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Why the Mexican border city of Matamoros is under heavy scrutiny

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

When four Americans were kidnapped in a Mexican border city and two of them killed, that brought immediate attention to the severe organized crime problem in that community. NPR's Eyder Peralta brings us this story about what life is like for the people who live in Matamoros.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: It's really hard to talk to people here. You approach them, and they laugh nervously. They apologize and say, the only way to survive here is not to see anything, not to say anything and not to hear anything. But I get lucky as I walk the international bridge closer to the U.S. border. A couple of ladies in their 60s are waiting for their adult children to come back from work from the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "In the past, kids used to play in the streets in Matamoros," she says. Now she's so afraid that something could happen to her son she escorts him to and from the U.S. border every day. We're not using her name because she fears retribution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: By 6:30, she says, her doors are locked, and they brace for gun battles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) The old men are out doing their thing, and you have to stay quiet.

PERALTA: Here, they call members of the Gulf Cartel the old men, the people, la mana, which translates roughly to the vice. You don't actually see them here, but you see signs of them. You see Suburbans with blacked-out windows. You see tons of cars without license plates and young men with two-way radios lounging on street corners. Francisco Rivas studies crime at the Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, and he says the nature of organized crime in Mexico has changed dramatically in the past two decades. As trafficking drugs into the United States got harder, cartels expanded their business.

FRANCISCO RIVAS: For example, they came to your shop and say you cannot sell cigarettes.

PERALTA: They told shopkeepers, if you want to live, you can buy only the cigarettes we sell you and at this price.

RIVAS: Same happen for chickens, for eggs, for meat, for avocado, for beer.

PERALTA: And this has meant violence and corruption has exploded, pulling in Mexicans who are just trying to make a living. And Rivas says the federal government is simply looking the other way.

RIVAS: There is no justice. (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: In the past four years, he says, the feds haven't arrested or charged a single extortion ring.

GLADY CANAS AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CANAS AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: We meet Glady Canas Aguilar at her office, where she helps migrants trying to cross into the United States. She says migrants are another big business for organized crime here.

CANAS AGUILAR: (Through interpreter) To them, they are not humans. They are merchandise.

PERALTA: Yes, she says. They are smuggling people across the border, but they also work in more pernicious ways. A few months ago, for example, they were selling a Mexican document for $130 when it should only cost $1. Canas was angry, so she took to the streets with a bullhorn to tell the migrants that her office would process the document for free. Shortly after, an armed man showed up at her office.

CANAS AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He shoved his way into the room and asked for her by name. And then as he left, he flashed his gun and issued a cryptic warning.

CANAS AGUILAR: (Through interpreter) He said, just know that I've given you a warning.

PERALTA: She called police. They came after 45 minutes, but they never made an arrest. This is the way Matamoros operates, she says.

CANAS AGUILAR: (Through interpreter) They intimidate us with the power of their guns. They rule with the fear that they impose on people.

PERALTA: And the truth is, she was scared, she tells me, because people go missing here. Just outside town, there's La Bartolina, what activists call an extermination field where they believe some 2,000 people might be buried. Canas closed her office for a few weeks, and she stayed home, worried that they would come after her. Ultimately, she's decided to continue her work.

CANAS AGUILAR: (Through interpreter) At home, I was a prisoner of fear. Staying home meant they had won.

PERALTA: One law enforcement officer we spoke to describes the situation in Matamoros as chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: (Through interpreter) The police that came in have let the situation get out of control.

PERALTA: This man has been in law enforcement for decades. We're not using his voice, and we're not using his name because he fears retribution from the cartels. And what he describes is a complete rot of law enforcement. Members of the cartels offer cars and huge sums of money to commanders to look the other way. And when citizens call police, they get the runaround.

UNIDENTIFIED LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: (Through interpreter) Call the National Guard, the police say. And then the National Guard tell the person, oh, I can't help you. And then three or four hours pass, and suddenly nobody saw anything. Nobody heard anything.

PERALTA: This officer says he's been asked by his superiors not to file police reports. They're instructed to ignore gunfire. He says he's always tried to stay above the fray, not take any bribes. But one day he got a phone call, and the guy on the line said...

UNIDENTIFIED LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: (Through interpreter) I want $5,000 by 3 o'clock. And if not, we know where you live.

PERALTA: They described his family vehicle, so he went to his bosses at the station, but they did nothing. He says they simply told him, you just take care.

UNIDENTIFIED LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: (Through interpreter) And it's a little hard here because...

PERALTA: He pauses. He puts his face in his hands.

UNIDENTIFIED LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: (Through interpreter) Well, it's the family.

PERALTA: His voice cracks. (Speaking Spanish), he repeats. It's impossible, he says. It's impossible to live here.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Matamoros, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.