Reporting from Monterrey, Mexico — With its superhighways, gleaming skyscrapers, fancy art museums and leafy plazas, Monterrey has always been safe — so safe, in fact, that drug lords chose to park their families here.
Life in Monterrey represented another Mexico, cozily above the national fray of violence and disintegration.
No scruffy border city or remote, drug-infested outpost, Monterrey is Mexico's wealthiest city, its economic engine, the center of textile, food-processing, beer and construction industries — a modern, sophisticated metropolis where per-capita GDP is twice the national average.
The drug lords' families took advantage of the country's best schools and top-of-the-line hospitals, the establishment turned a blind eye, and the wealth made it an easy place to launder money.
Now, however, as drug-trafficking syndicates expand their reach across Mexico, they have brought even Monterrey to its knees.
And as authorities lose control, the business elite is worried, ordinary residents panicked.
"The tradition of a tranquil Monterrey has ended," said Gilberto Marcos, a textile manufacturer who belongs to a citizens board that advises the state on security issues.
"And if Monterrey is lost, everything is lost."
Monterrey is perhaps paying the price for tolerating the presence of traffickers for so many years, allowing them to fester and grow amid the shared wealth.
"For two decades, our deliberate ignorance and our indolence have made us de facto collaborators" with organized crime, said Father Rogelio Narvaez, head priest in the struggling Our Lady of the Rosary parish. "Legality and the social fabric are in crisis.... It is easier to get guns than a scholarship."
In the space of a few weeks in recent months, drug gangs repeatedly blocked off city streets, snarling traffic and preventing police and soldiers from patrolling. Regular gun battles in and around Monterrey had claimed 164 lives this year as of May 7, almost the same number as in the two previous years combined. The dead included two popular engineering students caught, apparently, in crossfire at the gates of their prestigious university.
On April 21, 50 gunmen overran the downtown Holiday Inn, a high-end hotel popular with business travelers, forced the receptionist to ID guests and yanked four men and a woman from their fifth-floor rooms. A clerk from another hotel across the street, thought to be an informant, was also seized. They have not been seen since.
Authorities later arrested seven police officers accused of helping the gunmen, who are believed to be members of a notorious drug gang known as the Zetas.
On May 2, a single gunshot at a fairgrounds during an annual cattle festival triggered a panicked stampede of people in attendance. Five people were killed and dozens injured.
Business leaders say extortion and forced payment of "protection money" to gangsters are now routine. U.S. universities have canceled exchange programs with Monterrey institutions. Foreign investment fell by 50% last year; unemployment has risen sharply.
"Security is collapsing," Chamber of Commerce President Juan Ernesto Sandoval said. "The authorities are overwhelmed."
Several business leaders stormed into the governor's office the other day to demand immediate action after traffickers blocked streets in 20 locations on a single day. It was "unpardonable" that they could stage the blockades for hours with impunity, the businessmen told the governor's top security official.
But they came away with nothing but platitudes, one participant recalled.
For all its wealth, Monterrey is also home to circles of poor and out-of-work people whom traffickers have effectively exploited. As The Times reported last year, the Zetas began moving into the rough, neglected barrio of Independencia that slopes haphazardly up from the Santa Catarina riverbed. There they recruited young men as dealers, mules, spies and disciples.
Today, the Zetas have launched a bloody battle to challenge the longtime dominance of their former patron, the Gulf cartel. It is being waged most ferociously in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas that borders Texas, in towns such as Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, and has spilled 100 miles southward to engulf Monterrey.
The city's mayor, Fernando Larrazabal, said traffickers have managed to sow panic among residents and believes their ultimate goal is to provoke citizen demands that the army be withdrawn.
"We have to regain control of Monterrey's streets and neighborhoods and restore peace," Larrazabal, who took office six months ago, said in an interview. "In recent weeks we've seen unprecedented actions in defiance of government at local, state and federal levels."