Cities on both sides of the border struggle as Mexico's drug war rages

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Many of the shops on Convent Street in downtown Laredo, Texas, have lost business because of the Mexican drug war. (Photo by Shannon Young.)

Drug violence in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has left the border city's economy in shambles. Though the violence itself hasn't crossed the Rio Grande River into Laredo, Texas, its economic effects are undeniable.

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Business on both sides of the river is bleak. Around half of the small businesses in downtown Nuevo Laredo are closed. Frequent shootouts, occasional grenade attacks and even car bombs have turned the city into an urban war zone.

A boutique manager in downtown Laredo, Texas, who didn't want to give her name, said business had nose-dived since December, when crime across the border got out of control.

"Now we're really scared," she said. "That's the word for it because I used to attend 20 to 30 clients an hour. Less than a year ago, I couldn't sit still for a minute because I was helping customers, one after the other. And today, all of this morning I've only had two clients."

The steep drop off in commercial activity is evident throughout downtown Laredo in the empty storefronts and the "for rent" or "closed until further notice" signs posted on front doors.

Lots of these stores sold wholesale to Mexican retailers, so they depended on shoppers coming across the bridge. But a rash of extortion, arson and kidnappings for ransom have forced many of those small business owners in Mexico to shut their doors.

Criminal activity, including highway robberies and car jackings, have prompted shopkeepers to stay away from Nuevo Laredo and look elsewhere for their merchandise.

The dangerous conditions there have also affected tourism, another important source of revenue for both cities.

"It has really hit us hard," said Raul Perales, manager at La Posada, a historic hotel on Laredo's riverfront. "We used to average roughly 10, 15 tour buses a month. We don't get any anymore."

American and Mexican buses used to regularly shuttle travelers back and forth. The downtown areas of the two sister cities are within walking distance of one another.

Mexican tourists can visit the border region on day passes to shop for electronics and brand name clothing. The big attraction for Americans was the ability to cross over into Mexico for quick trips: eating, souvenirs and nightlife.

Laredo's tourism director Blasita Lopez said she used to facilitate travel between the two cities, but not anymore.

"It has been about a year since we've had somebody who has come and said, 'Can you tell me about traveling into Nuevo Laredo?'" she said. "The travelers who used to come in to go to the mercado, or who wants to go have a few margaritas and come back, we don’t see that anymore."

While the absence of tourists and proliferation of empty storefronts are the most visible signs of how the situation in Nuevo Laredo is affecting its sister city, perhaps the most profound effect on Laredo residents is the abrupt change to the region's bi-national lifestyle.

"It does make us think twice about going across," said Laredona Ana Lopez. "I mean, I'm not afraid of going. I just don't take my kids. My kids are 15."

Ana Lopez said what she missed most were the little things that were part of her family's routine.

"We used to go a lot, just to go eat at the little carts that they have, for whatever, and we don't anymore," she said. "It's not that we don't want to go, it's that we're just cautious now."

Lopez says when she does cross the border, she makes sure to be back before nightfall. Like many other Laredoans, Lopez has family on both sides of the river. So in addition to causing the economic slump, the violence in Nuevo Laredo — and stricter border policies — have separated many families who live within minutes of each other.