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One of the last signs visitors see on the American side of the border road leading to Reynosa warns against carrying guns into Mexico. Ironically, heavily-armed drug cartels have de facto control over the city.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

A gate post and the doors of a house bear the marks of a shootout in February between Mexican federal police and Gulf cartel member, six of whom were killed. It was one of dozens of gun battles this year that have left citizens of Reynosa living under siege while the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas battle for smuggling routes into the U.S.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Young men sit near the grave stone of a 22-year-old slain in drug-related violence.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

People walk hand in hand through the central plaza, as police watch over from a portable lookout tower equipped with security cameras. Residents venture out with great caution, especially avoiding going out alone at night.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Police patrol the pedestrian shopping district in the Old City, where corrupt policemen, vendors, cab drivers and merchants spy on visitors and report suspicious activities to drug cartel thugs.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

A vendor hawks a newspaper with a front page headline "Businessman Assassinated." After killings, kidnappings and beatings, journalists have learned to self-censor what they report of the daily violence. Gun battles and grenade attacks are rarely, if ever, covered anymore.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Juan Carlos Rangel, 30, works as a "Dragon" or flame-spitter on a street corner. A taxi cab waits at the nearby traffic light, its license plates removed. It's one of hundreds of plate-less taxis on the drug cartels' payroll, ordered to spy on visitors and monitor movements of the military and officials.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

A journalist inadvertently finds himself following a taxi cab that has no license plate, indicating he is one of hundreds spies on the drug cartel payroll. Here in the northern state of Tamaulipas, journalists fear for their lives and practice a profound form of self-censorship, imposed by the narcos.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

On the highway that follows the Rio Grande River outside Reynosa, uniformed Mexican police man a makeshift checkpoint. One commuter said that she and her husband have been stopped twice in recent months by drug cartel men in uniforms at unofficial roadblocks. "To drive the highway is to tempt death" she said.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

A heavily armed Mexican soldier keeps an eye on a key intersection that leads directly to the border outside Reynosa. Drug traffickers need free use of the road to smuggle narcotics across the Rio Grande River and into Texas.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

A man casts a fishing net into the Rio Grande River at the Diaz Ordaz border crossing to southeast Texas. The ferry between Mexico and the U.S. is closed for repairs. This area is a highly prized drug smuggling route being fought over by the Gulf and Zeta cartels.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

A shoeshine vendor works in the almost deserted central plaza. Citizens say they now watch what they say to anyone, not knowing who might be spying for drug cartels. Even the mayor doesn't live here anymore, having sheltered his family in Texas.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Guitarist Armengol Martinez plays to an empty street in the deserted tourist zone. Most clubs, cantinas, curios shops, brothels and massage parlors have gone out of business. Texas visitors who once filled the cobblestone streets are staying away from the specter of a shootout that might come at any time. Martinez said even Reynosa's citizens are going to the U.S. side for a safe night out.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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Reynosa, Mexico: where the cartels rule

By Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times

Of all the drug cartel infested cities in Mexico that I’ve photographed for The Times’ Mexico Under Siege series over the last three years, Reynosa ranks No. 1 on the scale of creepy and last for interesting photographs.

This bulldog of a city squats hard on the other side of the Rio Grande River from southeast Texas.  It’s become a gateway for illegal drugs entering the United States and Mexican cartels are fighting tooth and nail to keep it that way, and amongst themselves for control.

The Times’ Mexico City Bureau Chief Tracy Wilkinson has written a revealing story from Reynosa, “A city behind enemy lines”: She says of the warring drug runners, “Reynosa today is less a war zone and more a prison camp.  The Gulf cartel is in control of the city, but Zetas lurk for about 60 miles in any direction.”

The creep factor over the three days I spent looking for meaningful images in Reynosa was the nagging insecurity of walking and driving in a city full of spies. The cartels have enlisted the street people: taxi drivers, taco vendors and even the shoeshine man to report the movements of policemen, soldiers — and visitors.

The only visitor in town last week appeared to be me. For security and editorial reasons, I paid for the help of a local journalist, mostly to point out dangers hiding in plain sight, and to tip me off to the news. We in the news business call such people  “fixers.”  Instead of fixing my insecurity and search for news, he seemed  more scared than I was and refused to reveal information about any shootout or bombing.

While driving on the riverside highway, “Huero” (he asked to keep his real name secret) freaked out when we approached  roadblocks and saw armed soldiers on rooftops. Sometimes the police are really cartel thugs in disguise and they hate journalists. “They’ll beat us and take your stuff.”

So I stayed in the car and aimed a telephoto through the dirty, angled windshield.  It was a struggle to sit tight and focus the distorted scene.  He’d yell out “ticka-ticka-ticka,” mimicking the rapid fire sound of my camera’s motor drive.  He would wave his hands to get me to stop shooting and stuff the gear on the floor in his wife’s shopping bag. We passed through two checkpoints without a problem. But a rifle-toting soldier on the roof of a Pemex gas station glared at me as I shot a burst of five photos — Huero floored the gas pedal of the Honda Civic and we got away OK.

When on foot, I carried one camera as inconspicuously as possible — to appear like an old “gringo” on a day trip. I ambled through Reynosa’s open market and sipped a fruit liquada in the central plaza. Making interesting pictures that reveal an emotion or an editorial idea demands that I linger a while and study the scene.  I have a long career appreciating how Mexicans seem comfortable when I linger in front them with a camera.  They’re always trusting and seem to have nothing to hide. But in this heartbroken city, too many citizens have joined the bad guys and have lost some of their national character. So, I didn’t push it. If someone turned away, I’d smile, shrug and walk on.  Only two citizens I photographed gave me their names.

Adios innocence!

See more of Bartletti’s work here.


  1. November 6, 2010, 2:07 pm

    Any why isn't our Border Patrol and National Guard on duty on the U.S. side of this dump to put a stop to this lucrative smuggling route??????? Makes one wonder if this is where Calderon and Obama turn a blind eye so the profits keep pouring in to Mexico and slaves keep coming across in the U.S.

    By: Marlena
  2. March 15, 2013, 2:29 pm

    Are you an absolute idiot? They are there on the US side that does nothing on the other side… not to mention some of our immigration people on this side help them. BTW as of Dec. 2012 Calderon is not the President in Mexico any more.. watch the international news more. Slaves? what are you talking about? Lastly the most corrupt Government in the world is ours. Bet you'll vote dem or rep again won't you? thought so

    By: iixixian
  3. November 6, 2010, 7:22 pm

    This is a remarkable series of articles which are very compelling to read. It's so sad that it's our own sick society that, by using illegal drugs, has caused such misery in our neighboring country of Mexico.

    By: salonforte
  4. November 26, 2010, 9:09 am

    Excellent work. Very telling of how fear can rule and change a town.

  5. February 18, 2011, 9:15 am

    The caption for photo number 8 is misleading, the taxi does have a plate number it is a sticker attached to the back window of the car.

    By: plates
  6. April 19, 2011, 10:42 am

    I live there. My wife was taken from me by immigration. I now live with her in Reynosa and work in Texas as a state employee. it’s not as bad as indicated in this article. There are rules that I live by. One I don’t allow my wife to dress the way she did in the states. We go out during the day and do our grocery shopping or to the local cinema. Cops are a bad thing here that’s true. The soldiers on rooftops are actually your best friends they are here in the best interest and safety of the people. As long as you keep a low profile you’ll be fine. I’ve been here for one year because being a US citizen was not enough. I will stand by my wife till death do us part.

    By: Frank garza
  7. May 7, 2011, 6:51 am

    I have spent a great deal of time in Reynosa over the years and find the creepiness no less than that of Disney World, and less so than Washington D.C.. Yes, unlike us, the Mexican are actually waging a war against the cartels that are smuggling drugs into our country for us to buy. Imagine what our country would look like if we fought as hard.

    By: Hluill
  8. May 3, 2012, 1:58 pm

    I lived close to the border in Tucson Az when I was young. 1965….watched as we went to Mx to get cheap alcohol , As the 60's came on pot was the big deal as well as other drugs coming from So America. We Americans loved the cheap Mexican labor and became dependent on it. So comes the Free Trade Agreement and we build hundreds of factories over the border in Reynosa, MX GE, Black and Decker, to name only two out of many, use the cheaper labor in Mexico and set up communities for the Mexican workers to live and worship. So the drugs flow to America. We are addicted to them and the pipeline flourishes as we go on our happy way getting all the drugs we want. We do complain about the Mexican people wanting to come here and spend billions trying to keep them out………we are ludicrous. people say "keep them where they belong" and when they do get here and become citizens people will still complain and say …"if they don't like it here send them back" we of course ,say that about black people (our president for example)…I've heard it said of him "let him go back to the jungle" I am very afraid there is not going to be any winners in this war……….every one loses . This seems to be happening all over the world and who is supposed to be winning…….to protect whom? Drugs and religion are the hot points.

    By: soph3647
  9. November 5, 2012, 5:03 am

    I am from reynosa . It will never change and the border potrol is part of the whole operation theres lots of money involved . They only bust someone when they are not contributing ya tu sabes

    By: jesus
  10. April 5, 2013, 4:25 am

    Awww you got to see certral beautiful place right did you see the mall with the roller town inside it and central its the best place the gigante it means huge. Its like a big time store like a walmart and a casco put together. I love reynosa just haven’t went because. Well put it like this anything that’s were my granfather and grandmother met I have my family up there and they are good they live much different go to you tube lupito quintero he was a cop they made him a song my mom said said there were so many people there for his servace he commited suiside. ts the drugs yes but they survive and protect sme are drs and its great they have facebook but now were is the dispose of illigal drugs how do they dispose of it here we need to worry about I don’t understand why its legal here and not there who said we can cross that gate and invade you know. I am fed up don’t cross them with no permission we won’t cross you I’m imbarrased of the system, congress senate reynosa is only protecting there land and showing you what you show them this is supposed to be a free country now a gate what’s next war? Well good news from here on out I’m raising kids and teaching them not to take part in the milatary sorry it ends here. I woulnt kill for america but I got mexicos back and american too. Its a pleasure to meet you but nobody is going to destroy for oil.

    By: virginia bernal flores
  11. September 25, 2013, 9:51 am

    I can’t believe how many brain cells I just lost trying to decipher what the heck the person before me was trying to convey!

    Try some espell cheque….


    Oh and yeah blah blah it’s the governments fault blah blah Mexico. Blah blah drugs…

    It’s the same old stuff nothing will change in your lifetime but the cartel bosses.

    Get over it.

    By: The person above me is on crack

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