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Monterrey’s drug war madness cripples model city
Robin Emmott has been covering the drug wars in Mexico for the past four-and-a-half years, based in the north industrial city of Monterrey. Robin’s special report “If Monterrey falls, Mexico falls” examines the sharp rise in violence in recent years and how the country’s richest city is dealing with it. (Read the story in multimedia PDF format here.)
Here’s what Robin had to say about working on the story:
“Don’t worry about the violence,” the elderly priest said to the congregation in a middle class suburb of Monterrey last month. “Get out there and live your lives. When it’s your time to die, God will decide,” he said in his Sunday sermon as the distinctly bemused churchgoers looked up at him from the pews.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when a close friend who was at church that day told me the anecdote.
It is a sign of just how desperate things have become in Monterrey, the prosperous Mexican city near the Texan border that until four years ago was proud of itself as a Latin American success story.
Today, residents are often too fearful to go out and enjoy themselves at restaurants and bars at night, and there’s a self-imposed curfew to avoid being caught up, albeit randomly, in the firefights and grenade attacks raging across the city.
When I started my posting covering the U.S.-Mexico border in early 2007, Monterrey was still a great place to live. Although there were 55 drug war deaths in 2006, it still felt safe. The city was in the midst of hosting a huge cultural festival with performers, musicians and thinkers from around the world. It was like Barcelona meets San Antonio, in the very best sense.
Monterrey had also just unveiled a beautiful artificial river through the city center, inspired by San Antonio’s River Walk, dotted with restaurants, playgrounds and sculptures, including one by famed artist Francisco Toledo.
That optimistic time seems like a different planet now. I can barely listen to local radio news when I wake up in the morning, as presenters recount the gruesome terrors of the latest drug murders: taxi drivers murdered outside a local supermarket, a gunfight outside a kindergarten, the severed head of a woman dumped outside a local town hall.
May was the city’s most murderous month ever, with 220 drug killings. That’s more than in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most infamous and violent border town.
Sometimes, I confess, I don’t understand it. The city is brimming with decent, hardworking moms and dads, creative minds, and ambitious companies.
Clearly something is very wrong, and during my reporting I was struck by the number of business leaders and senior officials trying to play down the problem, to pretend that everything is going to be all right. Many were reluctant to even talk about it.
Most in Monterrey, and in fact most in Mexico, agree on the problems and the solutions. You’ve got to deal with the corrupt justice system, flush out the rotten cops, pay the honest ones better wages and stop young people being sucked into the drug trade with jobs and opportunities. And of course there are the weapons smuggled in from the United States and Americans’ insatiable appetite for narcotics.
But sadly, like many people I interviewed for my special report, I don’t see much progress right now.
For more on covering Mexico’s drug war, check out chief photographer Claudia Daut’s photo slideshow and blog here.