Jorge Martinez didn’t seem surprised that his humble souvenir stand in downtown Nuevo Laredo wasn’t stopping passersby in their tracks to bargain over the red-white-and-green flags, shirts and noisemakers.
In the sweltering heat on the corner of Guerrero and Gonzalez streets, just six blocks from the Rio Grande, Martinez hadn't expected much of a crowd for today’s bicentennial Mexican Independence Day celebration — even though Nuevo Laredo is one of the cities braving the cartel violence to have one.
“Even at this time last year, things would have been better,” Martinez said in Spanish. “First it was the economy. Now it’s the violence.” To add to the dismal timing, this year also commemorates the centennial of the country’s revolution, which began in 1910 after the Mexican proletariat tired of decades of iron-fisted, one-party rule. The civil war was responsible for creating the legends of Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
Mexican independence is usually celebrated when the clock strikes midnight, beckoning the arrival of Sept. 16. It’s in recognition of the day in 1810 when rebel priest Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla demanded an insurgency to overthrow Spanish rule. The official call to arms was Hidalgo’s declaration: “Viva Mexico!” In modern times, city mayors ascend to balconies in the hearts of their cities and recreate the battle cry, followed by a parade later that day.
Nuevo Laredo is witnessing its own historic déjà vu. The city saw a surge in violence last decade, when the Gulf cartel and its former enforcers, Los Zetas, battled the Sinaloa cartel for control of the lucrative Interstate 35 corridor. Now the violence has returned, casting a shadow over a town battling to regain its reputation as a haven for tourists and cheap Mexican goods.
Despite this year’s concerns, Nuevo Laredo is sporting a show-must-go-on attitude for Independence Day. As of late Tuesday, city officials said they planned to have their annual celebration, despite the decision by other cities to call theirs off. In Tamaulipas, the cities of Matamoros, Tampico and Miguel Alemán all canceled their festivities. Earlier this month, El Paso’s sister city, Ciudad Juárez — the epicenter of cartel violence, with an unofficial death toll that exceeds 6,500 since 2008 — officially scotched its own plans. Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz told reporters he preferred that Juarenses celebrate at home and watch the ceremony on television.
Nuevo Laredo Mayor Ramos Garza Barrios, whose term will end this October, told local media that the city’s celebration will proceed with added security, including military patrols and possibly even metal detectors. Tuesday afternoon, a city police officer standing guard with masked soldiers outside of the municipal offices downtown acknowledged that, assertions notwithstanding, there were still rumors that the ceremony would be called off because of safety concerns. The rumors follow reports in the Laredo Morning Times that cartel shootouts on Monday killed several people in various parts of the city. The officer declined to confirm reports of any recent violence, but he said a meeting had been called to finalize security details.
Laredoans who used to make the short jaunt across the river can still enjoy their own celebration, however. For decades, sister border cities in the U.S. have replicated the same grito celebration, usually near the Mexican consulate's office. This year will be no different. On Tuesday, Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas met with Mexican Consul General Miguel Angel Isidro at Laredo City Hall to promote the annual downtown celebration.
“Mexico is our largest trading partner, our friend, our neighbor, and most importantly, our family,” Salinas said in a statement. “I want to take time out to recognize this historic and wonderful milestone in your country’s history.”
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, Mexico has witnessed about 30,000 drug-war deaths, as the government has battled to loosen the stranglehold of cartel power. While the decision to send in military troops to major cities was greeted with heavy criticism from human rights advocates across North America, the recent high-profile arrests or deaths of major kingpins have given the Mexican government a rare moment to celebrate. This weekend, authorities announced the arrest of Sergio “El Grande” Villarreal Barragan, a leader of the splintered Beltrán Leyva cartel. That announcement came on the heels of the arrest of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, who was believed to have been battling Villarreal Barragan for control of what was left of the brutal cartel after its former leader, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed in a shootout with authorities last year. Valdez Villarreal, who is not related to Villarreal Barragan, is a U.S. citizen from Laredo. The arrests of the two men followed the death of Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, one of the Sinaloa cartel’s highest-ranking officials, who was gunned down in a shootout with authorities.
Despite the major arrests, Nuevo Laredo could be witnessing the beginnings of resurgence in violence, according to global intelligence outfit Stratfor. In a July report on Mexico, Stratfor analysts posit that the recent surge in gun battles in Tamaulipas is a result of a split between Los Zetas and their former bosses in the Gulf Cartel. “Counternarcotics sources in the United States have indicated that Los Zetas No. 2 Miguel Trevino Morales was reported to have been in the Nuevo Laredo area around the time of the [July] fighting," the report said. "Such a high-ranking cartel official would bring with him a large amount of physical protection.”
Treviño Morales is a sworn enemy of hometown legend Vargas Villarreal. His power was felt in Texas in 2006 when the Zeta commander recruited teenagers, including U.S. citizens dubbed “Zetillas" — baby Zetas — to execute rivals on Texas soil. He is still at large.