U.S. shuts consulate in chaotic Mexican border city

Sat Jul 30,12:43 AM ET

The United States is closing temporarily its consulate in this lawless Mexican border city after rival drug gangs clashed with bazookas, hand grenades and heavy machine-gun fire.

“A violent battle involving unusually advanced weaponry took place between armed criminal factions last night in Nuevo Laredo,” U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza said on Friday.

He said he was ordering the consulate in Nuevo Laredo closed for all of next week and would only reopen it if the security situation improved.

Garza called on Mexico to swiftly bring the situation under control.

Mexico reacted angrily to Garza’s words, saying both countries shared a responsibility to fight drug crime.

“Repeated public statements by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico about the border situation in no way help bilateral efforts to end border crime,” the Mexican Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The latest battle erupted late on Thursday when about 30 masked gunmen opened fire on a suspected drug-cartel safe house in Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, blasting off its doors and strafing the facade with bullets.

Police and witnesses said six men trapped in the house returned fire in a gun battle that raged for 20 minutes, littering the street with spent cartridges and sending neighbors diving for cover, although no one was killed.

“I grabbed my daughter tight … and we hid under the bed until the explosions stopped,” said one neighbor, who identified himself as Carlos.

Nuevo Laredo is a key trade hub but it is also gripped by warring drug cartels seeking control of lucrative cocaine, marijuana and amphetamine smuggling routes.

Dozens of people, including 18 police officers, have been murdered here this year in a war between well-armed gangs from western Sinaloa state and the local Gulf cartel.

The State Department has this year repeatedly warned American citizens not to travel to Nuevo Laredo, a city of 330,000 people that has long been notorious for drug crime and kidnappings.

Public order lurched to new lows in early June when gunmen shot and killed the city’s new police chief just hours after he was sworn into office.

The government then sent troops and federal police to take over Nuevo Laredo, and the city’s entire local police force was suspended for investigations into links with the drug barons.

Despite the heavy presence of army troops, more than 20 people have since been shot dead.

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