gray eyes, behind seventies- style glasses, are serene. He has just returned from Ciudad Victoria, the state capital, where he underwent a series of psychological screenings and drug and lie-detector tests to make sure he is fit for the job. His first order of business is to put the new police recruits through the same paces.

“I need to get close to them, to make sure they’re wearing the uniform for the right reasons, not wearing it to get business from the traffickers,” says Pimentel. The chief then tells me he took the most dangerous job in Mexico because he loves his town and wants to help it, an answer so full of John Ford–style Western earnestness that it makes my head hurt. Friends he hasn’t heard from in years have called to beg Pimentel, who has a four-months pregnant wife, not to play the role of courageous dead man. But when I ask him if he is afraid of being killed, Pimentel says, “My hands are not dirty, so I don’t fear it.”

No sooner do the words leave his mouth than the Oakley-shaded aide rushes in and whispers something in his boss’s ear. The chief, unhurried, asks me to sit tight, steps out onto the mezzanine, and disappears around a corner. Then I hear it, faintly: a sound like a woodpecker chipping at the stucco exterior of the building. I go onto the landing and find Pimentel a few feet away, hiding behind a wall and peering, along with two ninja-lean bodyguards, through a window onto the palm-lined street that leads to the ambush scene.

Below us people are now pouring into the lobby, past its unguarded glass doors. Pimentel turns, eyes still placid but his body rigid, and says, like a man telling me the weather, “They are shooting at the building.”

A GANG-INFESTED MEXICAN TOWN MAY NOT seem to have much significance beyond the border, but Nuevo Laredo is the largest inland port on the continent—9,000 trucks pass through it into the United States every day. Until the mid-nineties, the underworld side of that trade was mostly human cargo—illegal immigrants being sneaked across the border in the suffocating trunks of cars and refrigerated 18-wheelers. But around that time, the powerful Colombian cocaine cartels began to find their shipments through the Caribbean blocked by increased U.S. patrols, and they turned to their northern counterparts to shoulder the lion’s share of the traffic. And shoulder they did. Last year, U.S. officials estimate, 92 percent of the coke coming into this country—a $25 billion blizzard—passed through Mexico, up from 77 percent in 2003.

The two most powerful Mexican syndicates were the Tijuana cartel, on the western coast, and the Gulf cartel, on the eastern coast, based just 200 miles south of Nuevo Laredo. For years, the Gulf cartel, led by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, had employed a group of U.S.-trained Mexican-army drug fighters who had switched sides, and later recruited and trained others in their military methods.

They called themselves Los Zetas (the Zs), after the radio code name of their original leader. And they acted as Cárdenas’ private army, meting out punishment to traitors and cementing his grip on Nuevo Laredo. When Mexican president Vicente Fox took office in 2000, he vowed a “war without mercy” on the cartels, and by 2003 he had arrested both Cárdenas and the kingpin of the rival Tijuana cartel, along with dozens of their top lieutenants. While antidrug forces on both sides of the border praised the arrests, the move proved chaotic, as dozens of smaller players rushed in to fill the power vacuum, leading finally to a Balkanization of the business. Threatened now by the new micro cartels, the Zetas, ruthless criminals in their twenties and thirties, began running their own show. And to demonstrate their power, they made it a very public performance.

“When they killed the last police chief, that was their way of showing the government who was in charge,” says Raymundo Ramos, head of the city’s Human Rights Committee. “Make no mistake. This is a power struggle between the federal government and organized crime. And the criminals are winning.”

They are also causing immense collateral damage to the local economy. In January, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory in response to the recent deaths and abductions of American citizens.

The tourism trade has plunged by 50 percent, and home prices have crumbled as families flee and the Zetas’ top lieutenants move into the city’s only posh neighborhood. Even Boys Town, Nuevo Laredo’s open-air legal prostitution bazaar (complete with its infamous, title-says-it-all Donkey Show), has been suffering.

“The local police are not equipped to stop the drug trafficking,” says Pablo Jacobo Suneson, whose family has owned Marti’s, a clothing store a few hundred feet from the American border, for 51 years. “The problem is created in the United States, and they put the monkey on our back to control.

Here, everybody is tripping over themselves and killing each other to fill the demand. We’re all being punished by this.”

As a result of such desperation, the city has launched a $120,000 marketing campaign to lure back tourists that will include radio and print ads reminding them of the terrific food and bargains. Suneson, who also serves as the vice president of the city’s chamber of commerce, giddily tells me of the buses he will send to San Antonio that will carry Rotary Club ladies to his store to buy expensive silver jewelry. As if reciting a mantra, every one I speak to—from city officials to the old man who sells donkey-and-carriage rides by the border bridge—says that only those involved in drugs, or in the town’s seedier side of life, are in danger.

“Here is my card,” Mayor Daniel Peña Treviño tells me at one point. “Anyone who wants a tour, I will give it to him.” With two cops dead outside City Hall, it’s hard to imagine who would take him up on his offer.

WATCHING PIMENTEL HIDE BEHIND A wall inside City Hall as dozens of other city workers wander in front of windows, recklessly exposing themselves to a bullet in the head, I wonder if he, or anyone here, really knows what he’s doing. No one seems to be in charge. No one is telling people to take cover. Are they all so accustomed to violence? Or do they really believe, like the chief and his dead predecessor—who had no bodyguards—that as long as their hands are clean they’re safe?

Outside, word of the City Hall shooting—a drive-by strafing (message: “We own you”) from a carload of gangsters—has reached the army and state-police forces guarding the ambushed car down the street. All at once, dozens of these trained fighters start running toward the building, and soon they’ve taken up positions in a perimeter around the front, shielding themselves behind palm trees and pillars.

No one can realistically expect a 700-member police force to stop Mexico’s immense narco-trade, any more than an umbrella can stop a hurricane.

The Zetas are fiercely trained and well-equipped with AR-15s, while the local cops, who make $135 a week, pack only 9-mms, and without the security of Kevlar. But at least with honest cops, says Pimentel, the force will not help the traffickers kidnap one another (as they once did, for $300 a head), do drugs themselves, or tip off the bad guys when the feds are planning a sting.

“We cannot dismantle the cartels—that is for the federal forces,” Pimentel tells me an hour later, when the army is gone and the coast seems clear, and we are standing outside. “But we can change our work mentality so that we are committed when the time comes.”

It’s a nice thought, but as he stands in front of City Hall, posing for a photographer with his watchful bodyguards around him, it seems unlikely that that time will ever come. Indeed, the next morning two more cops will be dead, hunted down in the streets and slaughtered on their way to work, escalating the slayings beyond anything Steven Soderbergh could have imagined—by week’s end the year’s police death toll will be 17.

As the street teems with traffic, suddenly a black Chevrolet Suburban, the preferred SUV of the Zetas’ hit men (and, according to witnesses, the type of vehicle used by the assassins who killed the two cops an hour earlier), slows to a crawl a hundred feet away.

It is packed with tough-looking young guys who begin to talk excitedly among themselves. Pimentel eases open the Velcro of his fanny pack and grips the 9-mm Beretta inside.

Ahi vienen,” he says to his bodyguard. They’re coming.

The men in the car brazenly stare down the chief and his guards. Then Pimentel’s head guard, a dark-skinned Al Pacino look-alike, steps from behind a giant bush, hand in fanny pack, and gives them a menacing look. It is a true Mexican standoff.

The men hold his gaze, silent now, and then slowly drive away.

“Please,” Pimentel says to us, ever the gentleman.

“Are we done yet?”