The Monster and Monterrey: The Politics and Cartels of Mexico's Drug War
The first one appeared on February 3, 2010, before sunrise. It hung from the statue of José María Morelos that faces the colonial statehouse at the center of Monterrey. Morelos was a priest turned revolutionary leader in Mexico’s war of independence, and the large white sheet bearing a message from a drug cartel spanned the entire length of the hero’s bronze horse. Here Comes the Monster, it read, and was signed “Z.” That same morning, six similar handwritten messages, also signed “Z,” appeared in the municipalities surrounding Monterrey. Soldiers came, removed them and drove off.
The narcomantas, as these public communiqués of the cartels are known, presaged a horrific explosion of violence in Monterrey, a city of 4 million people in northeastern Mexico and the country’s financial capital. In the months that followed, students would be gunned down at the gate of the city’s elite university. A mayor would be abducted, tortured and murdered. City squares, police stations and even the US consulate would be attacked with grenades. Blockades controlled by masked gunmen would paralyze the city for days on end. At the root of this violence was a turf war between the authors of the narcomantas, the Zetas, and their former ally the Gulf Cartel.
It was the kind of violence one had come to expect in places like Ciudad Juárez or Tijuana—border cities that have long served as trafficking hubs to the United States. But how could thriving Monterrey, the “Sultan of the North,” which only years earlier had been deemed one of the safest cities in Latin America, descend so quickly into chaos? If it could happen here, was anywhere in Mexico safe for long?
Yet what from the outside looked like a sudden collapse was in reality decades in the making. At its root was the decay of the institutions entrusted with providing law and order, ones that, despite their chronic dysfunction and corruption, had been able to contain drug violence in the old state-run system. But when that system crumbled, and when, in the face of “the monster” of organized crime, Monterrey’s elite, politicians and public turned to those institutions to rescue them, they found them rotten to the core. And so, Monterrey’s residents turned in desperation to the last power they felt they could trust: the military. It was a choice many would come to regret.
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Every city and town in Mexico has a plaza. It’s where candidates are sworn in and protests staged, where concerts are held and local heroes memorialized. Kids congregate there after school, couples stroll there on dates and old men hold court over worn chessboards. The plaza is invariably flanked by a church and the local seat of government, which speaks to the importance of these institutions in Mexicans’ lives.
In the early twentieth century a different kind of plaza emerged—a symbolic one, with its boundaries encompassing the territory run by a drug cartel. To own it is to control trafficking and distribution in a given area—a highly profitable and, as a result, fiercely contested business. This plaza can span a few city blocks or can span several states. Regardless of its size, a plaza is acquired and maintained through violence. Conducting illicit business in someone else’s plaza without permission is tantamount to declaring war.
Until recently, nobody ran the plaza—or any other legitimate or illegitimate business—without the tacit permission of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In what has been dubbed “the perfect dictatorship,” the PRI ruled Mexico continuously for more than seventy years, beginning in 1930. While Mexico under the PRI appeared to be an electoral democracy, politicians tapped their successors and power flowed vertically from the president all the way down to the lowest bureaucrat. The president even handpicked his heir every six years in a ritual known as the dedazo, or big finger.
The PRI’s control extended far beyond politics to everything from industrial development to land reform. All business was controlled by a patronage system, which enriched politicians and their allies and perpetually tightened the party’s grip on power. Working outside the system, let alone trying to remake it, was unthinkable.
Drug trafficking was no exception. By and large the PRI turned a blind eye to the illicit trade, so long as the cartels gave government officials a cut of the profits and prevented the violence from spilling into the traditional plaza. The authorities responsible for regulating the drug trade—initially health officials, and later the police and the military—often functioned as middlemen between politicians and traffickers. Every so often, a high-profile arrest was made to appease the United States, which was constantly pressing for more aggressive enforcement. Luis Astorga, a historian of the drug trade, has written that in the rare instances when the police and military intervened, it was to prevent “traffickers from becoming completely autonomous or getting so wild as to go beyond certain limits of socially and historically tolerated violence.” Or, as Nuevo León’s governor from the early 1990s would later put it, “What control by the PRI governments guaranteed was that drug trafficking did not disturb the societal peace.”
The unraveling of that order began with a seismic political shift. In 2000 Vicente Fox, of the National Action Party (PAN), was elected Mexico’s first non-PRI president since 1930. The PRI also lost several key governorships that year. One of the perverse consequences of this democratic opening was to upset the balance that had, for decades, limited competition among drug cartels and their political allies. Local power brokers were suddenly free to negotiate their own arrangements, whether by forging new deals with rival groups or by taking a more aggressive line on enforcement. The result was greater fluidity in the alliances between politicians, security forces and criminal groups.
At the same time, Mexico’s cartels were evolving from national drug trafficking organizations to transnational organized crime syndicates. They diversified the drugs they traded (for instance, their production of methamphetamines increased) and branched out into other illicit activities, including extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking. As the groups sought out new markets and territory, they increasingly came into greater competition with one another and the political proxies who gave them protection.
It was also during the Fox administration that the US ban on assault weapons expired. Beginning in 2004, high-powered firearms could once again be purchased easily in states like Texas and Arizona, transported with little effort across the porous border and sold at inflated prices to criminals in Mexico. Not surprisingly, organized crime groups were soon running the North-to-South weapons trade as well. The Mexican government says that in the past four years it has recovered 60,000 guns traceable to dealers in the United States.
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Monterrey is the capital of Nuevo León, and until recently its plaza was controlled exclusively by the Gulf Cartel, which got its start in the 1970s. In the futile scenario of whack-a-mole that is the history of US counternarcotics efforts, the Gulf Cartel’s breakthrough came in the late 1980s, when a massive crackdown by the US government on drugs flowing through Miami led Colombian cartels to reroute much of the cocaine trade through Mexico. The Gulf Cartel emerged as one of the key middlemen between Colombian producers and American buyers, and it came to dominate the trafficking route in the three states along Mexico’s eastern border with the United States: Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Nuevo León.
Like other drug trafficking organizations, the Gulf Cartel cultivated close ties to the political establishment. Raúl Salinas, the brother of 1988 PRI presidential candidate Carlos Salinas, met with the cartel’s boss, Juan García Abrego, in 1987 to pledge the party’s protection if his brother won the election, according to documents later released by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office. (Carlos won, and years later an international investigation would uncover more than $100 million in Swiss bank accounts in Raúl’s name.) Nuevo León’s PRI governor at the time recently admitted in a speech that the government explicitly defined where the cartels could operate: “They were told, ‘You go over here, you there, but do not touch these other places.’”
García was arrested and extradited to the United States in 1996, setting off a brutal succession battle. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén prevailed, and he secured his ascension by methodically eliminating friends and rivals alike, earning him the nickname El Mata Amigos (The Friend Killer). Cárdenas recruited disaffected officers from the Mexican Army’s elite special forces to serve as his bodyguards. The group took its name, the Zetas, from the former military radio code of its first commander, Z-1. According to a 2009 US government cable released by WikiLeaks, the United States provided funding for training members of the special forces unit from which the original Zetas defected, and at least one Zeta may have received US-funded training. The Zetas lay claim to their victims by carving, burning or otherwise branding their corpses with a Z.
Cárdenas was captured in 2003, but he continued to direct the cartel’s operations from prison until he was extradited to the United States in 2007. With no clear successor to take his place, ties between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel began to fray. They snapped in January 2010, when Gulf Cartel members killed a ranking Zeta and the Zetas demanded the cartel hand over those responsible. When the deadline passed, the narcomantas appeared in Monterrey. The monster had arrived.
Across Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, the respective strongholds of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, high-power firefights erupted along main thoroughfares, and mutilated bodies were displayed like trophies in public squares. As shocking to Nuevo León’s residents as the explosion of violence was the authorities’ powerlessness to stop it. In April the tortured body of a policeman was dumped in Santiago, a municipality near Monterrey. A handwritten letter attached to his chest listed the names of thirty-five police officers who, the letter alleged, worked for the Zetas. There were X’s next to four names, all of them police officers who had been killed in previous weeks. The list was signed by the Gulf Cartel, together with the Familia Michoacana and the Sinaloa Cartel, groups with traditional strongholds in other states. (Cartels are fluid and opportunistic by nature, and it is not uncommon for them to form alliances to win one plaza while fighting over another.)
While some police were targeted because of their ties to a cartel, others were singled out for trying to do their job. Monterrey’s mayor responded by trying to clean up the transit department, because its role in screening commerce crossing the state made it particularly susceptible to collusion with cartels. The mayor appointed Enrique Barrios transit secretary in May 2010 and ordered him to investigate the department’s ties to organized crime. Barrios created an internal affairs department, with four lawyers who would report directly to him.
All four were kidnapped in their first two weeks on the job. Barrios’s second-in-command was abducted next. They came for Barrios several hours before daybreak; so certain was he of his fate that, when he heard someone breaking in, he got out of bed, went to his window and yelled, “I’m coming!” He walked to the front door and turned himself over to his abductors, asking only that they spare his family. He was released days later, badly beaten, and resigned shortly thereafter. He has remained silent about the episode.
The message sent by abductions like that of Barrios—and there were many, the victims of which were politicians, police, the business elite and their families—was clear. The traditional order had been upended. Now organized crime was establishing boundaries for the authorities, not the other way around. That more than one criminal group was setting the rules and demanding allegiance only complicated matters. Staying neutral was unacceptable, but choosing the wrong side could be deadly.