Image: Bullet-riddled portrait of Mexican revolutionary hero Gen. Francisco Villa
Dario Lopez-Mills  /  AP
The bullet-riddled portrait of Mexican revolutionary hero Gen. Francisco Villa stands outside the El General restaurant in Ciudad Mier, Mexico, on the border with Texas. The residents of Ciudad Mier have been under siege for months as powerful drug cartels battle for control of a prime drug smuggling corridor.
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updated 11/23/2010 2:40:26 PM ET 2010-11-23T19:40:26

Shell casings carpet the road outside a bullet-riddled subdivision on the outskirts of this colonial town on the Rio Grande Valley, abandoned by most of the 6,000 inhabitants following a nine-month battle by warring drug cartels.

Nobody lives in the 65 one-story white houses across the border from Roma, Texas, except the abandoned pets that roam the streets of the Casas Geo development. Like 90 percent of those who once lived in Mier, they have fled to a shelter in the nearby city of Miguel Aleman, Mexico's first such haven for people displaced by drug violence.

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While Mexicans increasingly have fled border towns up and down the Rio Grande Valley, Ciudad Mier is the most dramatic example so far of the increasing ferocity of war between rival drug cartels, and the government's failure to fight back.

The state and federal governments say it's safe to go back and that people are returning. One official even invited tourists to return. The scenes witnessed by The Associated Press say something else.

Even during daylight hours, a Mexican army squad patrols the town nervously. A bullet-riddled army pickup truck lies in the yard of the local military outpost, a metallic casualty of an ambush last weekend that locals say killed four soldiers. The Army does not officially recognize it even happened.

A man named Rogelio, 72, a migrant who retired after years of lawn work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Chicago, has a question for them:

"Where were they nine months ago?" He asked not to give his last name for fear of reprisals. Almost everyone in town has had a relative kidnapped by the gangs, he said. "We have had nine months of gun fights, almost every night. Why did they leave us alone?"

Only about 400 people remain in the town. Most went to Texas or other Mexican cities. Some 300 others are staying in a Lion's Club-turned-shelter in nearby Ciudad Miguel Aleman with no intention of returning, even though the clean auditorium with tiled floors covered in foam mattresses doesn't feel much safer: A shootout a block away from the shelter sent them diving for cover last week.

Terrified refugees lower their voices so as not to be heard by the cartel lookouts. A heavily tattooed young man with a flashy, embroidered baseball cap and gold chains lounges on the sidewalk outside and interrogates a reporter: What are you doing here? Who have you interviewed inside?

Gabi, 18, a high school student at the shelter, nearly whispers that cartel gunmen left a man hanging by his neck from a palm tree in the Ciudad Mier town square in June.

"His face was taped over, and they had cut off his hands and legs," she said.

About half the houses in Ciudad Mier have bullet holes. The Casas Geo subdivision seems frozen in time; most residents left in the summer, and it was empty by early November. The houses show how people lived when the battle reached its height: armoires and wooden wardrobes pushed up against the windows, in a vain bid to stop the bullets.

Gaping holes in walls, windows and doors where high-powered ammunition made impact. On the entrance to the subdivision, someone daubed in paint "CDG" and a heart, a reference to the Gulf Cartel.

Outside the entrance, abandoned cattle wait next to the roadside for a rancher. Dozens of ranchers have been kidnapped and killed by the cartels since the war broke out between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel on Feb. 23. That is when the Gulf Cartel roared back into town to retake it from the Zetas; both see it as a lucrative trafficking route in a rural border area.

Two lucky horses are quickly carted off; their owners are too nervous to talk, and speed away with the trailer bearing the animals. The only people returning to Ciudad Mier are stopping only briefly, to spirit off whatever possessions they can still rescue. One couple loads up everything they can rescue from their house — even the hot water heater — into their pickup before taking off. "It will be a year or two before I even think of returning," said the husband.

In fact, it may be longer. The Zetas, sensing weakness, launched a new offensive after the Nov. 5 slaying of top Gulf cartel leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen. Most believe the Zetas are still lurking on the cattle ranches and in the brush and low woods around Ciudad Mier and farther up the Rio Grande valley, just waiting to return.

Some hold out hope that kidnapped loved ones are still being held at the cartel hideouts.

"My father said, 'I'm going over to the ranch to cut some wood and pick up a few (fence) rails.' He never came back," said one middle-aged woman at the Lion's Club shelter.

Maria Isabelle, 42, disappeared from the shelter and hasn't been heard from.

"A truck came by and someone said, 'Pick up that woman,'" said her mother, shelter resident Maria de la Luz, 59.

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In Casas Geo, another resident on a quick run to his former home shows a reporter a flame-scarred house across the street. "This is where they fired a rocket into the house," he said. He was picking up furniture from a house where the subdivision's last remaining holdout, Gaspar Rodolfo, was kidnapped earlier this month.

Across the road, a feed-store owner tosses the twisted metal casing of a rocket-propelled grenade onto his counter. In the back room, he has a five-gallon bucket full of shell casings he collected in his parking lot.

Farther down the road, a restaurant owner pours his own collection on the counter: casings from an M-40 grenade launcher, and .50-caliber bullets.

But that probably isn't what scares the army, which has M-40 launchers and .50-calibers of its own. It's what lies in the municipal impound lot that is truly frightening. The burned-out remains of five crudely armored pickup trucks and SUVs, with half-inch steel plate welded over most of the windows, leaving only a narrow slit for the drug gunmen's visibility and firing. It all looks like something out of a "Mad Max" movie.

Farther outside of town lies a homemade tank that locals refer to in hushed tones as "The Monster."

"The Monster" was a 10-wheel gravel truck with a 5-yard (meter) freight box, entirely covered in 1 1/4-inch steel plate welded into the box to cover firing positions for about 10 gunmen. In the cab, the thick steel plate covered the engine, the windshield and the doors, punctuated by hinged covers for gun ports, and massive steel rams welded onto the prow of the craft.

What is terrifying about "The Monster" was not that the Zetas drug gang built it and used it in the almost medieval war for Ciudad Mier, but that the Cartel del Golfo — which roared back into Mier with a vengeance on Feb. 23, 2010, to retake the turf — brought it down.

Perhaps most frightening of all is what is happening farther up the road from the subdivision, where the highway leads toward the town of Nueva Ciudad Guerrero. Even those brave enough to sneak back into Ciudad Mier won't take the road to Guerrero, where 11 Zeta gunmen were killed in a clash with soldiers days before. In more than an hour's time, not a single vehicle passes in that direction.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: The War Next Door: Mexico's vicious battle

  1. Transcript of: The War Next Door: Mexico's vicious battle

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now to a war going on right next door to this country in Mexico , where the government is in a fierce fight with the drug cartels , which also have operations in at least what's estimated to be 270 American cities and where they're bringing in up to $39 billion a year from the drug trade in the US. We'll be focusing on this dangerous and violent war next door in Mexico in an ongoing series of special reports. Tonight, NBC 's Mark Potter on the extent of the narco insurgency.

    MARK POTTER reporting: With terror in the streets just south of the US border, the Mexican government is struggling to keep a lid on the rapidly escalating violence that has now claimed 28,000 lives in a nearly four-year drug war , pitting cartel against cartel and against the government . The savagery is hard to imagine, with mass killings, beheadings and corpses strewn in public as traffickers lash out against rivals and the authorities. Tony Payan of the University of Texas at El Paso is an expert on Mexican drug cartels .

    Mr. TONY PAYAN (University of Texas At El Paso): You could say they're a kind of an insurgency. They're beginning to learn and to use tactics that are generally associated with insurgency.

    Mr. ANTHONY COULSON (Former Drug Enforcement Administration Supervisor): It's getting worse. I have never seen it at this level before.

    POTTER: Anthony Coulson is a recently retired DEA supervisor in Tuscon , Arizona . He says the Mexican traffickers produce more drugs and are stronger now than ever.

    Mr. COULSON: And they're flourishing as an -- as almost an empire, a drug empire.

    POTTER: Mexican President Felipe Calderon is waging an unprecedented war against the drug cartels , and warns the traffickers threaten civil order and the state. So far five mayors have been killed this year, and a gubernatorial candidate was shot dead on a highway.

    Mr. JOSE REYES FERRIZ (Juarez, Mexico, Mayor): The state is not prepared to handle that type of situation. The police forces in Mexico are too small.

    POTTER: Jose Reyes Ferriz is the mayor of Juarez , Mexico , where 2800 people were killed in drug violence last year. He travels with tight security. How many threats do you get, and how seriously are they taken?

    Mr. FERRIZ: Oh, well, we take them very seriously. We started getting threats right after I took office.

    POTTER: In downtown Juarez , next to El Paso , Texas ...

    Mr. FERRIZ: This is the place where the -- where the bomb exploded.

    POTTER: ...Mayor Reyes showed us where a car bomb aimed at police killed three people. This -- when this car bomb went off, this was a real ratcheting up of the violence here, correct?

    Mr. FERRIZ: It was. It was. There was -- had never been used in Juarez .

    POTTER: To lure police to the scene, traffickers shot a man, dressed him in a police uniform, laid him on the street, called for help, then when federal police arrived set off a remote controlled bomb caught on tape. Since then there have been other car bombs in Mexico , and traffickers threaten more. The horrific violence here in Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico is directly linked to the United States , as traffickers fight for control of smuggling routes to the United States . Anyone standing in the way is a target for murder. In Creole , Mexico , a police security camera revealed the brazenness of drug traffickers , who shut down a highway, threatened drivers and kill nine people here. Many villages near the border have become ghost towns after the traffickers threatened or killed the residents to clear the way for drug loads bound for US cities .

    Mr. DAVID GADDIS (Drug Enforcement Administration): We, too, have to look at it seriously in our country. It is our country's number one organized crime threat.

    POTTER: A hard-fought war by the Mexican government , supported by the US, but still far from being won. Mark Potter , NBC News, Juarez , Mexico .

    WILLIAMS: By the way, there's more of Mark 's reporting on this topic. It's on our Web

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