REYNOSA, Mexico – This border city and others near the eastern end of the U.S. border escaped the worst of Mexico's bloody drug war for years, but now the bodies are piling up, several journalists are reportedly missing or dead and once-busy streets are empty after dark.
The crumbling of an alliance between two Mexican drug gangs has plunged the 200-mile stretch of border into violence, raising fears of a new front in the drug war, a U.S. anti-drug official told The Associated Press.
In Mexican border cities stretching from Matamoros near the Gulf to Nuevo Laredo, gunfire has been heard almost daily, and at least 49 people were killed in drug war-related violence in less than six weeks.
Reynosa's main plaza and Calle Hidalgo, a pedestrian shopping street, still bustle during the day. Shoeshiners were doing brisk business on a recent afternoon. But the streets are deserted by evening, clothing store manager Manuel Diaz said.
"I imagine they (shoppers) are scared, because there are no customers in the street," he said. Diaz himself kept his children home from school last month when rumors of abductions terrorized parents and many schools suspended classes.
Drug gangs have set up vehicle "checkpoints" along highways to the U.S. border, apparently to look for their rivals, according to the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, two hours south of the Texas border. As a result, the U.S. Consulate offices in the area had restricted travel of their employees to Reynosa, but lifted that ban Monday.
While the Pacific coast city of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, have long been wracked by open warfare among rival cartels, border cities to the east had enjoyed relative calm under The Company, a drug-trafficking duopoly formed by the Gulf cartel and the Zetas.
The tenuous union was broken when a member of the Zetas was killed in Reynosa in January, perhaps because he was in the Gulf cartel's territory without properly announcing himself, said Will Glaspy, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office across the border in McAllen, Texas.
The Zetas — a gang comprised of former Gulf cartel hit men — demanded that the Gulf cartel hand over the men responsible. Battles followed when the Gulf cartel refused, Glaspy said.
The clash is the latest of several power struggles among drug traffickers that have led to an upsurge of violence throughout the country, said Jorge Chabat, a Mexican expert on drug cartels.
There were four major cartels a decade ago, Chabat said, "and now we have at least seven."
Drug violence has killed almost 18,000 people throughout Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug traffickers in December 2006. Most of the killings have been among rival smugglers, according to the federal government.
Whether the surge in violence from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros is a taste of the bloodshed to come or a brutal blip has yet to be seen. But it has been an unwelcome glimpse of the violence seen more commonly in other parts of the country since 2006.
Eight journalists were kidnapped in Reynosa between Feb. 18 and March 3, according to the Inter-American Press Association. One was found dead with signs of torture. Two were released alive and five are still missing.
State prosecutors in Tamaulipas and the federal Attorney General's Office in Mexico City could not immediately confirm the report. The press association said those close to the victims had been too afraid to report the abductions.
The Company controlled drug trafficking along hundreds of miles of terrain at the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a federal indictment of Company chiefs unsealed last year in Washington. The group moves tons of marijuana and cocaine through border city regions, each managed by a different boss.
The Zetas, originally Mexican special forces soldiers recruited to be the Gulf cartel's muscle in the 1990s, have evolved into a drug-trafficking force of their own. The Gulf, Sinaloa and La Familia cartels appear to have united against them, Glaspy said.
A banner hung in Reynosa's main plaza last week addressed to Calderon asked for the withdrawal of the military so that the sides could fight it out among themselves. It was signed by the "fusion of Mexican cartels united against the 'Z' (Zetas)."
The Mexican army's 8th Division has had a visible presence in border cities since late 2007, and has recently found signs of drug gangs escalating their battles along this stretch of border.
Late last month, a military patrol responding to the scene of a shootout in the border town of Camargo found 22 vehicles shot up and abandoned, six rifles, 96 magazines for various weapons, 2,300 rounds of ammunition and more than two dozen grenades.
On Feb. 23, military patrols confronted armed groups in several border towns, killing six gunmen and seizing 14 vehicles — two armored — 29 guns, 1,700 rounds of ammunition, 88 magazines for various weapons, 10 grenades and two Kevlar helmets.
Two days later, a military patrol killed four gunmen traveling in a Cadillac Escalade in Matamoros.
Convoys of as many as a dozen shiny new Ford F150 pickup trucks loaded with masked rifle-toting federal police have become common sights.
The violence against the journalists has led local media to censor themselves, leaving residents on their own to separate fact from pervasive rumors. Residents tweet to let each other know of the latest gunbattle and what streets to avoid, and Reynosa officials have set up their own feed on the social networking site Twitter.
Ramiro Sanchez, 72, set aside his newspaper one recent afternoon to say he thought most of what was scaring people was rumor. But, he said, it was hard to judge because it was impossible to know what local media aren't reporting. In any case, the retired construction worker said, people are staying inside their homes at night, and Americans aren't crossing the bridge to shop anymore.
Asked if an all-out drug war was a possibility for Reynosa, Sanchez said, "You can't know where it's going to go, but I think we're still far from that."
Glaspy, the DEA head, said there are "multiple scenarios that could play out," and added, "We're hopeful that cooler heads will prevail."