A few years ago, my biggest worry when I crossed the bridge into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico was whether or not I would have to wait at the border station to reenter the United States.
This was usually after a monthly trip to the dentist to have the bands on my braces changed from green to blue or to a tiny hair salon where I paid $4 for a haircut. Laredoans like myself used to casually cross the Rio Grande to visit family, spend the day at their ranches or take advantage of the less expensive healthcare. Nuevo Laredo, just 1,000 feet away, is our sister city. Family and commerce bind the communities along both sides of the border.
In recent years, the Laredo Borderplex, as it’s sometimes called, has begun to share the tragic burden of the drug war in Mexico. U.S. citizens visiting Nuevo Laredo have been kidnapped or disappeared. In some cases, their families pay ransoms for their return. Almost everyone in Laredo has been affected by—or knows someone who has been affected by—the violence.
In 2011, 35 Laredoans were reported missing in Mexico, according to the FBI, which handles international missing persons cases. Eighteen people were found, while 17 are still missing. So far this year, seven Laredoans have been reported missing in Mexico; only one has been recovered. FBI figures are assumed to be far less than the actual number of missing persons because a significant number of disappearances go unreported. The victims’ families often choose to handle the situation themselves, according to FBI officials.
Some victims are affiliated with criminal or drug-related activity. Others are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. When I was still in high school, two teenage girls disappeared in Mexico for several weeks before returning to Laredo. My cousin’s co- worker was killed in Nuevo Laredo while visiting her mother.
The city is along Interstate 35, one of Mexico’s main drug trafficking alleyways into the U.S. The cartels are fighting for control of the corridor. The Laredo/Nuevo Laredo crossing also remains the busiest entrance to the U.S. from Mexico, with more than 8,000 cargo trucks crossing daily. Nuevo Laredo has been transformed since outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched Operation Michoacan, the war against the cartels, in December 2006. Convoys of armed Mexican military police patrol the town plaza.
Civilians such as my great aunt and uncle, both in their 70s, have been stopped by cartel members packed into black SUVs with dark-tinted windows. The cartel members told my great aunt and uncle that the tinted windows of their Ford Explorer were too dark and looked suspicious.
Life there can be worse. Shootouts and explosions occur along the main boulevards of Nuevo Laredo and innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire between cartels or between cartels and the military. The tiny hair salon I frequented closed down for months after cartel members raided the establishment and tried to extort money from the owner. Rather than pay, she closed her shop.
I haven’t crossed into Nuevo Laredo in three years. My last visit was the day I had my braces removed. Not everyone who sets foot in Laredo’s sister city experiences violence. But the city is no longer as safe as it was six years ago when I began my monthly visits to the dentist.
Mexico has long struggled with corruption and drugs, but the intense violence in recent years has taken its toll on communities on the U.S. as well as the Mexican side of the border. Laredoans are no longer casual about crossing the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge. Now, we are too wary of the violence on the other side of the river.