<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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“I Went to Nuevo Laredo, and I Survived”

From Mexico’s Most Hyped Drug War Battleground, an Interview with Raymundo Ramos, President of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee

By Ricardo Sala
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

August 19, 2005

NUEVO LAREDO, TAMAULIPAS STATE, MEXICO: “There is a lot of cash in the drug business. It is a huge economy that is not being controlled. Or, better said, it’s getting out of control, and none of the authorities have any interest in finding a solution or alternative.” The journalist and fighter for human rights proposes a policy that inverts the pyramid of authority. “Society makes the proposals, utilizes the political parties to make sure they follow through on the initiative, and the president obeys. If we follow that model we can find good solutions, because the people would be the ones who give the orders.”

Raymundo Ramos, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Photo: D.R. 2005 Ricardo Sala
He is no longer the same Ray that took a break from his police beat at the
El Mañana newspaper to give me a tour in his truck of the “glorious streets of Nuevo Laredo.” We passed by the banks of the Río Bravo (the river called the Rio Grande in the U.S.) lined with cardboard crosses, one for every drowned immigrant; the Catholic Church performs a mass for them each September. We drove by the house that served as a secret prison until the first major operation of “Operation Safe Mexico” freed its forty-three hostages from the narco. And we went by the house that got caught in the crossfire of two gangs just two days earlier, with six-inch holes that could only have been made with military-grade weapons purchased in the United States.

Neither is he the same Ray from later in the bar, repeating his welcome to this “sister republic of Hell” whose last hope is the tourism of the casinos that have still not been approved by the federal government, daring me to get out on the dance floor as we drank our Bud Lights and listened to the music of Los Kumbia Kings.

Now, sitting across a wide desk and in front of a television that monitors the outside street via closed circuit, he is Raymundo Ramos, president of the February 5 Group Human Rights Committee in Nuevo Laredo. This has been his night job for the last eight years. Eighty percent of the committee’s work involves legal assistance to victims of arbitrary arrests, the other twenty percent human rights education. But the phone calls I have observed here had to do with a different issue: the case of a missing migrant, who seems to have had problems in his legs. (Eight left from San Luis Potosí, Raymundo tells me, but only seven arrived at their destination in North Carolina. Some of the missing man’s companions say that he stayed behind; others say that they buried him. His family is asking us for help.)

Raymondo lights a candle next to some flowers above a file cabinet that serves as an alter. The flame is a symbol of hope for this border town, a port of entry to the immense cocaine market in the United States. My host himself is a flame, caught in a crossfire. What’s more, it’s also extremely hot.

Narco News: Can you describe the Committee’s work?

Raymundo Ramos: The majority of the work, eighty percent, is in legal counsel for arbitrary detentions, at the local, state, and federal levels. The other part, twenty percent, is in education, going to schools, to universities, to neighborhoods, to organizations, in order speak about human rights. Human rights and public security, human rights and justice, human rights and education. That’s what we do.

Narco News: Can we turn this fan off? [It is making a lot of noise.]

Raymundo Ramos: Sure, the switch is over here.

Narco News: When did the committee begin?

Raymundo Ramos: In August of 1997. It was a group of friends that realized that there were no human rights organizations in this city. We agreed on the necessity to work as a group, a civil group, a nongovernmental organization, and we created this group.

Narco News: You are a journalist.

Raymundo Ramos: I am a journalist by trade, with a degree in communication sciences, and I have worked for El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo for fourteen years.

Narco News: How did you get interested enough in human rights to start this project:?

Raymundo Ramos: As journalists, we are subject to certain limits. As employees of the newspaper, we are subject to what the editor or owner says, and as journalists, our obligation is to disseminate information, to make complaints and denunciations known. But that is all. Sometimes this is insufficient. The people are victims of attacks and abuse, and they want more than simply to have their story told in the media. And that was how we started to work with lawyers, because this issue has a lot to do with the law. I sought support from doctors, lawyers, teachers, social leaders, and religious people, so as not to go out alone on this adventure.

In 1997 we were still living in the last stage of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, the ruling party in Mexico for nearly 80 consecutive years) era. There was still repression and civil liberties were restricted. The group was created as a pluralist one, with eleven members, most of them professionals. And we began to work, to make the Human Rights Committee take shape. Obviously, we had to go to training courses, to get advise from other national and international organizations, and… well, begin to work to have some kind of influence, in cases of human rights abuses and peoples’ liberties in general.

Narco News: What is the current situation with arbitrary arrests in Nuevo Laredo?

Raymundo Ramos: It is a culture that we have not been able to get rid of. The police think that by throwing more citizens in jail, they will win points and the chief will notice how hard they are working. To them, arresting immigrants, or vagrants, or gang members, or ordinary citizens, who are doing nothing more than enjoying some time in a public square… to them, this is fulfilling their duty. They have no concept whatsoever of human rights, of the right to freedom of movement; they have no idea that in trying to do their job they are violating the rights of others. If we add this to the extortion – the easy money they want, taking peoples’ positions during searches, thinking that no one will complain and that they will be able to keep it without any trouble – we have a big problem. That’s where we come in.

Narco News: Of course… because if they are going to extort, now they are not even arresting people in order to do their job, but just to get money.

Raymundo Ramos: The police in Nuevo Laredo are well paid. They make, on average, 6,000 pesos ($570 dollars) per month, which is equivalent to what a teacher earns who has studied for four or five years to do his job. These men, the vast majority of whom have no more than a high school education, get a badge, a gun, a uniform, and hit the streets with the law in their own hands. That’s where we need to be, as observers, responding to the people, monitoring what happens. When we don’t have complaints to attend to here in the office, we go out into the streets. And we also look at prisons to see how things are there. We talk to the prisoners when they are being interrogated, and that is one way to understand the situation. Arbitrary detentions happen every day. Of course, we don’t have the necessary people or equipment to really put a stop to it. That’s why we haven’t been able to eradicate the problem.

Narco News: What are the main types of arbitrary arrests?

Raymundo Ramos: Detentions in the street, and detentions at night.

Narco News: For what motive? What are the excuses the police give?

Raymundo Ramos: That they are vagrants, that they are loitering, that they have no identification and can’t demonstrate a place of residence, that they are drunk, that they are “bothering tourists” in a public place. The police have an endless number of justifications to make an arrest, from walking around too late at night, to being in a plaza bothering tourists, when we can see that such things are not true. Here, what we make the judges, security officials, and the mayor himself see is that a citizen’s statement is worth just as much as a police officer’s. And we often see that the citizen is not listened to. They put all their trust in the police.

Police in a Nuevo Laredo public square: arbitrary arrests and human rights violations, or a service to the community?
Photo: D.R. 2005 Ricardo Sala
We try to keep very close tabs on the police. We know them now, which ones are bad and which are good. And we are marking the ones we identify as bad guys and extortionists. We don’t let them rest. We go after them via human rights complaints, legal complaints, or denunciations before the media and press conferences. The last resort is public protest. When we have exhausted all other avenues, we go out and protest, whether it be to protest the mayor, the security services, the police station, wherever.

Narco News: Can you give us a specific example? Or a case of a specific police officer?

Raymundo Ramos: There was the case of some boys who were on a corner at 11 o’clock at night. A special police squad passed by and picked them all up. One of them was drinking a beer. But there were eight of them. The police said that they were all drinking in public and that they had been fighting. We brought in some neighbors. “So, this guy lives in the house right on the corner. Do any of you have a complaint about these boys?” “No, they weren’t doing anything.” “Well, here they say that they were drinking beer.” The one boy who was drinking comes out and recognizes what he was doing. So, he should pay, right? But not the other two. So we asked them to bring the county medical examiner so that he could examine them and determine which ones had consumed alcoholic beverages.

The examiner arrived and certified that no more than one, out of the seven or eight of them, had been drinking. So, why do they arrest all of them if there is no complaint? And if no more than one of them was drinking, what are the charges? Creating a nuisance? Disturbing the peace? Loitering? That can’t be, because they were in their own neighborhood.

The chief didn’t want to listen to us. We went to the city hall and held a protest there. The mayor came out and said, “Let them go, just give a fine to the one who was drinking.” That is the kind of arrest that we need to show to the authorities, to demonstrate that it is wrong. And there are many like this one, in public squares, in movie theatres, in parking lots.

Narco News: And with immigrants…

The tranquil waters of the Río Bravo (called the Rio Grande in the U.S.) separate Nuevo Laredo from Texas.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Ricardo Sala
Raymundo Ramos: And with immigrants. We have a wide border for immigrants to cross into the United States, as well as those who have been deported and are coming back, people who had just barely left. As migrants, they are basically defenseless; they have no local address, no friends or relatives, and usually carry just a few pesos for food. And the police want to steal those few pesos. Just this week we denounced two police officers for extorting immigrants: one for 500 pesos ($50 dollars), the other for 2000 ($190). We were able to prove that they were being extorted. We told the police that if they had passed the certification process [that the government recently instituted to weed out corrupt cops] and gone through a change of image, then it wasn’t right for them to go out and extort immigrants. They should be taking money from the narcos, but we’ll see if that really happens.

Narco News: Have you ever been arrested?

Raymundo Ramos: No. I have been taken to court many times, for defamation, for disrespect for authority. Both the PGR and the MP (Mexico’s two justice departments) have opened investigations against me but have never proven anything, thank God. And in the past, we had to understand that this was the repression of a system that was on its way out, the PRI system. Now, with Fox, this hasn’t changed much, but there is a little more protection for both journalists and human rights activists.

Narco News: How often is the pretext used that the person was carrying drugs?

Raymundo Ramos: The detention of consumers is very common. Because it is the consumers they arrest more often than the dealers. When they’re dealers, we can’t do much for them, because it is an illicit business and we aren’t here to defend illicit businesses. But when they are consumers, we can. We have had cases where our lawyers have gone to demonstrate to the PGR medical examiner that the person is a consumer, and that his arrest was merely due to the fact that at that moment he didn’t have any money to pay what the cops were asking. When it can be proved that they are consumers, and that as in many cases it is their first arrest, they can be released, often without bail, on parole.

Narco News: This past June saw two major events: a team of AFI (Mexico’s federal investigative force, equivalent to the FBI) agents arrived to sack the Nuevo Laredo municipal police officers, and soon afterward the “Operation Safe Mexico” plan was implemented. Seven hundred police officers were confined to base under investigation. How has the situation of violence changed, from a human rights perspective, since the implementation of Operation Safe Mexico?

Raymundo Ramos: To begin, Operation Safe Mexico is a propaganda operation; it is not effective, not an operation that has to do with prevention or investigation. It is a propaganda operation to quiet the voices in the United States every time they complain about the violence and impunity that exist in Nuevo Laredo. There have been no results… or the few results there have been have been due to anonymous complaints. In the case of the forty-three rescued hostages, most of them were, in fact, rather than civilians with no ties to narco-trafficking, members of a criminal organization. There were some minors, there were some innocent family members, there was one other who was kidnapped in order to collect a ransom, but the bulk of the cases are people linked in one way or another to a criminal group.

The narcos’ secret prison: Mexican federal agents rescued forty-three people from this house on June 26.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Ricardo Sala
The issue here was not freeing them, but rather, how was it possible that there were forty-there people held hostage in one house and that no authority knew where they were, despite them having been held for as long as two months? When there were complaints, neither the state authorities, the local police, nor the AFI were capable of dealing with that house, until Operation Safe Mexico. That is evidence of the uselessness of the work that both state and federal law enforcement has been doing.

On the other hand, the detention of those city police officers was a necessary measure. The Nuevo Laredo police were too corrupt, too rotten. It was a totally deteriorated image that no longer served the public interest, was no longer protecting the people. We do believe in this purging process. We do believe in the necessity of changing bad cops; of getting rid of them and letting the more committed ones do their jobs. It is difficult, very difficult, because the gangs offer cash, send threats, and put on pressure in order to dominate the police. But now that this effort exists in all three levels of government, for the first time since Fox’s administration began – and in its last year – well, those are the results.

Narco News: So, on the one hand it is a façade, a screen put up for the United States, but on the other it has had some results…

Raymundo Ramos: It is principally propagandistic, a media campaign. But those of us who live in Nuevo Laredo know what it’s about. We know that it was a necessary and urgent filter on the police. For that reason, we consider it valid. We are sorry to see it coming just now, in Fox’s sixth year, and after Governor Tomás Yarrington has already left. The good thing is that it is happening in the first year of Mayor Daniel Peña, and in the first year of Governor Eugenio Hernández’s administration, so that there will at least be some continuity on the municipal and state levels. At the federal level, we’ll have to see what effort the new president will make.

Narco News: So, Operation Safe Mexico’s benefit was, basically, this police purge, and the rest is a façade.

Raymundo Ramos: It is such a façade that the criminals continue fighting in the streets, despite the fact that there are patrols. The criminals keep facing each other, with submachine guns, with grenade launchers, with mortars, with bazookas, with weapons of war.

Two nights before this interview, high-caliber bullets and explosives damaged this house in crossfire between the “Zetas” and the “Chapos.”
Photo: D.R. 2005 Ricardo Sala
Narco News: What is the security situation like in Nuevo Laredo today?

Raymundo Ramos: The daily violence continues. The abusive husbands, the thieves, they all continue, taking advantage of the lack of local police controls. The local police already know who the thieves are, who the abusive husbands are, they already know the common criminals. In some ways, when they must be arrested, they must be arrested. The state and federal police don’t know them, don’t know who’s who. They drive by and they don’t know whether the guy outside that house lives there or if he’s a robber. That is a disadvantage, and we urge the local police to get back into the streets. If not all seven hundred, than four or three hundred, however many are left, but let them return to their patrols.

Narco News: A small number is back on the streets…

Raymundo Ramos: Of all the units, thirty percent are back on patrol, but only downtown, in the tourist areas. Not in the neighborhoods.

Narco News: The forces that are here, from outside, are the state police and the Federal Preventative Police (PFP), with four hundred members, but they don’t offer services that are really tied to the community…

Raymundo Ramos: What they do is a so-called “carrousel” operation. This means that they go round and round the city, and when they come upon a crime being flagrantly committed out in the open, they attack it.

Narco News: And are they making arbitrary arrests?

Raymundo Ramos: Until now we have no reports of it. Just one possible one, from early June. They beat a boy because, according to them, he had shot at them, but they could not demonstrate this. They didn’t find any guns on him, and the ballistics tests came out negative. We did denounce that at the time. But, I repeat, they really only act on flagrant crimes.

Narco News: So, the purge did help to reduce the number of arbitrary arrests…

Raymundo Ramos: Yes, in a way, it did. Though there was this case of the migrants that I mentioned, which happened two days after the municipal police began their patrols again.

Narco News: What is the state of drug consumption in Nuevo Laredo?

Raymundo Ramos: It is high. I don’t have the exact figures. But there is no family in Nuevo Laredo that hasn’t experienced, directly or indirectly, drug consumption among some of its members. More among the youth; it is a problem of the young people. Drugs are reaching the barrios, the street corners, the discos, the dancehalls. The drugs are there. The problem is that there isn’t enough information. There is no preventative or informative health campaign, to tell the young people what drugs are and what are their consequences. Although our youth are very informed, with more access to electronic media, at the end of the day the information is insufficient, because they are falling into drug abuse.

Narco News: And we are talking about marijuana, cocaine…

Raymundo Ramos: And heroin.

Narco News: Heroin… you were telling me that heroin consumption had probably gone down. I know this isn’t your specialty, but…

Raymundo Ramos: We monitor such things by the number of dead. We have statistics about who is dying from overdoses. And when we started reading about cases of overdose in the press, it was from heroin. And this start to really alarm us. Ay caray, one a week, two a week, three, four. That was a difficult time for young consumers. They were dying from heroin. Maybe because it was bad heroin, maybe because they were taking too much; we don’t know. But then consumption started to go down again.

Narco News: When did it reach its peak exactly?

Raymundo Ramos: In May of last year.

Narco News: Why is there so much violence in Nuevo Laredo?

Raymundo Ramos: Because there are two groups vying for control. And this is surely the most important crossing point for goods between Mexico and the United States, a natural crossing point.

Narco News: Because the Pan-American Highway runs through…

Raymundo Ramos: Exactly. And we have 14,000 trailer trucks crossing every day into the United States, of which 10 percent are inspected. And, well, the idea of crossing with a trailer containing drugs, whether marijuana or cocaine, is very attractive. Too attractive. Each trailer can mean several million dollars. So, if we are talking about 13,000 trailers that are not inspected, and we can get a hundred or even ten through, well, now it’s an attractive business. And that’s when the gangs start fighting.

Narco News: What are the repercussions of the gang violence for society?

Photo: D.R. 2005 Ricardo Sala
Raymundo Ramos: The city is held hostage, as if we were prisoners in our own city. We go out to a restaurant, and we have to look at who else is sitting there, if anyone is armed, if there police, if there is anyone that could be the target of an attack. You walk down the streets and you have to be watching all sides to see if there aren’t suspicious trucks that could be carrying armed men, or that could be targeted in an attack or a confrontation. Walking around after 10 at night, as we used to do, isn’t done anymore. The people take shelter early. There is no more public space. The city’s main avenue, Guerrero Avenue, is deserted, when once it was a meeting place for anyone who wanted to go out. In many ways we have isolated ourselves from public life. It’s more like being a prisoner in your own house.

Narco News: Is there something that civil society can do?

Raymundo Ramos: Yes. Pressure the authorities. We are paying the price for not understanding that while the PRI keeps governing Tamaulipas and Nuevo Laredo, very little is going to change. These problems, of violence, organized crime, didn’t spring up yesterday or last year. They have been growing for ten, twenty, thirty years. Protected, planned, and encouraged by the government. Corrupt governments, like those of the PRI. As long as people keep voting for them, they’ll just have to deal with it. When someone comes here to the office and tells me “a cop hit me,” or “they raided my house,” the first thing I ask that person is, “did you vote in the last elections?” “Yes…” or “no…” they’ll tell me. ’Deal with it,” I say, if they tell me they didn’t vote. And if the person tells me that he or she did vote, and voted for the PRI, I say “deal with it, because you voted for the PRI.” Right? I mean, there are other options… I don’t think that the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) or the PAN (the National Action Party of President Fox) are going to end this, but at least commitments will be renewed, there will be new spaces that we can use to take this on.

But when it’s the same old PRI, we understand that they keep leaving behind a legacy of impunity, like what Tomás Yarrington passed on to Eugenio Hernández. Eugenio is not going to file any charges against Tomás; he won’t even launch an investigation. So we say to people, “keep voting for the PRI, and you’ll just have to deal with it.”

Narco News: Because, in this sense, it is the force of change, the benefit that alternating who is in power can bring…

Raymundo Ramos: New people need to come into positions of power, into the judiciary, into the legislature, and, obviously, into the executive office. New people. If they are the same politicians that already have relationships with the criminals, who already know how to make deals with them, it will stay the same.

Narco News: But on the other hand, if they change, if things get shaken up…

Raymundo Ramos: That’s right, things get shaken up. The city of Reynosa is an example. The PAN now governs in Reynosa, and there is less violence there than in Nuevo Laredo.

Narco News: Much less violence. I saw this in some statistics at a webpage on human rights in the area.

Raymundo Ramos: So, what happens? If the mayor has problems, he should be able to talk to the federal government, and the federal forces can arrive in full force. Quickly. When something happens here in Nuevo Laredo, the mayor first has to ask the governor’s permission so that he can ask for federal assistance. It becomes a triangle. Why? Because the mayor obeys the governor’s orders. That is, the governor’s will comes before the safety of the people of Nuevo Laredo.

Narco News: And on the other hand, the mayor of Reynosa is from the PAN, and he speaks directly to Los Pinos (the Mexican presidential residence).

Raymundo Ramos: And they speak directly to him, and give him an answer.

Narco News: What is your opinion on drug policy?

Raymundo Ramos: All I can say is that there is a lot of cash in the drug business. It is a huge economy that is not being controlled. Or, better said, it is getting out of control, and none of the authorities have any interest in finding a solution or alternative. We see many problems, but we don’t see many solutions. And if you consider that in Mexico we have three political parties that all think differently but that none of them offers a viable solution, we don’t know what’s going to happen. If the PRI gives a proposal, the PAN is going to oppose it and so is the PRD, when they should be trying to reach a consensus.

Narco News: As long as there is no such consensus and the violence continues, I think that there ought to be solutions that come from the communities, from civil society, from the neighborhoods… to deal with both drugs and safety issues…

Raymundo Ramos: At the meeting we had in Mexico City, I presented a model of an inverted pyramid. While in the traditional pyramid you have the politicians at the top, who “consult” the organized groups, political parties, etc., but they don’t take the rest of society into account. The orders come down from above. The model of the inverted pyramid is the other way around. Society makes the proposals, utilizes the political parties to make sure they follow through on the initiative, and the president obeys. If we follow that model we can find good solutions, because the people would be the ones who give the orders. In order for that to happen, we need to organize, need to make sure organizations are presenting proposals and alternatives, and using political parties and other organizations to bring those proposals forward. The figure of the president or the governor must be reduced to a point at the tip of the pyramid, rather than taking up the entire pyramid.

Narco News: Anything else you’d like to say?

Raymundo Ramos: That it’s really hot.

Laughing, we turn the fan back on. Ray asks me to take his photo next to the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Three days later he sends me the photo he took when we stopped in front of the house that had been hit by bazookas. The title of the email brings back a warm memory of him: Ray had joked about an idea to promote tourism selling t-shirts baring the slogan “Fui a Nuevo Laredo y no me pasó nada” (“I went to Nuevo Laredo and Nothing Happened to Me”).

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America