A Future City of Knowledge or a Killing Field?
How has the Mexican city of Monterrey been affected by the drug violence?
April 17, 2009
Monterrey's outward calm was shattered in the spring of 2005 when two reputed gangsters were shot dead in a Dave & Buster's restaurant as they were eating with their families. In August of that year, Nuevo León state police raided another local eatery and nabbed 23 suspected drug cartel hit men, including a kingpin from Nuevo Laredo named El Tuby.
The arrests amounted to a public relations coup for Marcelo Garza y Garza, the young commander of the state police's investigations unit who stated at the time that "everyone must contribute their grain of sand." Payback arrived when Garza y Garza was fatally gunned down in September 2006 as he walked alone on a sidewalk in the wealthy Monterrey suburb of San Pedro Garza García.
During the course of that year, six municipal police chiefs were assassinated in Nuevo León, along with two federal prosecutors assigned specifically to investigate narcotics cases.
The dawn of a new year brought no respite. Monterrey registered 162 homicides in the first six months of 2007, nearly as many as were recorded in all of 2006. One of those murders seemed particularly brazen: In June, a Nuevo León state legislator was gunned down in broad daylight in front of the Monterrey city hall.
Suspicions surrounding the identity of Mario Rios Gutiérrez's killers only heightened in the wake of disclosures that the slain lawmaker had been arrested by state police in the mid-l980s for allegedly possessing twelve kilos of marijuana (the charges were subsequently dropped).
During one particularly murderous rampage in late March 2007, eight persons were killed in four separate attacks linked to drug traffickers.
One of the corpses bore a note apparently addressed to the Nuevo León state attorney general Rogelio Cerda that read, "Look fool, even with all of your bodyguards you will die, Rogelio Cerda, together with your family, all the officials who are with you, and the Sinaloa cartel. P.S. This will continue until you get it."
Two of the victims were cops, bringing to 16 the number of lawmen killed in Monterrey and environs during the first quarter of the year. The death toll also fueled speculation that some of the victims had been killed by drug lords because they had been accepting money from rival kingpins.
"Without a doubt," said the state's deputy attorney general, Aldo Fasci, "this is due to a concrete strategy by organized crime that consists of generating terror in the population." If so, the campaign was achieving its intended goal: At least 50 policemen in Monterrey and the surrounding suburbs walked off the job during the first three months of 2007.
Within a matter of months, Monterrey's blood-spattered image was looking a lot more like Al Capone's Chicago in the 1920s than Governor Nati González's vision of a 21st-century Boston.
The same city that was saluted as the safest in Latin America by an international consulting group in 2005 was a year later losing its luster for some foreigners, and a senior executive for one of Monterrey's top-drawer companies told me he was deeply worried about the long-term damage the violence might inflict on the city's regional and international image.
González and other officials discovered that hundreds of state and municipal cops were on the payrolls of warring drug lords. "We can no longer [call Monterrey] the safest city…in the country," conceded the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce at the November 2006 funeral of a suburban police chief killed just 23 days after assuming his duties.
U.S. diplomats stationed in Mexico also took notice. A February 2007 consular information sheet addressed to American citizens who were planning a trip to Mexico noted that Monterrey and four other cities were plagued by "high levels" of crime.
In Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, "shootings have taken place at busy intersections and at popular restaurants during daylight hours."
An edition of the same consular information sheet issued only six months earlier made no mention of Monterrey anywhere in its pages. The State Department reiterated the warnings in April 2007 with a travel advisory that mentioned "execution murders of Mexican officials" in five states including Nuevo León, "especially in and around Monterrey."
In hindsight, the governor may have unintentionally brought the plague of violence upon himself and his beleaguered state. When the epidemic of gangland killings in Nuevo Laredo was spiking in the spring of 2005, "Nati" González discreetly advised some of the feuding kingpins in that border town that they could get their families out of harm's way by moving them to Monterrey.
According to the South American ambassador stationed in Mexico City to whom the governor gave this account, González was stunned when the narcos brought their murderous ways as well as their loved ones to Monterrey. Whatever presidential ambitions the governor may have once entertained simply evaporated in the blast furnace of the city s drug wars and the negative news coverage they received.
The narcotics-related violence that has become a staple of life in modern Mexico is sometimes portrayed as a largely internecine affair that mostly claims the lives of bad guys and crooked cops. But the collateral damage of drug trafficking in Mexico is not limited to innocent bystanders getting caught up in the crossfire of gangland wars.
The country's booming narcotics industry has also brought with it several harmful side effects, like rising corruption in the armed forces. Perhaps the most insidious spin-off is the soaring rate of recreational drug use inside Mexico today, one of three quintessentially American social diseases that have entrenched themselves south of the border.
Editor’s Note: This is the final part in a three-part series from Joseph Contreras’ book, “In the Shadow of the Giant.” Copyright 2009 Joseph Contreras. Reprinted with permission of Rutgers University Press.
Read Part II here.
The collateral damage of drug trafficking in Mexico is not limited to innocent bystanders getting caught up in the crossfire of gangland wars.
Perhaps the most insidious spin-off of the booming narcotics industry is the soaring rate of recreational drug use inside Mexico today.
The same city that was saluted as the safest in Latin America by an international consulting group in 2005 was a year later losing its luster for some foreigners.
The U.S. State Department issued warnings in April 2007 with a travel advisory that mentioned "execution murders of Mexican officials" in five states including Nuevo León, "especially in and around Monterrey."
Author of “In the Shadow of the Giant” Joseph Contreras is the author of “In the Shadow of the Giant: The Americanization of Modern Mexico.” During a twenty-eight-year career at Newsweek magazine he has reported from over 50 countries on five continents. He most recently was the publication's Latin American regional editor. Mr. Contreras is […]