The Monster and Monterrey: The Politics and Cartels of Mexico's Drug War
Independencia’s poverty has made it fertile recruiting ground for criminal groups. Of the estimated 35,000 gang members in the greater Monterrey area—a figure that tripled from 2006 to 2009—the majority come from Independencia. And as the violence has increased, Independencia has become the exclusive turf of gangs, a place for them to store drugs, arms, even people. (Trafficking undocumented migrants and sex workers is among the cartels’ most profitable trades.) Police rarely dare to go there.
One police officer I met described getting lost in Independencia’s labyrinthine streets. He was leading a small detail providing security for a politician who was visiting the neighborhood. Suddenly, he said, he looked up to see a group of more than a dozen teenagers, all masked and armed with AK-47s, hovering on the rooftops. “I was sure we were dead,” the officer said. As the police wound their way out of the maze the teens kept their weapons trained on them, hopping from roof to roof.
The Nuevo León government has realized that if it is to address the city’s rampant violence, it needs to win back neighborhoods like Independencia. As part of a new strategy often called “reconstructing the social fabric,” it is initiating projects to tackle the poverty that leads many people to crime. In addition to beefing up security, these programs aim at investing in healthcare, education and job training in the most marginalized communities. Similar projects have been initiated in cities like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.
The office of Nuevo León’s governor, Rodrigo de la Cruz, agreed to take me to Independencia to show me the pilot project. My guide was Edgar Oláiz, who directs the project, and we met in his office on the second floor of the ornate statehouse. Before we left, he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the city’s plans for investing roughly $14 million in the project to “prevent 8- to 13-year-olds from joining cartels.” One slide showed an overhead map of metropolitan Monterrey, with red dots marking locations where violent crimes had occurred. Clusters of red filled Independencia’s hills.
After the slide show, we piled into an unmarked armored Suburban. From behind a pair of aviator glasses the driver clenched his jaw as we crossed over the Santa Catarina riverbed and worked our way uphill into Independencia, cursing under his breath at any obstacle that forced him to slow down.
We stopped first at the school complex, at the heart of what will be a renovated community center. It was a little after noon on a Monday, but the classrooms were empty. A caretaker lumbered over to meet us, and Oláiz asked where the director had gone. “Home,” the caretaker said. Oláiz looked disappointed but decided to give the tour himself. The courtyard between the school buildings was overgrown with tall grasses and littered with garbage bags and chunks of concrete. Workers had applied a fresh coat of lime-green paint to one building; the others were covered in graffiti. “That will be a workshop to train machinists,” Oláiz said, pointing to a gutted building nearby. He saw me looking at the charred remains of a recent fire on the ground. “The gangs sometimes congregate here at night,” he added. As we walked across a lot where bulldozers were leveling earth, Oláiz gestured to a cluster of buildings on the hillside above us. “Those are casas de seguridad, where the kidnappers keep their victims while they demand a ransom. We don’t go up there.”
A stout woman with short brown hair walked swiftly over to us, shaking hands with Oláiz and introducing herself to me. She had been a community organizer for the PRI, the governor’s party, for decades. She said that as recently as a few years ago, drugs in Independencia were sold in small quantities by grandmothers who ran corner stores. Then, she said, a group arrived and told everyone that they now controlled business in the area. They drove around in new SUVs with tinted windows. “Zetas,” she said. She indicated an abandoned police outpost fifty yards away. “They took over that too.”
As we spoke, an elderly man walked by, leading a donkey by the reins up the hill. Cases of Coca-Cola, cans of tomatoes, bags of rice and other basic supplies were secured by a mess of rope to the beast’s back. I asked the woman where he was headed. “Him?” She laughed. “He’s a burrero—a donkey taxi! It’s how we get supplies up the hill.” As we drove back toward Monterrey, I asked Oláiz how long it would take to fix the problems in places like Independencia that were behind Monterrey’s crime. “Years,” he said. “The system’s been broken a long time.” Did they have years to spare? There was a long pause. “What other option do we have?” he asked.
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During the first months of 2011, there was yet another horrific outbreak of violence in Monterrey. In January, twenty-three people were killed in a twenty-four-hour stretch—one of the city’s bloodiest days. In February, Nuevo León’s intelligence chief was kidnapped. Hours later, his car was found in downtown Monterrey, incinerated. His assailants had shot him five times, including several times in the head at close range, before dousing his car with gasoline and setting it ablaze. In the midst of this violence, the Mexican government released its newest figures on casualties tied to the drug war. A staggering 35,000 people had been killed since 2007—more than 15,000 in 2010 alone.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico on January 24. While such high-profile visits are usually publicized weeks in advance, Clinton’s was announced less than seventy-two hours before her arrival—a tacit acknowledgment of the volatile security situation. The primary issue on the agenda for Clinton’s meetings with Calderón and Mexico’s foreign minister was US-Mexico cooperation through the Mérida Initiative.
The Bush administration began the Mérida Initiative in 2007, not long after Calderón deployed the army in a full frontal assault on the cartels. Modeled on Plan Colombia, Mérida supports Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts by investing in everything from military hardware to training for prosecutors. The Obama administration has fully endorsed Mérida and is effusive in its support of Calderón’s efforts. Since 2007 the US government has committed more than $1.5 billion to Mérida.
As part of the original agreement, the United States pegged 15 percent of select Mérida funds to Mexico’s fulfillment of a set of basic human rights requirements, such as holding accountable officials who use torture and using the civilian justice system to prosecute soldiers alleged to have committed abuses. By law, if the requirements are not being met, the funds are not supposed to be released. However, despite clear evidence from Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission and even the US State Department that Mexico has not satisfied the requirements, the Obama administration has repeatedly released the funds. In a news conference in Guanajuato, Clinton was asked about Calderón’s security efforts. Clinton: “I think you can gather, I’m a fan…. President Calderón is following through on his plan. We are providing help as best we can to carry through on that plan. And it’s just a question of staying the course.”
When the Obama administration released its 2012 budget on February 14, it once again put its resources behind Calderón’s plan, including nearly $300 million for Mérida. The following day, a pair of US immigration agents were attacked as they drove to Mexico City. One of the agents, Jaime Zapata, was killed, and the other was seriously wounded. A week later, the Mexican government announced the arrest of the presumed assailants. The alleged mastermind, presented to the press by the army, was a Zeta.
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On one of my last nights in Monterrey I met with Indira Kempis, a well-known student activist at Monterrey Tech, the city’s prestigious university. In March 2010 two of her fellow students were gunned down inside the school’s main gates. The army originally claimed they were armed criminals, but it later revised its story to say the students had been caught in a shootout between soldiers and assassins. An exhaustive investigation by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission found that the army had sealed off the crime scene for several hours, confiscated campus surveillance tapes and planted arms on the students. More than a year later, military and civil investigations into the incident remain open.
In October another student—a 21-year-old artist named Lucila Quintanilla—was killed in Monterrey’s main plaza. Three armed men had been chasing another man along its main promenade, wildly firing automatic weapons, when a stray bullet struck her in the head.
Kempis offered to show me the spot where Quintanilla had been killed. It was 10 pm, and the once-vibrant downtown was deserted. Fear keeps most residents indoors at night, and the hefty protection fees charged by organized crime have led many restaurants and bars to close their doors.
We walked through what had once been the heart of the plaza, past the colonial statehouse built by the settlers of Independencia and the statue of Morelos from which the Zetas had hung their narcomanta. Steel grates were pulled down over storefronts, and empty benches lined the walkway. Suddenly, Kempis came to a stop and pointed. “Here,” she said. In the eerie silence of that space, there was no question about who controlled the plaza. The physical structures still stood, but they had been robbed of the people and activity that once had given them life. The plaza belonged to the cartels, and no one but the cartels. As we stood there, a woman in a bulky olive parka ambled over to us, her hands buried in her pockets. When she was only a few feet away, she thrust her hand from her pocket. “Red or white?” she asked, unfurling her fist to reveal two pills. We said no thanks, and she walked off down the vacant promenade, looking for other customers.