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The Monster and Monterrey: The Politics and Cartels of Mexico's Drug War | The Nation

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The Monster and Monterrey: The Politics and Cartels of Mexico's Drug War

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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.

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About the Author

Nik Steinberg
Nik Steinberg is a researcher in the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Mexico’s drug war has few heroes. Yet many Mexicans have found one in Don Alejo Garza Tamez, or Don Alejo, as he has come to be known. In November a group of Zetas arrived at his ranch and told him he had twenty-four hours to clear out. A wealthy 77-year-old businessman from Monterrey, Garza had retired to Tamaulipas, in the heart of territory contested by the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. After the Zetas left, Garza sent his workers home and gave them the next day off. A seasoned hunter, he went about preparing for a siege, positioning weapons in various windows of his house. When the monster came for him the next day, he refused to leave, and a firefight ensued. He killed four gunmen and wounded two others before the Zetas finished him off with a grenade.

Norteño groups, whose music more often celebrates the brutality of narcos than those who defy them, quickly composed corridos immortalizing Don Alejo’s last stand. The most famous, “His Last Hunt,” has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube:

For the thugs he was prepared,
They came to intimidate him,
He answered them with bullets.

From his noble trench,
He took down four,
It was his life and his ranch, it was a
Question of honor.…

Even more revealing than the ballads are the comments they’ve generated on social networking sites. “The time has come for Mexico to defend itself against all of the tricks of narco-whores who think they can do what they want,” wrote one commenter. “May god keep in his saintly glory this old man who had balls, and fuck the Zetas and the whole lot of damn criminals,” declared another. For a public battered by violence and disenchanted by the powerlessness of its politicians and police, Don Alejo’s popularity reflects Mexicans’ yearning for someone willing to stand up to the cartels. “Thank you, Don Alejo, for giving us an example of courage and honor,” said another commenter. “All honest and honored Mexicans are proud of you, wherever you are.”

Macabre endings are increasingly common in Mexican literature and films about the cartels. One of the most popular movies of 2010 was Luis Estrada’s El Infierno (Hell), a dark satire about a man who briefly reaps the riches of working for a cartel, only to be betrayed by it and ruined. Estrada’s film ends with the protagonist mowing down all the players in the corrupt system—the cartel boss, the police, the politicians—who have assembled on a stage to celebrate the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence.

A novel published in 2009, Carlos Fuentes’s Adán en Edén (Adam in Eden), tells the story of how the rise of organized crime threatens Mexico’s elite families. The book concludes with the protagonist hiring foreign assassins to sweep in and exterminate the entire criminal class. Fuentes seems to acknowledge the inadequacy of this solution when he has the narrator concede, “We are fighting against a poly or multiformed monster, and the solutions that occur to me…are insufficient, temporarily and in the long term…. Cut off the head of the hydra, two more are born.”

Javier Sicilia, a poet, is trying to imagine a different ending. On March 28 the body of his 24-year-old son, a university student, was found in a car along with six other corpses. All the victims had been bound and asphyxiated. A note found nearby warned that this is what happens to people who make denuncias—or anonymous complaints—to the military. It was signed C.D.G., an abbreviation for the Cartel del Golfo, the Gulf Cartel. The following week, Sicilia published an impassioned public letter condemning both the cartels and politicians, and calling on Mexicans to take to the streets to demand an end to the violence. His message hit a nerve. On May 8 tens of thousands of citizens marched with him to Mexico City’s Zócalo, or main plaza. “We are here to tell ourselves and them that we will not channel this pain into hatred or more violence, but rather use it as a tool to help us restore the love, peace, justice, dignity and faltering democracy that we are losing,” Sicilia told the crowd.

For now, Sicilia’s movement is defined more by what it opposes—the brutality of the cartels and the military, rampant impunity and corruption—than what it supports. Yet Sicilia’s plea has drawn national attention to a debate that, until recently, was confined to the margins. Next year is an election year in Mexico, and the poet is calling on voters to boycott the polls if the candidates do not offer a genuine alternative to the failed “war on drugs.” If Sicilia’s movement continues to gain momentum, it could play a significant role in choosing Mexico’s next president.

Still, the allure of Don Alejo’s example will be difficult for Sicilia and others to counteract. Terrorized by gangs, and skeptical of the ability of police and courts to bring those responsible to justice, citizens increasingly see no option except taking the law into their own hands. The results can be horrific. Last September, residents in the small town of Ascensión, Chihuahua, population 8,000, caught five alleged kidnappers as they were attempting to abduct a 17-year-old girl. A mob of some 400 residents surrounded two of the men and beat them ferociously. As the mob prepared to burn them alive, federal police intervened, extricating the suspected kidnappers and loading them into a police car. But the mob counterattacked, surrounding the car and wrenching the driver from the front seat, all the while preventing police and soldiers from rescuing the alleged kidnappers. The two men bled to death, handcuffed in the back seat.

Authorities refrained from praising the Ascensión residents as heroes, but they have yet to put any of them on trial, and officials say the investigation into the incident has been shelved. The popular reaction to the killings in Ascensión was not unlike the response to Don Alejo’s last stand. As one commenter said of a news story about the incident: “I agree with the angry people who killed those two weaklings…. This class of people does not deserve to live.”

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