The Monster and Monterrey: The Politics and Cartels of Mexico's Drug War
The mayor’s office in San Pedro, the wealthiest suburb of Monterrey and the second-richest in all of Mexico, is located in a modern two-story building on the corner of a meticulously landscaped central plaza. I was there in December, and as I crossed the plaza a tall, well-built man with a military-style haircut intercepted me. A transparent wire snaked from his ear down the collar of his black windbreaker. I told him I had an appointment to meet the mayor, and after speaking my name into his wrist he escorted me to the building’s entrance, which was flanked by two more men in black windbreakers. A receptionist led me down an ornate hallway lined with antique wooden sideboards and bright landscape paintings, and then through a heavy wooden door. The mayor, Mauricio Fernández, sat at an expansive wooden desk before a set of papers, with his gray hair slicked back and rectangular glasses perched on the tip of his nose. “Adelante,” he said without looking up.
Mauricio, as he is known to everyone in Monterrey, is from one of the city’s wealthiest families; he first served as mayor more than twenty years ago. He decided to run again in 2009, he said, to help the city in a time of crisis. Even during the campaign (his slogan was “Protect San Pedro”), Mauricio demonstrated an openness to employing unconventional tactics in the name of security. In a meeting with local business leaders, a recording of which was leaked to the press, he said, “Look, it’s a dreadful thing to say, but much of the reason San Pedro is peaceful, compared with how the rest of the metropolitan area is starting to deteriorate, is because the Beltran Leyva Cartel is in charge here…. And so we have to take advantage of that.”
In the recording, Mauricio went on to suggest that he had proposed an arrangement with the Beltran Leyva Cartel to let it conduct business as long as it guaranteed that no rival gangs set up shop in the district—which was what had caused the explosion of violence in neighboring Monterrey. A cartel monopoly, Mauricio’s reasoning went, was the key to keeping San Pedro safe. The proposal was a throwback to the old PRI arrangement, only with the cartels now holding the reins. And it was an arrangement, Mauricio told the business leaders, that the Beltran Leyva leaders seemed willing to accept.
Rather than undermine Mauricio’s standing, the leaked recording boosted his popularity, and he won the election handily. In his inaugural speech on October 31, 2009, he told residents that they no longer had to worry about a notoriously violent drug lord nicknamed El Negro. Later that day, the man’s body was found in the trunk of a car in Mexico City, more than 400 miles away. The scandal immediately captured national attention. Mauricio denied that he’d orchestrated the killing, but he admitted to having created what he called a grupo rudo, a tough squad, with a network of paid informants among the various cartels. Intelligence from these sources, he said, had tipped him off to El Negro’s imminent death. Under pressure from his party, he pledged to dismantle his grupo rudo.
Sitting across from Mauricio that morning, I asked if the grupo rudo still existed. He let out a sigh of exasperation. Yes, he said, but it was more an intelligence operation than a crew of thugs. He said he paid malitos, or bad guys, for information. “Look, if I don’t pay for it, I’m not going to get it,” he explained. “The only ones who have information are the feds, and they don’t share.” He said he kept informants on every block, whom he supplied with walkie-talkies to communicate directly with his “bunker”—a high-tech, multimillion-dollar command center he’d built, complete with live video streams from cameras around the city.
I asked Mauricio how authorities persuaded criminals to leave San Pedro once his informants had identified them. “It’s simple: I go to them and say, ‘Look, I can’t prove it yet, but I’m going to keep watching you until I catch you.’ And the criminals decide quickly it’s easier to go do their business elsewhere.” But evidence suggests that the grupo rudo has had a hand in more than intelligence gathering. In March 2010 military officers raided a suspected cartel hideout less than two miles from Mauricio’s bunker and discovered a pickup truck bearing the insignia of the municipality’s police force. In its back seat were eight kilos of cocaine and a stash of illegal arms. Weeks later, federal authorities arrested a suspected member of the Beltran Leyva Cartel known as El Chico Malo (The Bad Boy), who said he was a paid informant of Mauricio’s. The mayor not only confirmed the claim but said the informant’s tips had helped “clean up the cartels” in San Pedro. In June federal authorities detained a member of Mauricio’s government for collecting payments from local business owners for protection by the grupo rudo. The tough squad was looking more and more like the organized criminal groups it had been created to combat.
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In August 2010 Monterrey’s major newspapers ran a full-page advertisement from the city’s business elite that took the form of an open letter to President Felipe Calderón and Nuevo León’s governor. “Enough already,” the letter said. It called on the president to dispatch four additional military battalions—roughly 2,400 more troops—to Nuevo León. In a roundabout way, the letter was an endorsement of Calderón’s public-security strategy, announced days after he took office in December 2006, of deploying the military to take on the drug cartels. By the time Monterrey’s business leaders published their letter, Calderón had dispatched more than 45,000 troops in counternarcotics operations across the country.
After four years, however, there are serious reasons to doubt whether Calderón’s strategy is working. Violence has increased significantly in all seven states where the military is deployed against drug cartels, including Nuevo León. A recent study found that homicide rates in these states are nearly double what had previously been the record over the past two decades. Defending his strategy in the face of rising violence, Calderón has said, “If you see dust in the air, it’s because we’re cleaning house.” He has repeatedly claimed that 90 percent of the victims of drug violence are criminals, yet he has provided no supporting data. A freedom of information request made last June by a Mexican newspaper revealed that federal prosecutors had opened only 1,200 investigations into drug-related crimes during his administration, while nearly 23,000 Mexicans had been killed in drug-related violence. (The most recent estimate of deaths is 35,000.)
The increasing role of the military in public-security operations is part of the reason investigations are not opened. In states like Nuevo León, the military functions as a shadow police force. Soldiers carry out regular patrols, man checkpoints and respond to shootouts. Local newspapers run advertisements for military hot lines, which citizens can call to report anonymously on suspicious activity. When it comes to working with civilian authorities, however, the military sets the terms. As Nuevo León’s ranking military officer said in a recent meeting with civil society leaders, “We work with civilian authorities when we have to—when there are levels of trust. If not, we work alone.” When I met with the governor’s senior staff, they conceded that they had no control over the timing or location of military operations, and a police chief in Monterrey said the army did not notify him when it carried out raids.
Given the high levels of corruption among local authorities, the military’s reluctance to collaborate is understandable. Yet its tendency to operate autonomously often translates into soldiers’ assuming roles for which they have not been trained—such as collecting evidence at crime scenes or interrogating suspects. As the military has assumed such roles, civilian complaints of human rights violations by soldiers have skyrocketed. During the Calderón administration’s tenure, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has received nearly 5,000 allegations of grave human rights abuses committed by the army, including rape, torture and extra-judicial killings. In Nuevo León, Human Rights Watch investigated eight killings in 2010 that evidence indicates were the result of the military’s unlawful use of lethal force.
One was the case of a married couple, Juan Carlos Peña Chavarria and Rocio Romeli Elías Garza, both 29, who lived in Anáhuac, north of Monterrey. During their lunch break on March 3, 2010, the couple left the factory where they worked and got caught in a shootout between the military and armed men. When the shooting tapered off, Peña tried to run for safety. He was shot by soldiers, two witnesses told me. Elías raised her hands, yelled that they were unarmed civilians and pleaded for help. She was shot by a soldier standing about ten feet away. Soldiers shot her and Peña again, at point-blank range, and planted weapons near their bodies. The military released a statement the following day saying it had killed eight criminals in a shootout, including Peña and Elías.
Incidents like the killing of Peña and Elías have ripple effects, alienating communities whose cooperation is critical for an effective counternarcotics campaign. Time and again, victims’ families, neighbors and co-workers told me they had welcomed the military’s intervention in Nuevo León until they were personally affected by its brutality. “I used to believe in the army,” said the mother of a 22-year-old who disappeared in 2010 after being detained by the military. “Now I only believe in God.”
Independencia is Monterrey’s poorest neighborhood. It sits in the hills west of the city at the foot of the russet-colored Sierra Madre mountains. The land was originally settled by migrant laborers who came at the turn of the twentieth century to build Monterrey’s colonial statehouse. From discarded building materials they pieced together ramshackle houses, and as the neighborhood grew it clawed its way into the hills.
Only the Santa Catarina River, which is dry most of the year, separates Independencia from downtown Monterrey. At night, standing on the steps of the statehouse, you can see the flickering lights from homes in Independencia, powered by pirated electricity. Despite their proximity, the neighborhoods could not be more different. As domestic and foreign investment transformed Monterrey into Mexico’s industrial capital, Independencia changed little. While most of Monterrey has wireless Internet, parts of Independencia are still without running water.