Can Monterrey Save Itself from the Bloody Drug War?


How did Monterrey, often referred to as Latin America’s safest city, fall so hard and so fast into criminal chaos? Mexico’s economic powerhouse, Monterrey has long been a city of stark contrasts – Ferrari dealerships and shantytowns.  Just a five-hour drive from Austin, my husband and I made the trip regularly for years to visit with family. My husband grew up there and his father’s family are proud regios through and through. They come from the small, hardworking middle class in the city of two million, which has managed to cling to humble prosperity.

To hear from family and friends about how far the city has fallen is both heartbreaking and deeply concerning for anyone who loves Mexico. Monterrey is the industrial heart of the country, home to large multinational corporations and the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education – one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.  But it’s also ground zero for economic inequality in Mexico where some of the world’s wealthiest people live in gated communities surrounded by abject poverty. And in many ways Monterrey is a test case for Mexico. To win the drug war, Mexico needs to overcome its crippling poverty. The wealthy industrialists who have run Monterrey like a fiefdom are finally starting to address the inequality because the security crisis is so dire they can’t ignore it.

When President Felipe Calderon mounted his war against the drug cartels in 2006, he didn’t take into account the 40 million people living in poverty. For many, the drug cartels offer a way out of grinding poverty. And Calderon’s inability to stem the violence since the drug war began has made the government look weak. The lack of any rule of law has led to all types of opportunistic crime. Not only must regios now deal with cartel related violence but also with car jackings and robberies. Last month, a cousin’s truck was stolen at gunpoint in front of a convenience store in Monterrey. The lone gunman was just a teenager. His hands shook with fear as he held the gun.

A recent PBS news report called the once proud industrial city  “a city of massacres.”  In our own family, a cousin was kidnapped. He’s now been gone for a year without a trace. The gun battles, the blockades and the violence have touched everyone in Monterrey. No one goes out at night anymore. People fly to the city instead of drive. They check Twitter religiously to avoid gun battles on their way home from work. Little by little, their lives are being stolen.

When the violence began to worsen last summer, the wealthy started to abandon the city. Left behind were families like my husband’s – middle class families and the poor. Even the city’s mayor sent his family to Dallas. One of the city’s wealthiest industrialists Lorenzo Zambrano, the CEO of the multinational CEMEX corporation, exhorted his fellow industrialists on Twitter to stay and fight. “Whoever leaves Monterrey is a coward,” he wrote. “We have to fight for what we believe. We have to reclaim our great city!”

But to “reclaim” Monterrey, the wealthy need to acknowledge the rampant inequality in their city. For at least a century, the industrialists have run the city with little concern for the working class. Impromptu squatters settlements ring the hillsides and outer limits of the city. They have no trash service, no running water or electricity. Many kids don’t go to school. For the growing ranks of young people there’s no hope for the future, only misery.  Zambrano, one of the world’s richest men, made his fortune by literally carving up Monterrey’s scenic mountains for his massive cement conglomerate. In amongst the denuded hillsides live the workers barely eking out an existence.  For decades, these industrialists have viewed their workers as humble, simple peasants thankful for the few extra pesos they made.

It took a drug war to get Zambrano talking about how the wealthy should give something back to Monterrey. The industrialist has enlisted executives in his company to figure out how to bolster security in the city through building civic groups and increasing cooperation between the federal and state law enforcement and the military. He’s become a big promoter of investing in education and other social programs. It’s too bad he didn’t think of this 20 or 30 years ago before the crisis. But at least he hasn’t fled the city like many of his wealthy compatriots.

Monterrey’s failures and its successes in this bloody drug war will be a lesson not only for Mexico but also for Texas. Because there are many similiarities between the two. Like Monterrey, Texas has a huge growing divide between rich and poor. The state is also run by the very wealthy who give a smaller percentage of their wealth in taxes back to the state compared to the working poor. This legislative session we could see the income gap widen even further if education and the already meager social safety net is decimated. Perhaps, wealthy Texans should look south if they’d like to see what happens when a society doesn’t invest in its own people. For decades, Monterrey’s elites thought it was their God given privilege to own the world. Now the bill has come due.