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A tale of two Laredos

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

Dangerous tenants

The Gamboa family’s travails began early last year when several Americans driving armored vehicles bearing blue diplomatic consulate plates showed up for a tour of Alan Gamboa's empty house with several Mexican men, Gamboa said. A number of witnesses in Nuevo Laredo confirmed his story. Gamboa said he was led to believe the men were merely low-ranking consulate workers in need of a place to live. Ricardo Gamboa had no involvement in the transaction at all — in fact, the brothers had been estranged for years over past business disputes.

The realtor who handled the deal (who declined to be indentified for security reasons) told GlobalPost he sent the contract by courier to the American consulate, where it was signed and returned with eight months advance rent. Several Mexican men then moved in to the house, directly across from Alan Gamboa’s business.

American officials acknowledge the house was used as a “forward operating base” from which their Mexican counterparts were hunting cartel members, with DEA money, intelligence and other support.

The Nuevo Laredo operation was emblematic of countrywide U.S. law enforcement efforts to help Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government in the war against that nation's heavily armed drug trafficking organizations. Nuevo Laredo is one of the border's busiest trading corridors, making it one of the most fought-over trafficking routes.

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But as the Gamboa brothers would soon learn, the U.S. and Mexican governments aren't the only ones with intelligence operations. The trafficking organization that currently controls Nuevo Laredo, called the Gulf Cartel, has a sophisticated counter-intelligence network of its own.

A State Department official based in Mexico and a senior U.S. law enforcement official, who requested anonymity for personal security, confirmed that the U.S. government paid to rent the house for a Mexican intelligence operation. But they sought to deflect blame for the Gamboa family’s troubles, saying that the motives for moves against the brothers are unclear.

“It’s terrible when even one person is killed or kidnapped,” the state department official said. “But we’re talking thousands murdered. Understand that if, working with our Mexican counterparts, we don’t get smarter and stronger, it could get worse rather than better — that there’s really no choice” but to continue fighting the traffickers.