Part 4: 'Pipeline' feeds river of blood

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2010 - 9:58 PM

Guns from America sustain Mexican drug cartels' insatiable appetite for firepower and fill the cemeteries with young men.


Father Anthony Anderson doesn't have to imagine the impact of guns flowing into his town from Minnesota and other states.

He hears the gunshots out his window every week.

In 10 years, "Padre Antonio" has lowered more young men into Del Norte cemetery than he can count. He carries a little black book in which he has scribbled the names of dozens of parishioners who have gone not-so-mysteriously missing.

"A man was killed there," he says, pointing to the right as he drives his creaky Ford pickup through the sun-baked streets of town. "Several others were shot down there," he adds, pointing to the left as he runs a stop sign.

Guns from Minnesota and other states, delivered into the hands of the powerful drug cartels, are used here as tools of intimidation, allowing the cartels' illegal enterprise to flourish unchecked.

As Paul de la Rosa stays confined to his Medford home, awaiting sentencing for nearly three years of running guns from Minnesota through this town, it is people such as Padre Antonio who are left to deal with the violent aftermath of gun smuggling along the route federal agents call the "iron pipeline."

In a city of nearly 500,000, Padre Antonio is pastor to a poverty-stricken parish of 90,000 faithful souls. But Our Lady of Refuge parish also is home to several drug kingpins, dozens of grieving mothers and countless young men seduced by the lucrative but deadly cartel battle for 200 miles of Rio Grande drug-dealing territory.

Once Padre Antonio preached against the cartels from the pulpit. It was in November 2003 that he pleaded with the people to stand up to the cartels, to not be cowed by fear.

It nearly cost him his life.

A few days later, as he drove his car down a Nuevo Laredo road, an SUV with tinted windows sped into his rearview mirror. It rammed his car, flipping it into a ditch. The paramedics who responded thought his pelvis was crushed and his legs were broken.

It turned out his bones were intact. But his nerve was gone.

Doctors reattached his severed ear. Padre Antonio revised his message.

Now he is more careful not to make the mistake of speaking out against the violence that fills the graves in Del Norte cemetery and adds names to his little black book of the missing.

His goals are less strident.

"I pray for the people to be free from fear," he says.

The legacy of gunrunning

Nuevo Laredo has become a dangerous place to be an honest cop.

In 2004, 20 Nuevo Laredo police officers were gunned down by cartel henchmen. In March 2006, the police chief resigned after a string of drug-related killings. He took the job in 2005 after the previous chief was assassinated just hours after being sworn in.

Such brazen violence has had the desired effect on the population of Nuevo Laredo. Padre Antonio notes with sadness that drug dealing is conducted in broad daylight, even out of storefronts. Police, either too afraid of the cartels or too enriched by them, do nothing.

U.S. and Mexican officials estimate that cartel violence has claimed nearly 23,000 Mexican lives since 2006. Officials say many of those killings are done with guns bought in the United States and smuggled across the border. They are the same kinds of guns de la Rosa was caught with on a bridge crossing into Nuevo Laredo.

Padre Antonio, 46, grew up in Arizona and was a registered Republican. His father is a retired judge. He was never anti-gun, he says.

"But the guns that are brought here are not for hunting; they're not for target practice," he explains. "They're for killing people."

In Nuevo Laredo, the killings are so constant -- the cartels so intimidating -- that the local news media refuse to write about them.

In late April, Padre Antonio buried a 25-year-old man who had been shot in the head, execution-style. He was the fourth son from a single family to be killed in the violence. Not a word about the murder made the newspapers.

"I tell the folks that we are in a civil war, Mexicans killing Mexicans," said the wiry, bearded priest. In many ways, he looks younger than his years, wearing a white shirt, jeans and sandals. But his eyes betray weariness -- and resignation.

Despite the dangers, Padre Antonio admits, the drug trade is so lucrative it is nearly impossible for his younger parishioners to resist.

Why lay bricks in the hot sun for 200 pesos a day when a drug cartel will pay you 2,000 pesos a week to work as an "halcon" -- a lookout -- sitting in the shade and sending a cell phone warning whenever the army comes around?

Several months ago, one of the cartels fighting for supremacy in Nuevo Laredo paraded through the streets in SUVs and fancy pickups with their symbol emblazoned on their vehicles. They did it for a week, Padre Antonio says, matter-of-factly.

No one got in their way.

Signs of hope

As his pickup bumps along the road, the springs in the bench seat creaking, Padre Antonio admits there are some glimmers of progress in his town, even amid violence wrought by thugs wielding American guns.

The military has restored some order. They are the only ones, he says, not afraid of the cartels. He praised President Felipe Calderon's refusal to surrender to the gangs.

Shopkeepers, too, say the military presence has made the city center safer, although the tourists have yet to return.

He pulls up at the gleaming white church his parishioners helped complete in 2005. His parish has grown from 20,000 a decade ago to 90,000. He talks of mothers and fathers volunteering -- even after working 12-hour shifts in one of Nuevo Laredo's 75 factories.

Back in the pickup, his dog "Brochi" in the back, he drives toward a poorer part of town, to a plywood chapel built by hand with recycled materials.

But even bits of light can quickly turn dark here.

He remembers the woman who whispered to him: "Six months ago, they shot up my husband's pickup and we haven't seen him since."

Padre Antonio keeps the man's name in his little black book of the missing.

"In all likelihood, they probably are dead," he says, turning the pickup truck into Del Norte cemetery.

It is Mother's Day in Mexico and the cemetery is filled with the living, who shower the graves with flowers and love.

A large, ornate white monument displays a plaque with the name and picture of a young man dead just a year.

How did he die? The priest just shakes his head.

He looks tired and more than a little sad. Tomorrow morning, as always, he will rise at dawn to pray and lead the 7:30 mass. Then Padre Antonio will head out on the streets of his embattled city to minister to the victims of killers using guns that come from America's heartland.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428


A Minnesota gunrunner on the Iron Pipeline.


A life of promise turns sour.


The feds close in.


Violence in Mexico.

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