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A tale of two Laredos

How the Gamboa family's woes are linked to US-backed law enforcement operation.

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — All is quiet now on Coahuila Street. But traces of the violence that destroyed the lives of two American brothers with businesses here linger. 

A blackened structure is all that's left of Alan Gamboa's once-profitable radio communications business, after it was drenched in diesel and burned to the ground the night of Dec. 5. His brother, Ricardo Gamboa, is still missing — and feared dead — after being kidnapped by cartel gangsters on Coahuila Street the previous morning.

Violence and kidnappings have become almost commonplace in Mexico, as the country's civil drug war rages. Often, the murder and kidnap victims are American residents of border cities like Laredo, who are involved in the drug trade.

But the violence that upended the Gamboa brothers' lives is different. By all accounts, they were not drug dealers. Their only transgression, it seems, was to rent a house to the U.S. State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, which set up an anti-cartel intelligence operation with Mexican federal police in the rented space.

The brothers' tragic story offers a rare glimpse into a part of Mexico's drug war that gets little notice. The narrative of the conflict as a fight to the death between drug cartels and the Mexican government often excludes another player: the U.S. government. And as the Gamboa tale demonstrates, the American government's actions in Mexico can also lead to casualties. 

Alan Gamboa blames all that has transpired — and what might yet — on his government. He believes the U.S. thoughtlessly placed the brothers in the cartel’s cross-hairs after they had spent years trying to walk a neutral line in violent times.

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” Gamboa lamented. “They (the DEA) put us into a very deep problem, very deep. They (the cartel) think I’m an informant, but I want them to understand that I don’t do that. If I knew that house was for an intelligence organization, I would never have rented it out. I never wanted any problems.”

For now, Gamboa feels he has no choice but to lay low with his wife and three children (ages 9 to 16) across the river in Laredo, Texas. Both brothers lived with their families on the U.S. side while running communications businesses on Coahuila Street across the river in Mexico.

"The cartel wants me dead," Gamboa said. 

In an interview in their Laredo home, Gamboa's wife, Elsa, said, “What they’ll do is let you settle into your ways, and that’s when they’ll hit.”