REYNOSA, Mexico — This 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 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. antidrug official said.
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. But the streets are deserted by evening, clothing store manager Manuel Diaz said.
"I imagine (shoppers) are scared, because there are no customers in the street," he said.
While the Pacific Coast city of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, have long been wracked by warfare among 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 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 made up of former gulf cartel hit men — demanded 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, 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.
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 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)."