No explanation for police chief missing in Mexico

By Christopher Sherman
Associated Press

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — In one of Mexico's most violent border cities, no one is saying what happened to Police Chief Roberto Balmori Garza.

It's been a week since he went missing from Nuevo Laredo and the local news media have reported nothing, even after two of his brothers showed up murdered in a neighboring state on Feb. 17. One of them was an agent for the federal Attorney General's Office.

City spokesman Juan Jose Zarate said the local government has no confirmation that Balmori Garza disappeared, only that he has not come to work.

He said the mayor, Benjamin Galvan Gomez, is still waiting for the chief to show up.

"That's why we've put out absolutely no statement," Zarate said.

It's just one of the strange realities of the border city of 350,000 people, which is racked by drug violence every time a gang decides to challenge the reigning cartel at the busiest commercial crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border. Attacks have flared again in the Zeta stronghold since the beginning of the year.

On a recent afternoon, the few people willing to talk about life in Nuevo Laredo refused to be quoted for fear of retaliation. Residents rely on social media, not the press, to keep each other informed of attacks and day-to-day security.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo reported via social media three grenade explosions in the vicinity of the consulate and a general uptick in violence from organized crime. A couple of days later it reported explosions near city hall.

The police station, city hall and U.S. consulate have all extended their security perimeters.

"Mexican law enforcement sources tell us the increased violence is likely the result of rival transnational criminal organizations fighting for control of the city and that similar attacks are likely to continue in the near-term," the consulate said in a message dated Feb. 8.

It's difficult to even gauge the impact of the chief's disappearance because he had no police force. Local police haven't patrolled the streets of Nuevo Laredo for nearly two years after being disbanded over concerns about corruption, according to a U.S. State Department security report.

Zarate said those who formerly belonged to the municipal police force have no assigned duties because they are awaiting certification. Black and white pickups labeled "Citizen Security" are parked inside a fenced area at the police station. Dozens of bicycles formerly ridden by the city's tourist police sit inside a large cage behind city hall.

Instead, the streets are patrolled by three-vehicle convoys of state police, dressed and armed like soldiers, and by the military in camouflaged trucks.

Balmori Garza disappeared sometime last weekend. A two-paragraph statement from the state attorney general gave no other details and the office had no updates over the past week.

Last Sunday, two of his brothers were found shot dead in the trunk of a car off the highway between Nuevo Laredo and the northern industrial hub of Monterrey in neighboring Nuevo Leon state. The Nuevo Leon prosecutor's office said the case was being handled by federal prosecutors because Manuel Balmori Garza was a federal agent. Local media reported that Manuel worked for the agency in Linares, about an hour and a half southeast of Monterrey.

An official with the federal Attorney General's Office, who agreed to discuss the case on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss an investigation in progress, said federal forensic investigators were helping in both the killings and the disappearance of the police chief. The official said state investigators were in charge of the probes.

The Balmori Garza brothers were members of a prominent Nuevo Laredo family, which left the city after the killings and couldn't be reached for comment.

Balmori Garza is not the first Nuevo Laredo police chief to run into trouble.  Two years ago, gunmen killed a retired army general who had been police chief for a month. Two of his bodyguards also were slain and two suffered wounds. A businessman who tried the job was killed within hours of taking office in 2005.

The Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel have been fighting over Nuevo Laredo's lucrative smuggling routes for years. The two waged a bloody battle in 2005 that was reportedly won by the Zetas, leading to several years of calm. But violence has returned and social media lit up recently with reports of the arrival of gunmen from the Pacific coast state of Michoacan, part of an alliance between Sinaloa and the Gulf cartel to battle the Zetas, a cartel that was the assassination arm of the Gulf before the gangs split in 2010.

Now in Nuevo Laredo, anyone fighting the Zetas is lumped into one label: "La contra."

Traveling through the city is like taking a violence tour: highway overpasses where bodies are hanged; stucco walls patched to cover bullet holes; the spot in front of the police station, now closed to traffic, where a car bomb exploded last year.  A hotel housing state police officers that was attacked with gunfire and a car bomb last year.

The army's local command post is at the Holiday Inn. The dark blue pickups of the federal police pack the parking lot of the Fiesta Inn across town.

Residents have tuned their hearing to helicopters, a sure sign that something is happening, they say. The phone numbers saved in their cellphones list no last names, in case a phone falls into the wrong hands.

Parents worry about a generation of children deprived of playing outdoors and accustomed to seeing soldiers in the street.

One mother described life as "complicated" and confessed that she had not taken her son to a park in a year and half.

"I don't dare take him out," she said.

Copyright 2013 Associated Press

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