Mayhem rivals border in Mexico's 3rd-largest city

July 15, 2011 - 2:44 PM
Mexico Drug War

EDS. NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT - Mexican army soldiers stand guard as forensic experts inspect the scene after a gun battle between army soldiers and gunmen in the northern city of Monterrey, Mexico Wednesday July 13, 2011. According to local media, the gunmen ran into a perimeter being secured by army and state police and a firefight ensued, leaving all 4 gunmen dead. Four assault rifles and a 9mm handgun were seized. (AP Photo/Hans Maximo Musielik)

MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — The northern city of Monterrey, once Mexico's symbol of development and prosperity, is fast becoming a new Ciudad Juarez.

Drug-related murders this year are on pace to double last year's and triple those of the year before in the once-tranquil industrial hub. In recent weeks a tortured, screaming teenager was hung alive from a bridge. Two of the governor's bodyguards were dismembered and dumped with messages threatening the state leader.

Last week, gunmen killed 20 people in a bar where Ziplock bags of drugs were found, the largest mass murder to date in the metro area of 4 million people. The toll continued this week: 14 were killed in separate hits on Wednesday, eight more on Thursday.

Officials say two cartels turned the city upside down practically overnight when they split in early 2010 and are trying to outdo each other with grisly displays.

Security officials acknowledge they don't know how much worse it will get.

"As long as there are consumers and a critical mass of young people for these gangs to recruit, it's hard to imagine the number (of killings) will go down," said Jorge Domene, state security spokesman for Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located.

The scale of the killings has rarely been seen in Mexico outside border cities such Juarez, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo, the main gateways for drugs passing into the United States that have seen dramatic surges of violence since President Felipe Calderon intensified Mexico's crackdown on organized crime in 2006.

And fear is starting to fray the social order. Concern over violence has caused enrollment to drop at the prestigious home campus of Mexico's top private university, the Technology Institute of Monterrey, which has had to lay off some employees.

The chamber of industry in a brash, proud city where the annual income per capita is double the national average didn't want to talk to The Associated Press about the impact of violence on business, though some executives acknowledge they've had to spend more on security.

Shirt factory Gilberto Marcos, a member of a citizens' council on security, said some businesses have clearly faced extortion from drug gangs, though few cases are reported.

The Gulf Cartel once controlled drug running through Monterry, and Mexico's third-largest city had a reputation as a quiet, safe place. Where drug traffickers were present, they avoided creating problems, hiding their families amid neighborhoods of corporate executives.

The violence exploded when the Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel, creating a struggle for control of the area. The fight has left more than 1,000 people dead so far this year in Nuevo Leon state, compared to 828 in 2010 and 267 in 2009.

In wealthier parts of the area, restaurants are still packed and people still jog and walk their dogs at night. In poorer suburbs, though, entire blocks have been held up by gunmen and young people snatched off the streets.

Monterrey has still not reached the desperation of Ciudad Juarez, which was always a much grittier city and is now considered one of the world's most dangerous after more 3,000 people were killed last year. There, extortion, killings and torchings of businesses have devastated the local economy and sent people fleeing across the border to El Paso, Texas.

But Monterrey is rapidly growning more violent even as murders in Juarez have begun to drop.

Gangs in Monterrey hung the battered body of a topless woman from a freeway overpass last December and more recently two young men were tied to ropes, dangled from an overpass and shot in the midst of rush-hour traffic. One survived.

Sister Consuelo Morales, director of the Citizens in Support of Human Rights, said about 70 families have come to her for help in finding sons and daughters kidnapped off the streets or from their own homes.

One couple, who didn't want to be named for fear of retaliation, said their son, an 18-year-old university linguistics major, was abducted by a dozen gunmen who broke into their home one night in January.

Their best hope is that he is working for a cartel.

"We have this hope that they have him packing drugs or money," said his father, a taxi driver who quit working to search for his son full time.

The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas broke apart over the killing of a Zeta in the border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, in January 2010. Since then, they have made a war zone of northeastern Mexico, even as the federal government has mounted a special operation to stop the violence with thousands of military and police reinforcements.

The federal government has made a show of force in Tamaulipas state in Mexico's northeast corner, where the Zetas are blamed for slaughtering 72 migrants nearly a year ago, then kidnapping bus passengers and burying them in mass graves. Domene said that has only pushed the violence westward into Nuevo Leon.

Local and state government can't fight back because much of their police forces have been corrupted or coerced by the gangs.

Nuevo Leon state Gov. Rodrigo Medina has promised to purge bad elements from law enforcement, but critics say his government has moved too slowly. So far only three of the state's 51 municipalities have fully vetted their police departments, Domene said.

In Guadalupe, a suburb of 700,000 badly hit by the violence, only 100 of 800 police officers remain after the new mayor began purging her police department a year and a half ago, he added.

Last month, the dismembered bodies of two of Gov. Medina's bodyguards were dumped in Guadalupe with a message accusing him of favoring one of the cartels. It didn't say which one.

On Thursday, Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas inaugurated the first of nine permanent checkpoints that will be manned by soldiers and federal and state police on all major roads leading in and out of the city. The first is on a federal toll road between Monterrey and Reynosa, a highway that used to be traveled by shoppers heading to Texas.

The state also recently opened a police academy, where recruits have to have at least a junior high-school education, be in good physical and have no criminal record. While that seems minimal by other countries' standards, Mexican forces have traditionally been made up of poorly educated, low-paid workers who receive little training.

The first group of 422 officers will graduate in September after five months' training. Another 1,600 are expected to be trained by the end of the year, Domene said.

Nuevo Leon officials have proposed dissolving all local police departments, which in general are among the most corrupt in Mexico, to create one force of 14,000 newly trained and vetted state officers by 2015. But the proposal has stalled in the local legislature.

For Marcos, the government's efforts to improve security in the state come too little too late.

He said residents had been pushing for the government to do more on security since at least 2005, when drug violence tore apart nearby Nuevo Laredo, the border city across from Laredo, Texas.

The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels were fighting for control there. The Gulf won the fight, backed by their then-allies, the Zetas.

"They ignored us because it wasn't politically convenient to address the problems then," Marcos said. "We said this could become a serious problem and look at us now."