Violent border city gets new top cop

Omar Pimentel is the new police chief of Nuevo Laredo, where his two predecessors have been killed.

The last police chief to patrol this violent city along the Mexican border was gunned down just seven hours into the job. It happened three weeks after his predecessor was shot dead in front of his 9-year-old daughter.

So at the end of his first day on the job as the new top cop of Nuevo Laredo, a city of 330,000 that has become the center of a bloody turf war between two major drug cartels, Omar Pimentel, a lawyer turned highway-patrolman, says, in a moment of cosmic understatement, that he has a lot on his mind.

"I am thinking about the things I will do, the events that will come to pass," says the father of three, who rappels off high-rises for fun. There is excitement, yes, he says, pausing, and spinning a pen around on the table in front of him, "but also fear ... of course."

As Mr. Pimentel spoke, a siren suddenly blared outside. "A policeman has been killed," he explained quietly. Indeed, one officer was killed and two other policemen badly wounded by shots fired from a truck at their private car late Wednesday. That shooting brings to eight the number of Nuevo Laredo police officers killed this year.

At a press conference earlier in the day, Nuevo Laredo Mayor Daniel Peña Treviño was asked repeatedly what the city was going to do in order to protect the new police chief, who has two sons, a daughter, and a pregnant wife. "He is going to protect us," Mr. Peña answered, over and again. "We have a lot of work ahead here in the city, and that is what we are concentrated on now."

To help ensure that Pimentel is able to concentrate on that work, however, three discreet but buff bodyguards were assigned to the new head of security.

Zetas and Men in Black

While Mayor Peña, in an interview, refused to be specific, other authorities, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the battle in Nuevo Laredo is between the Zetas, a gang founded by former Mexican Army deserters, which now serves as armed enforcers for the Gulf cartel, and the Men in Black, who work for the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. They want to control the lucrative drug-smuggling routes into the United States.

"We have criminal forces here clashing like almost nowhere else in the country," Peña says, "but we are cleaning house and striking back, and the situation is stabilizing."

That positive assessment is open to dispute. So far this year, according to the Center for Frontier Studies and Human Rights, based in Reynosa, Mexico, there have been 50 killings and 129 kidnappings in the city and the surrounding state. Press tallies put the number of killings here at more than 80.

Since 2000, seven journalists have been killed in the state of Tamaulipas, where Nuevo Laredo is located, making it the most dangerous region in Mexico for the media. Since August 2004, 19 Americans have been kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo and subsequently released, 19 others are still missing, and four have been found dead, according to US government figures.

Concerns about security in the once-bustling tourist town have emptied the streets. American day-trippers, who used to pop across the border from Laredo, Texas, for cheap pharmaceuticals, beer, and some tacos, have dwindled. Three popular tourist restaurants have closed in the past two months.

Alfred James Huntington, a retired sailor from Del Rio, Texas, and one of the few tourists walking along downtown Matamoros Street on Wednesday, says he sees how things have changed. Can a new police chief help? "They come and they go," he says. "This place is what it is. Take it or leave it."

Pimentel's first challenge, however, even before he tackles the violence, will be figuring out who he has on his police force. After the slaying last month of Alejandro Dominguez, Pimentel's predecessor, Mexican President Vicente Fox sent hundreds of soldiers and federal agents to restore order along the border in an operation dubbed "Secure Mexico." A simultaneous cleanup of the local police force here was launched. As a result, 41 police officers were flown to Mexico City to be investigated for links to organized crime, 89 officers were suspended, and the rest of the 730-strong force was yanked off the streets for background checks and drug testing.

Cops on the take?

Local newspaper reports indicate that almost half of the officers have been supplementing their meager $630 average monthly salaries with payments from the cartels. Anthony Placido, a senior US Drug Enforcement Administration official told the US Congress last week that Mexico's police forces were "all too often part of the problem rather than part of the solution," when it came to fighting the drug gangs.

"We have a very deteriorated and demoralized police force," admits Pimentel, who most recently served as director of the police academy, where he brought in never-before-heard-of classes like "ethics and morals," "justice" and even plain old "English." His plan is to try to introduce some of the same courses in the force. "We need to raise our reputation and make sure everyone realizes why they are here - it's for the people, not for ourselves," says Pimentel with his slicked-back hair, wire-frame glasses, and confident smile.

Sitting alone at town hall at the end of his first day, he straightens his green-striped shirt, rubs his forehead, and speaks of his family. "Of course they are scared," he says. "But we have faith: They in me, and me in this job. I want to do this, and I am not facing the unknown. I feel prepared."

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today. Eloise Quintanilla contributed to this report.

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