Border life unfazed by US warning

Drug battles and 27 American abductions trigger Mexico advisory.

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.

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.

"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Mr. Naland. "Its one thing for bad guys to kill other bad guys at 2 a.m. - but when a powerful drug cartel takes out six innocent people in cold blood in the early evening, it's time to worry.... Anyone could walk into this." An advisory was issued for Matamoros the next day and by week's end, the US State Department extended it to the entire 2,000-mile border, from Matamoros in the east to Tijuana in the west, warning of a "deteriorating security situation."

"It's not a red light," Naland stresses. "It's blinking yellow."

"And what ... does that mean?" counters Emigdio Manuel Garcia, the petite, usually mild-mannered septuagenarian who owns Garcia's. He started his career selling hair lotion on the street at age 14. Sixty years later, he has built up an empire: His 3,000 sq. ft. pink complex just yards from the border features a full-service pharmacy (no prescriptions required), a crafts market, a restaurant, and a bar. It takes up the entire block, employs 550 workers and can get, he says, "pretty crazy" Friday nights.

But not this Friday. Since the advisory came out, he admits, business has been slower than usual. The evening waiters' shifts have been cut in half, says a hostess, and the five-man bar band plays to an empty lounge. "This should be our best season," says Garcia.

Anger has been the typical reaction to the advisory and to the letter sent by US Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza to Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, expressing concern that the Mexican police were incapable of "coming to grips" with the situation. Mr. Derbez, in response, called the US position "in large measure, exaggerated, and outside the scope of reality," on national TV.

Aides to President Vicente Fox went further, issuing a statement implying that Mexico's sovereignty had been attacked.

Nonetheless, the government is trying to remedy the situation and ensure that one of Mr. Fox's greatest accomplishments in office - fighting the drug lords - does not slide back. More than 650 federal police and 30 tanks were dispatched to patrol the region this week, setting up checkpoints, searching houses, and surrounding the Matamoros prison. In a phone conversation with President Bush Monday, Fox offered assurances of "the Mexican government's commitment to contributing to the consolidation of a safe and modern border," according to his office.

The mariachis at Garcia's are on a break, replaced by a soulful keyboardist giving a soft rendition of "Don't Cry for me Argentina." A table of US businessmen are tapping their feet to the music and indulging in flaming bananas with vanilla ice cream. They come here every day for lunch from a nearby plant.

On the weekends, they return with their wives and kids. Except last weekend, they admit, when they went to the movies in Brownsville instead. Across the room, by the wooden dance floor, a waiter is courteously giving Fassold, the tour guide, a kiss on the cheek. She will be back tomorrow, as always, with a new group. They will probably need just a small table.

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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