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.