Letras Libras reports from the streets of Monterrey, a north Mexican city bloodied by disputes between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, where police are in desperately short supply after a purge of officers in the pay of drug gangs.
Monterrey is the third largest metro area in Mexico, inhabited by some 4 million “regios,” as the inhabitants are known. It is also the nation’s wealthiest big city, home to major international firms like Cemex and Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma Brewer.
For many years, Monterrey was held up as an example of Mexico’s potential, for better or worse. Some called it Mexico’s most Americanized city; the streets are dotted with U.S. chain retailers and restaurants, and fluent English is not uncommon. The suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia is often called the Beverly Hills of Mexico. Tec de Monterrey is a renowned university that draws talent from all over the country, and has become a model for Latin America.
However, the wave of violence that has washed over much of the country’s north has not left Monterrey untouched. Thanks to an ongoing battle between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, Monterrey has been the site of some of the most brutal acts of violence in recent years.
The most infamous of these incidents was the Casino Royale arson attack in August, which left 52 civilians dead. A month earlier, more than 20 people were killed in a Monterrey nightclub when gunmen opened fire on patrons and staff alike. One incident that remains notorious locally, though not internationally, came in March 2010, when two students from the Tec de Monterrey were killed in a shootout between criminals and army troops. Not only did it lead to a public spat between the university leadership and the federal government (the school’s top official eventually resigned, widely thought to have been forced out); it also gave notice that not even the city’s most privileged residents would be immune from violence.
Journalist Ricardo Cayuela Gally took a detailed look at the city’s recent decline in Letras Libres, a noted Mexican magazine. The following is InSight Crime’s translation of selected extracts from his report:
Between the Mariano Escobedo Airport, in the industrial municipality of Apodaca, and my hotel in San Pedro Garza Garcia, a bit past 11 at night and after crossing the entire city of Monterrey, I don’t see a single soldier or policeman, despite being just a week after Mexico’s worst attack against the civilian population: the burning of Casino Royale, perpetrated by gunmen who acted with impunity in the broad daylight, where 52 people died. And that will be one of the most unusual constants during this visit. Not even in the interview with the secretary of governance, Javier Treviño, nor with the threatened mayor of Guadalupe, Ivonne Alvarez, nor on the drive around the Barrio Antiguo, not even to enter the Tec [de Monterrey] for a ceremony presided over by two of the most important businessmen in Mexico, no one ever asked me for identification, checked my backpack, nor confirmed that I had an appointment or an invitation.
The explanation for this lack of control was given to me by Jorge Tello Peon, unsalaried cabinet coordinator for security in the Nuevo Leon government. The creator of Cisen, the old collaborator of Fernando Gutierrez Barrios and maybe the man who best understands what goes behind the scenes in Mexico’s security agencies, Tello is emphatic during a breakfast in a restaurant simply named Wall Street: “Nuevo Leon is facing an alarming deficit of police officers.” The systematic clean-ups of officers who are corrupt, if not on the payroll of organized criminal groups, has left the state agencies, and the majority of the municipalities, with negligible numbers. Bernardo Gonzalez-Arechiga, director of the Tec’s Graduate School of Public Administration and an expert on security issues, corroborates the statistics: “Nuevo Leon has less than 8,000 police officers and it should have, given its population and under the UN standards [at least 2.8 police per 1,000 inhabitants], 20,000, and under the Goode standards [which measures the number of losses among the police to calculate the required number], 40,000.” There is a state program in place to build a new police agency, but it’s not easy to recruit. No one wants a job in which you risk your life if you don’t become corrupt. And that’s the case despite conditions having radically improved: the government offers a salary of 14,000 pesos a month with good benefits. The recruiting drive has had to go outside the state and offer housing for those who aren’t residents. Not even that works. Furthermore, the process of incorporating the recruits is inevitably slow. Nothing is more dangerous than recruiting desperate people and giving them a weapon without any training. The Mexican Army knows it, as it confronts the desertion of a significant number of commanders of its special battalions who have turned into leaders of the Zetas. “In February,” Tello tells me as an example, “we fired 30 police, and we need 500 per month.”
But then, why was the city safer before? In fact, the whole country was safe, except for the rough neighborhoods in the border towns and the capital. … The explanation that Tello gives is that for decades there was total complicity between criminals and police, “with the exception that the criminals knew who was in control and where the line was.” It was a sordid and corrupt world of great fortunes created from within the spheres of power. This was the “pax priista”. [This term refers to the peace imposed by the long-dominant political party known as the PRI.] But the red line was clearly marked. Today the rules have changed for everyone.
None of the dozens of people with whom I spoke during my stay in the city of Monterrey denies the official information: the spiral of violence is the product of a split between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas at the beginning of 2010. But to understand the significance of this break, it’s necessary to go farther back. Monterrey was historically a strategic enclave used to dominate the border with Texas, but unlike Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Reynosa, whose only value is that of a crossing point, Monterrey is a financial center of such magnitude that it’s possible to launder huge quantities of money without raising suspicions; furthermore, it has universities and residential neighborhoods where drug traffickers’ families can walk around unnoticed and a level of wealth that, on the one hand, generates a not insignificant market for consumption of cocaine and, on the other, an economic goldmine of its own for extortion, kidnapping, or theft of cars and from homes. Using various sources, it can be inferred that the Pacific Cartel [a euphemism for the·Sinaloa] sent the Beltran Levyas to control the area and that the Gulf Cartel did the same with their armed group, the Zetas. Once in Monterrey, these groups were seduced by the power and the wealth of the Sultan of the North [as the city is often called] and broke with their respective bosses. The Beltran Leyvas were dismantled by successive blows from the federal police and now their forces are evidently concentrated in other parts of the country, but the war between Gulf and the Zetas for Monterrey is pitiless: from a state that had an average of 200 murders a year, it became one where more than 2,000 are killed. And where the crimes of the common “fuero” have grown exponentially. [Mexico has two different categories of crime: the common fuero, for petty crime, and federal fuero, for more serious crimes, including those connected to organized crime.]
The problem isn’t just the struggle between the two rival groups, but rather that both act with the protection of municipal police and with the backing of judges and public prosecutors who are also in their pay. Furthermore, sending large quantities of cocaine to the United States requires infrastructure and “economic muscle” that is not easy to maintain when one is part of a fratricidal war, which creates the necessity to come up with easy and quick money, so to directly attack the population. Every street corner where they sell drugs is a trench in this war and all of the local businesses, above all the nightclubs and the gambling halls, are a potential target for extortion and charging “piso.” As Fernando Elizondo, ex-gubernatorial candidate for the PAN, explained to me: “these groups set up the old gang members of little importance from poor neighborhoods with assault rifles and a fixed salary, and just like that, a problem of marginalized groups and social exclusion turns into scenes that can be fairly described as warlike.” Taking over steets, “executing” hostages, psychological warfare, “colgados” [bodies left hanging from overpasses], “encajuelados” [bodies in vehicle trunks], encobijados [bodies wrapped in blankets]: it’s a vocabulary of terror that strikes fear. Furthermore, these are not, as Tello notes, groups that make their identities known, which encourages other common criminals to act via imitation and makes the betrayals and murders inside each faction constant. This is the law of the jungle.
One of the things that most impressed me in the conversation with Jorge Tello was the history of the police in Cerralvo who, once arrested, confessed that they only asked God that the marines or the army killed them “in combat”, to at least die with dignity and to escape the horror that their new “bosses” demanded: randomly killing the first pedestrian to cross the street to demonstrate loyalty or skin alive one of every ten colleagues to stamp out any thought of confessing. Colonel Enrique Alberto San Miguel Sanchez, secretary of public security in the municipality of Guadalupe, told me the same thing: “You can’t imagine how cruel they can be when they have an unarmed man in their hands. Now, if one confronts them, even with a simple pistol, then they are cowards.”