July 29, 2005

U.S. shuts consulate in chaotic Mexican border city

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (Reuters) - The United States is
closing temporarily its consulate in this lawless Mexican
border city after rival drugs gangs clashed with bazookas, hand
grenades and heavy machine-gun fire.

"A violent battle involving unusually advanced weaponry
took place between armed criminal factions last night in Nuevo
Laredo," U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza said on Friday.

He said he was ordering the consulate in Nuevo Laredo
closed for all of next week and would only open it up again if
the security situation improved.

Garza called on Mexico to swiftly bring the situation under

The battle erupted late on Thursday when about 30 masked
gunmen opened fire on a suspected drug cartel safe house in
Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas,
blasting off its doors and strafing the facade with bullets.

Police and witnesses said six men trapped in the house
returned fire in a gun battle that raged for 20 minutes,
littering the street with spent cartridges and sending
neighbors diving for cover, although no one was killed.

"I grabbed my daughter tight ... and we hid under the bed
until the explosions stopped," said one neighbor, who
identified himself as Carlos.

Nuevo Laredo is a key trade hub but it is also gripped by
warring drug cartels seeking control of lucrative cocaine,
marijuana and amphetamine smuggling routes.

Dozens of people, including 18 police officers, have been
murdered here this year in a war between well-armed gangs from
western Sinaloa state and the local Gulf cartel.

The State Department has this year repeatedly warned
American citizens not to travel to Nuevo Laredo, a city of
330,000 people that has long been notorious for drug crime and

Public order lurched to new lows in early June when gunmen
shot and killed the city's new police chief just hours after he
was sworn into office.

The government then sent troops and federal police to take
over Nuevo Laredo, and the city's entire local police force was
suspended for investigations into links with the drug barons.

Despite the heavy presence of army troops, more than 20
people have since been shot to death.