updated 12/1/2006 9:23:25 AM ET 2006-12-01T14:23:25

For residents of this border city, it was a terrifying yet familiar tale: Three more Texans vanished in the dangerous Mexican countryside across the Rio Grande, abducted amid reports of escalating violence between warring drug cartels.

The weekend kidnapping of a prominent Laredo businessman and two other Texans was the latest of dozens of abductions in recent years that have more people here steering clear of the once-accessible border.

“It’s gotten a lot worse within the last year, to the point where you just don’t go,” said Angie Cuellar, a Laredo resident and longtime friend of kidnapped businessman Librado Pina Jr., 49. “I think the thing that scares me the most is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Authorities said 30 to 40 armed men stormed Pina’s remote deer-hunting ranch, located on dry scrubland and low rolling hills about 40 miles northwest of Nuevo Laredo. The men abducted Pina; his 25-year-old son, Librado Pina III; David Mueller, 45, of the Sweetwater area; Mexican businessman Fidel Rodriguez Cerdan; and Marcos Ortiz, a Mexican national who works as a cook at the ranch. Mueller and Cerdan were freed Wednesday.

“Well, everyone is scared,” said Antonia Ramirez, a 68-year-old Nuevo Laredo resident who was shopping in downtown Laredo on Thursday. “You hear about it on the news all the time. It’s worse than a few years ago.”

Erik Vasys, an FBI spokesman in San Antonio, said 60 U.S. citizens have been kidnapped in the area since 2004, and 21 of those cases remain unresolved.

Increasing lawlessness
He said the abductions are the result of increasing lawlessness as two major drug cartels — the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa cartel — fight for control of the cocaine and marijuana trafficking routes into the United States.

“When you have the extreme retaliatory drug violence, bad guy on bad guy, you get all the peripheral activity for other people, such as kidnapping,” Vasys said. “When the big dogs are fighting, the little dogs look for opportunities to make their own money as well. The whole area is an opportunist’s haven for just about all criminal activity.”

In September, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert regarding the “rising level of brutal violence” that is “particularly persistent in the city of Nuevo Laredo.” U.S. and Mexican citizens have been the victims of random shootings and execution-style murders in Nuevo Laredo, according to the alert.

The abductions have left behind people on the U.S. side hoping their relatives are alive. Some of those relatives attended a prayer vigil at the elder Pina’s church late Wednesday night.

“It’s just out of control; it’s time for people to realize it can touch them,” said Daniela Ortiz of Laredo whose husband, Sergio Ortiz, disappeared in Nuevo Laredo.

“It’s the same pain,” said Priscilla Cisneros, whose daughter, Brenda Cisneros, vanished in Nuevo Laredo in September 2004. “We feel what they’re feeling right now.”

One city split in two
Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are essentially one contiguous city separated by the Rio Grande, which divides the two cities but links their economic destinies.

Laredo, a city of 175,000 residents, 90 percent of whom are Mexican-American, is the largest inland port in the United States. About 60 percent of U.S. trade with Latin America and 40 percent of the trucks that carry goods across the border go through Laredo, city spokeswoman Xochitl Mora said.

The violence in Nuevo Laredo, a city of about 330,000, is opening a chasm wider than the river.

“People ... would go across the border like it was crossing the street,” Mora said. “They’d go over for dinner, go shopping, visit family. People now are cautious about going into Nuevo Laredo. That feeling before all the violence, it’s kind of lost now.”

Cuellar said when she was younger she used to cross into Nuevo Laredo — alone — to go dancing. Just a couple years ago, she would take family and friends across for lunch and shopping.

“In 2003, I wouldn’t even think twice about going,” she said. “Now, it has to be a dire necessity for me to go across the river.”

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