Drug War Besieges Mexico's Northern Metropolis

A group of people kidnapped by alleged drug-traffickers, are escorted during their freeing by members of the Mexican Army, in Sabinas Hidalgo, 99 km north of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon State, Mexico, on April 27, 2010.
A group of people kidnapped by alleged drug-traffickers, are escorted during their freeing by members of the Mexican Army, in Sabinas Hidalgo, 99 km north of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon State, Mexico, on April 27, 2010. Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of soldiers and police are being deployed in a city better known as the Mexico headquarters of multinational companies like Whirlpool and Hershey's. Monterrey's peaceful, hard-working image has been shattered over the past few months as rival cartels fight for control of the city.

In Mexico this week, authorities in the northern state of Nuevo Leon announced that soldiers and police are being deployed to patrol around public schools. In addition 5,000 teachers are going to be trained in how to react if a gun battle occurs near their classrooms.

The measures are the latest reaction to surging drug violence in and around the industrial city of Monterrey, capital of Nuevo Leon and a major Mexican metropolis.

More than 23,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon took office 3 1/2 years ago. During the first couple years of Calderon's drug war, Monterrey appeared immune to the cartel violence.

But not anymore.

Monterrey's peaceful, hard-working image has been shattered over the past few months as rival cartels fight for control of the city.

Late last month the chief of the Monterrey transit police was kidnapped along with his deputy. Over the past three weeks more than a dozen police officers from the area have been abducted and killed. One was even decapitated.

In April masked gunmen stormed the Holiday Inn and hauled off several guests. They haven't been heard from since.

City Once Known For 'Playing Hard, Working Hard'

"Myself, I’ve been living here all my life. Never in my wildest dreams, I would believe that I will see this in my city," says Ramon Alberto Garza. He is a longtime newspaper editor in Monterrey and now runs Indigo Media, a national online news outlet.

He says Monterrey used to be a very secure city with a reputation for working hard and playing hard. Alberto Garza says there were lots of discos and places to hear live music.

" Little cantinas. Little antros, we call antros here, the places where you go to have fun and enjoy. And suddenly those antros are being closed. Why? Because they don't have people who go there anymore," he says.

Many locals view Monterrey as a bit superior to the rest of Mexico. They view themselves as being above the chaos and poverty that's rampant in other parts of the county.

Statistics, at least, back them up. But that is changing.

Now, Monterrey has become famous for the narco-bloqueo, or narco-blockade.

Since the beginning of the year, members of Los Zetas cartel have taken to shutting down the city's main thoroughfares.

Earlier this month, when the Mexican army captured a man alleged to be one of Los Zetas' operatives in Monterrey, gunmen waded into traffic with their weapons drawn. They pulled drivers out of their cars, trucks and buses, and then turned the vehicles sideways in the streets.

The blockades caused instantaneous gridlock. The idea was to try to block the soldiers from moving through the streets with their prisoner.

The secretary general of the local state government, Javier Trevino Cantu, says Los Zetas set up 28 blockades across Monterrey that day. The local media counted 40 barriers. Traffic was tied up for hours.

TV news footage showed gunmen ordering terrified children out of cars at gunpoint at the height of the afternoon rush hour. Trevino says the scale of the chaos is a sign of how badly the government is hurting the criminals.

But the blockades also show the power of the cartels to disrupt with impunity the entire city.

Monterrey Worries About Business

Per capita income in Monterrey is twice the national average. One suburb boasts that it is the richest neighborhood in Latin America. Membership at the local country club costs more than $1 million.

Monterrey Tech is the top private university in Mexico. The area is home to some of Mexico's most prosperous international companies. And many large U.S. firms, including Whirlpool, Hershey's and Mary Kay Cosmetics, have significant operations here.

"This city was very peaceful, very livable and right now we don't feel ourselves that confident and that secure," says Fernando Turner, president of the National Association of Independent Businessmen.

Turner says Monterrey still offers great business opportunities, but the recent drug violence is a problem.

" If you are developing a new line of production for a customer, say for an automotive company, they need to come and inspect and check. And they are not that willing to come now. Just about every day the local papers report some new, spectacular crime," Turner says. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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