On Election Day in this border city, Mexican army soldiers with machine guns guarded the City Hall.
They stood watch Sunday as municipal workers cleaned up the building’s archways, where two days before a car bomb exploded on the street, presumably set off by drug cartels. Seven people were injured in the attack.
It was just one of three recent car bombs that have hit this city on the border between Texas and Mexico, where warring drug cartels fuel the violence.
On one day in May, nine people were found hanging from a bridge and the heads of 14 others were left by armed gunmen in coolers on a sidewalk near City Hall. Their bodies were found in plastic bags in a minivan.
The police chief here was gunned down in February 2011 after a month on the job. Now there are no local police on the streets. They were disbanded last June. The army patrols the streets.
This climate of violence did not deter voters from lining up under overcast skies around a gazebo in Plaza Hidalgo to cast their vote for a new president.
Rafael Alcala, 33, a musician from Nuevo Laredo, said he was not afraid to vote.
“Voting is the right of each citizen, whoever you vote for,” Alcala said. “Here what is important is that everybody participates.”
“Voting is the right of each citizen, whoever you vote for. Here what is important is that everybody participates.”
But will a new president be able to do anything to stem the violence of the drug war?
Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon of the PAN, or National Action Party, has taken on the drug cartels and used the army and more than $1 billion from the United States to fight the drug war. More than 55,000 have been killed over the last six years as a result of the violence, with more than 1,100 alone dead in Nuevo Laredo last year.
In Mexico, the president only serves one six-year term. PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota may have been hurt by being part of the incumbent party as violence exploded in civil society under Calderon.
Some voters said a woman might be able to govern where men have failed.
Maria Luisa Rios, 42, a social worker, said she was voting for Vazquez Mota.
“If for so many years our homes have been guided by women, why not have confidence that a woman can run the country?” she said.
Political polls showed Vazquez Mota in third place behind the leading candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, and the second-place candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the leftist PRD, or Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Many Mexicans said they are not better off than six or 12 years ago, when the PAN first wrested power from the PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years. There was widespread corruption during the PRI’s reign, and presidents were often picked by the dedazo, or the big finger, which meant an outgoing president would select who would be the next president.
But violence has surged under the PAN, and some voters may yearn again for the PRI, who think the PRI may be able to handle the cartels better and that they have better policies.
“I’m going for the PRI, for Enrique,” said Romana Ibarra Godoy, 63, a homemaker. “He has a lot of experience and goals. I have faith in the PRI.”
Allegations of corruption have tainted the campaign. The PAN accused the PRI campaign of purchasing 9,500 prepaid gift cards worth nearly $5.2 million, or 71 million pesos, to give away for votes. Peña Nieto also was accused of buying favorable coverage from the television network Televisa.
The PRI also accused the PRD of buying votes and using students who are part of the #YoSoy 132 movement to campaign against the PRI.
Mexicans have long distrusted their government during elections, and not without reason. In 1988, there was a “computer crash” and the PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari came out ahead of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who later founded the PRD. Many Mexicans believed Cardenas was robbed of the election.
Lack of faith in government and violence have led many Mexicans to flee Nuevo Laredo and move to Texas.
Julio Gonzalez, 62, worked as a janitor at a high school in Nuevo Laredo. He retired and moved to Laredo, Texas, around the time the violence started to explode in 2004, under President Vicente Fox.
“There is too much violence,” said Gonzalez, at a campaign rally Sunday for a U.S. candidate in downtown Laredo. “Nothing is going to change with a new president.”
Pablo Jacobo “Jack” Suneson Bautista moved his family business out of Nuevo Laredo and reopened in San Antonio two years ago.
His mother had started the business, Marti’s, in 1954 in Nuevo Laredo, but the violence and extortion of local businesses became too much to handle, he said.
Suneson was vice president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce. The former president of the chamber was murdered on his first day as police chief in June 2005.
Suneson said the tourism industry has been completely devastated by the violence in this border city.
“I don’t see it ever coming back,” he said.
And he has no plans to move his business back to Mexico.
Suneson said the solution to the drug war isn’t in Mexico but in the United States.
If there wasn’t as much U.S. consumption of drugs, there wouldn’t be a problem, he said. He also advocates legalizing marijuana for sale by U.S. drug companies to cut off the financial benefits to the cartels.
“The solution is in the United States,” Suneson said.