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Border life unfazed by US warning

Drug battles and 27 American abductions trigger Mexico advisory.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2005


The posse of five retired Texans, with little Mexican flags pinned on their lapels, crosses the border at 9:30 a.m. By 10 they're sipping pink drinks downtown, and by noon they have exhausted the offerings at the old marketplace, picking up supplies of prescription drugs and four-feet-high cactus-shaped brass floorlamps. Soon, it's on to Garcia's for $8.99 enchilada and fajita specials and maybe a slow afternoon samba on the dance floor - all before heading home to the US, five minutes away.

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Tens of thousands of American citizens make the short trip across the Rio Grande every day to small Mexican border towns. Executives arrive to work at the hundreds of US-owned manufacturing plants. Teenagers come to party and take advantage of a lower, and barely enforced, drinking age. Mexican-Americans come to visit relatives. And tourists come by the busload to shop, eat, and - as Patty Hafer of Chappell, Neb., puts it - "do the Mexican scene."

But they might want to rethink that scene, the US government now advises.

At least 27 US citizens have been abducted or have vanished along Mexico's border with Texas over the past six months, caught in what US officials are describing as an escalating turf war between competing drug lords looking to consolidate power. Fourteen of the Americans have been released, but two have been found dead, and the fate of the others remains unknown. By contrast, only three or four such abductions were reported each year since 2000.

Yvette Martinez and Brenda Cisneros, two friends from Laredo, Texas, went to hear Mexican singer Pepe Aguilar in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in mid-September and have not been heard from since; 18-year-old Gerardo Contreras from San Antonio has been missing since May, when he went into the Mexican town of Piedras Negras to attend his sister's baby shower; and Charles Rogers, an oncologist from Brownsville, Texas, was abducted at his clinic here, and released only after his wife paid a hefty ransom.

Nearly all of the 27 abductions have taken place in Nuevo Laredo, and the towns east of it along the border to Matamoros. These towns sit across from RV parks and condominiums in Texas, home of many so-called "winter Texans" - northerners who come to the Lone Star state to avoid the cold weather. The US consul in Matamoros estimates that 100,000 Americans - mainly Winter Texans but also businesspeople and spring breakers - are expected to cross into Matamoros this year alone.The vast majority of them, say people here, are perfectly safe.

"If you look for trouble, you can find it," says Melba Fassold, a St. Louis native who 35 years ago started the first day tours across the border to Matamoros. She echoes official claims that all those affected by the violence were, in one way or another, connected to the drug trade.

The self- proclaimed "Mexico-history nut," who sports a dyed-red bouffant hairdo and enormous tinted glasses, says the danger is being sensationalized by the press and unnecessarily hurting Mexico's reputation. "Because," she says, "if you are not looking for trouble, you have nothing to fear."

John Naland, the US consul general in Matamoros, disagrees. The problem, he says, is that these days trouble might find you.

The chain of events leading to the advisory began two weeks ago when six prison guards from Matamoros's maximum-security prison were murdered, allegedly via directives by drug cartels from within the prison, and their bodies dumped outside the prison gate.