LATIN AMERICA

Determined Monterrey fights back after falling victim to Mexico drug war

The country's once-bustling industrial hub is now a ghost town at night

Monterrey (México) -
Police in Monterrey try to reconstruct a recent crime scene.
Police in Monterrey try to reconstruct a recent crime scene.REUTERS

"We Mexicans have brains, a lot of heart and balls, but what we need to find is a way to connect all three," says Jaime "El Bronco" Rodríguez Calderón, the popular mayor of García, a modern industrial suburb of Monterrey with about 250,000 inhabitants.

El Bronco likes to tell the story of how, when he was elected three years ago, he inherited a city that was "scared, held hostage and bought" by organized crime. Now he says that drug-related violence, which accounts for 14 percent of all crimes in Nuevo León state, is down to zero in García.

His solution was to fire the city's 250 police officers in one day and replace them with a squad of 76 young people with military experience. The members of the so-called Special Group patrol the streets 24 hours a day in white unmarked trucks.

The mayor frequently takes part in special operations and has survived two attempts on his life. In March, about 40 armed men ambushed his convoy, pumping nearly 600 rounds into his truck. After it was over, authorities found 3,000 casings at the scene. "There are dead people who always survive," says the charismatic 54-year-old Rodríguez, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The mayor of García has survived two attempts on his life

Just about every resident in García has the mayor's cellphone number; he continuously receives tips, even about the danger he faces. During an interview with EL PAÍS, the mayor took a phone call from someone who advised him that "they intend to kill you this Sunday at your ranch." But El Bronco, who is used to these threats, dismisses them.

"Society likes you more when you are a son-of-a-bitch," he says.

Mayor Rodríguez represents the determination in the north of Mexico to keep the drug traffickers from winning the long, grueling war that has already claimed 60,000 lives throughout the country. Nuevo León and neighboring Tamaulipas are considered the most dangerous states in Mexico today. Just this year there have been more than 800 deaths in Nuevo León. Several of the tragedies have made international headlines, including the arson attack at the Casino Royale last August, in which 52 people died, and the massacre of 49 inmates at the Apodaca prison last February.

Monterrey, an industrial hub nestled along the eastern Sierra Madre mountain range and home to the prestigious Technology Institute, has for decades played a key role in driving Mexico's economy. Eight percent of the country's GDP is generated by Monterrey and its suburbs. "If we lose Nuevo León, we lose the entire country," says Camilo Ramírez, City Hall secretary and member of the National Action Party (PAN).

Society likes you more when you are a son-of-a-bitch," says El Bronco

The violence began around 2007 when the Gulf cartel, which controlled the drug routes in Tamaulipas, began battling the Zetas, who are now the main traffickers in the region. The Zetas are at war with their arch-enemies from the Sinaloa cartel and its leader Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, who was branded recently by the US Treasury Department as the richest trafficker in the world.

"The narcos came here to hide, do business and launder money - they caught us off guard," says Ramírez.

And with the criminals came the murders, extortion, corruption, kidnappings and business failures. Some US companies packed up altogether and left Monterrey for safer pastures.

"Today you think twice about going out for a meal. Social life has dropped by more than 60 percent. They are turning us into something that we never were: a cowardly society," Ramírez adds.

If we lose Nuevo León, we lose the entire country," says a city official

It is 10pm and the streets are deserted but you can almost hear the echo of laughter and music of what was once a bustling late-night area for young people and tourists. Café Iguana, which was one of the most popular spots in the city, has been closed for the past year. Located in the historic old town, the club's façade is still marked with 25 bullet holes from an AK-47 assault rifle.

The damage was done one night in May 2011, when gunmen pumped rounds into the Café Iguana, killing four people and injuring dozens. The bodies of the four victims disappeared that night, and no one came forward to tell investigators what exactly had happened. In fact, there was no investigation.

Just about every nightclub in the area is closed these days.

"We are so frustrated. We're really tired of all of this violence, and we're fed up with the ignorance of the presidential candidates about what is happening here in the north," says Edgar Olaiz, a former PRI mayor of Monterrey who has had to learn how to handle a weapon for his own safety.

Eight percent of the country's GDP is generated by Monterrey

On July 1, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a new leader from the following candidates: Enrique Pérez Nieto of the PRI, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of a leftist coalition of parties, Josefina Vázquez Mota of the PAN, and Gabriel Quadri de la Torre of the New Alliance party.

Polls show that the PRI is set to recapture the presidency it lost in 2000.

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