The situation, heightened threat
The Interstate 35 corridor is like a river that is inundated with drug trafficking, and at its mouth is the city of Laredo, Texas. Its tributaries reach out to hub cities like Austin, Houston and Dallas where shipments then are made nationwide.
Authorities recently found more than four tons of marijuana in a school bus just four miles outside the Laredo city limits. The abandoned bus, labeled with the United Independent School District’s initials, is a shocking device used to traffic illegal drugs.
The bus was stripped of its seats and had secret compartments in both the floor and ceiling that stored the 9,216 pounds of marijuana.
Along with drug trafficking comes turf wars among Mexican drug cartels as they fight for control of the IH-35 corridor.
Julian Aguilar, a reporter for The Laredo Morning Times, said that Laredo “is the busiest port … so you have a lot of trucks (and) a lot of rail going by. There’s so much dope that gets smuggled through here.”
He said the Border Patrol reported seizure of more narcotics in 2008 than the previous year, and Aguilar asks, “Does that mean … more is getting by? This is a very lucrative corridor.”
Agents becoming drug escorts
The Border Patrol is facing problems from within and without as its own agents’ illegal activities are coming to light.
The FBI arrested Laredo Border Patrol agent, Leonel Morales, in December. He was indicted on a charge of accepting bribes for allowing drugs to pass through U.S. security checkpoints. As a drug escort, he received upwards of $9,000 in bribes.
Eric Macias, a U.S. Border Patrol agent for the El Paso sector, was arrested last month for similar crimes. Macias was paid nearly $39,000 over a one-year period in which he granted the passage of illegal drugs. He even checked the license plate of a car believed to be following one of those he let pass.
Reporters in the crosshairs
Media coverage of the drug lords in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just on the other side of the border from Laredo, has been silenced to a degree by the onslaught of attacks by drug gangs.
“If media do report on crime, they don’t mention the name of the drug cartel,” Aguilar said. “Even if they know, they won’t.”
He says it’s a form of self-censorship to protect themselves, particularly after a newsroom was burned to the ground by grenades in 2006.
Dolores Guadalupe Garcia Escamilla, a radio host for Estereo in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, was shot nine times in front of the radio station. She died days later from her injuries.
Last April, two women radio hosts were shot and killed, apparently for the launch of a new station called, “The Voice that Breaks the Silence” in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Another radio host was gunned down in September as he put up anticrime posters in Villahermosa, Mexico.
Just across the El Paso, Texas, border in Cuidad Juarez, a reporter for El Diario was repeatedly shot while in his car. Seated next to him was his 8-year-old daughter.
In Laredo, however, the media report the names of the cartel members, even those at large.
Aguilar said many others have done so as well.
“I don’t think it hinders our reporting at all because we’re going to report whatever we can, but does it sometimes mess with our personal state of mind? Yes, sometimes it does. There’s no way you cannot take this home with you.”
Narcotics in public schools
Gangs that used to specifically target teens are beginning to recruit children as young as elementary age.
“That’s what’s scary, when you get a drug lord who is a cultural icon,” Aguilar said. “They get glamorized.”
Eduardo Garza, the director of S.T.E.P. Academy of Laredo’s United Independent School District, said, “We’re a reflection of what’s going on out in the street.”
The alternative campus typically schools 130 junior high and high school students who have been placed there by state mandate. Garza said that “60 to 70 percent are here for drug use … possession or dealing it.”
Even though Garza admitted “There is a … drug epidemic going on,” he said, “It’s a problem everywhere. It doesn’t matter what side of town you’re in … the poor schools have it because they’re poor, and the rich schools have it because they’re rich.”
Students at Garza’s school are searched every day before entering campus grounds. But narcotics are still smuggled inside.
In addition to any form of drugs being prohibited, the students aren’t allowed to bring cash to campus. However, those who find themselves enrolled in S.T.E.P. are there for breaking rules, which hold little power of restraint.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids that have been here every year for the same thing, which is just the drug use,” Garza said. “And they seem to be graduating to higher use …. After a while, it overcomes them. It’s sad.”
Illegal drug use among students extends beyond border city schools.
An administrator for Belton Independent School Disctrict said the city’s proximity to the I-35 corridor makes drugs more easily accessible because the highway is a direct route from Mexico.
Belton is aprroximately 293 miles from Laredo.
Laws of supply and demand
The city’s neighboring Mexican counterpart, Nuevo Laredo, has also faced the violence of the drug cartels’ power struggle.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory, urging Americans to “exercise caution” because of the increased violence along the border.
Laredo Police Chief, Carlos Maldonado, said, “We have four bridges. There is a high volume of traffic that flows to and from, so it’s just intuitive that you’re going to find large volumes of illegal substances going through here.”
Maldonado said the police department’s goal is “to eliminate (drug trafficking) completely, obviously.”
But the prevalence and growth of narcotics along the border come down to “simple economics,” he said.
Supply and demand dictate the ebb and flow of illegal drugs. Where there is a demand for narcotics, the suppliers will come.
Aguilar believes users of the drugs, including American citizens, are also responsible for spillover violence into the states.
“You have blood on your hands,” he said. “Because if you didn’t like smoking your dope that much, (we) wouldn’t have this problem.”