Guns go quiet in uneasy Nogales

Open battles cease, pointing to Sinaloa Cartel stranglehold
2012-03-11T00:00:00Z 2012-03-11T18:30:34Z Guns go quiet in uneasy NogalesTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 11, 2012 12:00 am  • 

NOGALES, Sonora - The eruptions of gunfire that ripped through everyday life in this border city during recent years have finally gone quiet.

Recently released statistics show the monthly number of drug-war killings in Nogales, Sonora peaked at 45 in January 2010 - which was the top year for murders in the city - but fell to one per month in mid-2011.

Residents have enjoyed the quiet of the last six to 12 months. But they don't trust it.

Victor Guerrero awoke one night in March 2011 to the sound of automatic weapons heaving hundreds of rounds at two houses within a block of his home in the wealthy Colonia Kennedy neighborhood. The scars remain on the houses and in the minds of the residents.

"I think it made the city more cautious," Guerrero said of the years of gun violence. "It's something that's going to be here for a while."

One reason the caution persists is that the industry that brought the gun violence, drug trafficking, remains strong. There's a simple reason for the recent calm, said Tony Coulson, who retired in August 2010 as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Tucson office.

"The only thing that means is the Sinaloa Cartel has complete control of the corridor," he said. "There are less gunbattles 'cause there's less warring factions that are openly trying to kill each other."

Nogales was one of the three Mexican cities with the greatest declines in drug-war murders from 2010 to 2011, concluded a March 2 report by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

The other two cities are Miguel Aleman, Tamaulipas and Culiacan, Sinaloa - both notorious for their drug-war violence.

Tranquillity lost

The gunfire that shook Nogales, Sonora from late 2007 to early 2011 stemmed from a conflict between two major drug-trafficking factions, the Beltran-Leyva group and Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel, Coulson said. They started battling openly for control of the Nogales corridor, or "plaza" in 2007.

Their battle turned shockingly violent in the months after the Dec. 17, 2009 killing of Arturo Beltran-Leyva by Mexican marines, as the Sinaloa faction tried to purge the city of its rivals, Coulson said. In the six months from December 2009 to May 2010, 149 murders in Nogales were attributed to criminal groups fighting each other, according to data released in January by the office of Mexico's president.

The open fighting continued spasmodically through March 2011, when 16 people were killed, but after that it began to ease, the data show.

On Feb. 13, 2011, Gustavo Salcido was working as a manager of Sushi House, an Asian restaurant around the corner from federal police headquarters in central Nogales. He heard gunfire in the dining room and joined the crowd as it surged away from the shooting scene.

A group of gunmen had leapt from a car outside, charged into the restaurant and opened fire on a couple apparently connected to a rival criminal group. The gunmen killed those two and hit several bystanders, killing one who was protecting a child, Salcido said Thursday.

Salcido was somber as he recalled the night and the impact of such incidents on him and others in the city.

"We're losing the ability to be shocked," Salcido said in Spanish. "We who lived here before this began, we dream that the city will return to its tranquillity."

Exodus of Snowbirds

Another casualty of the gunbattles was Nogales' image among foreign visitors and investors, who have been crucial to the city's economy for decades.

Between the recession that hit in 2008, the flu epidemic of 2009 and the gunbattles, the casual tourists who used to boost the downtown area practically disappeared, although gunfire didn't enter the tourist zone, said Nora Licón Perea, owner of one of the few remaining curio shops on Avenida Obregón, the main tourist street.

"Last year, you didn't see anybody. This year there are a few snowbirds," she said in Spanish.

The draw that's bringing in foreign visitors now is cheap medical care, especially dentists and eye doctors, Licón Perea said. Those visitors will see that the atmosphere is fine and re-establish the flow of cross-border visits, she and others hope.

In 2008, the U.S. State Department issued its first travel alert mentioning Nogales, Sonora, citing the spike in organized-crime violence. The U.S. consulate in Nogales elevated that alert to a "warning" in March 2010 and renewed that warning in February this year.

The warnings mystify Rene Moreno, one of the contingent of maquiladora executives who travel frequently across the border and work daily in the Mexican city's factories.

"We are clueless as to what is generating those concerns," said Moreno, who is vice president of the Nogales maquiladora association and works at the huge Chamberlain assembly plant.

Anyway, he noted, they have not stopped major investments: Jabil Circuit Inc. opened a major new factory in the city last year that will employ 1,000 people, he said.

Invisible body count

While the silencing of the gunbattles has brought a degree of normality back to the city, some killings apparently have gone underground.

At Radio XENY, the station at 760 AM that the whole city seems to monitor for local news, listeners occasionally bring in flyers identifying people who have disappeared.

Sometimes the disappeared show up a few days later after a runaway jaunt or a binge, said César Barrón, who covers crime at the station. But other times the disappeared stay gone, Barrón said.

That fact, plus the buried bodies that occasionally turn up around town, make him wonder if there's a death count yet to be tolled. If so, those would be the killings that are more traditional in the drug world than the gunbattles of recent years, Coulson said.

"Now it's just internal discipline within the organization," he said. "They're not message-sending to someone else."

The open violence of recent years could return if another faction or government forces threaten the control of the drug trade, experts said. But smart traffickers in the Sinaloa Cartel have an interest in today's relative peace, said Scott Stewart, a vice president for Stratfor Global Intelligence

"They're very, very shrewd business-wise," said Stewart, who served at Fort Huachuca in the 1980s and got to know Sonora's border towns. "It's ideal for the cartel organizations to have things 'tranquilo.' "

by the numbers

Number of organized-crime-related murders in Nogales Sonora, by year

19

2007

102

2008

123

2009

196

2010

47*

2011

* 2011 figures through September

SOURCE: Mexico Office of the President

Where Nogales fits in

In January, the Mexican president's office released new figures on organized-crime-related homicides. Nogales, Sonora registered 11th in drug-related homicides among Mexican cities from December 2006 through September 2011, the last month for which the report had figures.

The 489 homicides in Nogales during that span put the city well behind Mexico's most violent city, Ciudad Juarez, which had 7,643 in the same period.

The city ranked ninth in drug-related killings from December 2006 through the end of 2010. But a relatively quiet 2011 helped Nogales drop out of the top 10.

Homicides shot up, down

YEAR HOMICIDES IN PIMA COUNTY HOMICIDES IN NOGALES, SONORA

2006 77 35

2007 84 52

2008 105 116

2009 64 130

2010 79 210

2011 75 83

Sources: Tucson police, Pima County sheriff, Oro Valley police, Marana police, Sonoran Ministry of Public Safety.

Star reporter Brady McCombs contributed to this story. Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or tsteller@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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