If Monterrey Falls Will Mexico Follow?

A recent editorial in a Mexican newspaper stated it simply “Mexico in Flames.” The word I see used most commonly these days by the Mexican media with regards to the terrorism being waged by the drug cartels and organized crime is  “unprecedented.”  In the past two weeks things have gone from bad to worse for Mexican President Felipe Calderon in his war against the drug cartels.

Calderon has already lost control of his northern border. This was clear to me after recently spending two weeks in Matamoros and Reynosa. Now the cartels have set their sights on Monterrey, the economic heart of Mexico. Grenade attacks, narco-blockades, kidnappings: in short an “unprecedented” terror campaign is being wrought by drug cartels and organized crime on the more than 2 million residents of the city.

Monterrey is the industrial heart of Mexico and one of its wealthiest cities. It’s home to powerful Mexican corporations such as CEMEX and the national oil company PEMEX. And it’s the Latin American headquarters for many international companies such as Whirlpool and General Electric.

The city of Monterrey has always prided itself on its wealth and its relative security. Just five years ago it was ranked as the most secure city in Latin America by American Economia, a Latin American business magazine. And it was rated in 1999  by Fortune magazine as the best city in Latin America to do business.

It’s prosperity also attracted Mexico’s drug kingpins who settled their families in Monterrey’s most affluent neighborhoods. For many years an agreement among the cartels that family were off limits kept these neighborhoods free of revenge killings and kidnappings. With the rupture of the cartels by government forces and a fractious civil war among the remaining drug capos Monterrey is rapidly becoming a war zone.

But this time it’s not the working class and the poor of Juarez or Reynosa who are taking the bullets,  it’s the very top echelons of society and Mexico’s elite who are feeling the terror firsthand. The recent kidnapping and killing of the mayor from the affluent neighboring town of Santiago with the help of his own police force sent a chill through Mexico’s political elite. His kidnapping came on the heels of  an assassination of the leading gubernatorial candidate for the state of Tamaulipas in June. The kidnapping in May of the powerful political kingmaker “Jefe Diego” from Calderon’s own National Action Party also shook Calderon and his cabinet to the core.

Mayors, Senators and other powerful politicians across Mexico are realizing that they cannot even trust their own security forces because they have already been bought out through intimidation or money by the drug cartels. And Calderon seems to have no one he can trust to restore any form of law and order in the country.

The rampant insecurity has led Mexico’s most prominent businessmen to place ads in newspapers across the country asking President Calderon to send more federal troops to Monterrey and surrounding areas to fight the cartels and organized crime. The problem with sending the army, however, is that they are not trained to be a police force among civilians. They can’t replace the lack of a judicial system. They can only engage the cartels in gun battle, killing many innocent bystanders in the process.

A political analyst told Reuters this week that the violence is unraveling Monterrey’s civic society. Wealthy Mexicans are fleeing Monterrey and its economy is flagging.

“Insecurity in Monterrey is now spinning out of control and is a clear threat to investment. The city is losing its leadership,” said political analyst Jose Luis Garcia at the University of Monterrey. “Politicians … aren’t prepared to pay the price and confront the problems.”

In the past four years, Calderon has gone after the drug cartels with an unrelenting force, but his administration’s lack of strategy has destroyed the fragile framework holding Mexican society together and left nothing to replace it. Poverty, impunity and corruption have plagued the country for decades. Organized crime is filling the vacuum and it will take more than the Mexican army to root them out.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 4:21 pm CST