MONTERREY, Mexico – The northern city of Monterrey, once Mexico’s symbol of development and prosperity, is fast becoming a new Ciudad Juarez.
Drug-related murders this year are on pace to double last year’s and triple those of the year before in the once-tranquil industrial hub. In recent weeks a tortured, screaming teenager was hung alive from a bridge. Two of the governor’s bodyguards were dismembered and dumped with messages threatening the state leader.
Earlier this month, gunmen killed 20 people in a bar where plastic baggies of drugs were found, the largest mass murder to date in the metro area of 4 million people. The toll continued last week when 14 were killed in separate hits on Wednesday, eight more on Thursday.
Officials say two cartels turned the city upside down practically overnight when they split in early 2010 and are trying to outdo each other with grisly displays.
Security officials acknowledge they don’t know how much worse it will get.
“As long as there are consumers and a critical mass of young people for these gangs to recruit, it’s hard to imagine the number (of killings) will go down,” said Jorge Domene, state security spokesman for Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located.
The scale of the killings has rarely been seen in Mexico outside border cities such Juarez, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo, the main gateways for drugs passing into the United States that have seen dramatic surges of violence since President Felipe Calderon intensified Mexico’s crackdown on organized crime in 2006.
And fear is starting to fray the social order. Concern over violence has caused enrollment to drop at the prestigious home campus of Mexico’s top private university, the Technology Institute of Monterrey, which has had to lay off some employees.
The chamber of industry in a brash, proud city where the annual income per capita is double the national average didn’t want to talk to the Associated Press about the impact of violence on business, though some executives acknowledge they’ve had to spend more on security.
Shirt factory owner Gilberto Marcos, a member of a citizens council on security, said some businesses have clearly faced extortion from drug gangs, though few cases are reported.
The Gulf Cartel once controlled drug running through Monterrey, and Mexico’s third-largest city had a reputation as a quiet, safe place. Where drug traffickers were present, they avoided creating problems, hiding their families amid neighborhoods of corporate executives.
The violence exploded when the Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel, creating a struggle for control of the area. The fight has left more than 1,000 people dead so far this year in Nuevo Leon state, compared to 828 in 2010 and 267 in 2009.
In wealthier parts of the area, restaurants are still packed and people still jog and walk their dogs at night. In poorer suburbs, though, entire blocks have been held up by gunmen and young people snatched off the streets.
Monterrey has still not reached the desperation of Ciudad Juarez, which was always a much grittier city and is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous after more than 3,000 people were killed last year. There, extortion, killings and torchings of businesses have devastated the local economy and sent people fleeing across the border to El Paso, Texas.
But Monterrey is rapidly growing more violent even as murders in Juarez have begun to drop.