Surrounded by its numerous mountain peaks, the city, apparently peaceful in its bowled cradle, is a picture of serenity and prosperity. The morning air is still crisp; the sky is still baby blue, edged gold by the rising sun, cloudless and still clear without any smog. The smog usually comes later in the morning, mixed with the white dust from the semi-desert beyond the mountains the sky then turns a dirty white-yellow. But the serene scene is a misrepresentation of what is happening in Monterrey, Mexico. Underneath the superficial beauty, seeped in through every seam and thread of this city, organized crime, kidnapping and murder, whether systematic or by random opportunity, is changing this beautiful city into a crate of rotting fruit. Slowly, the one rotten fruit is infecting another and another as the spores of decay travel from one neighborhood to another, decimating social structure after social structure, and taking its toll on the citizens of the city. Inflating all the statistics for which a city, any city, does not want to be famous for.
And it is not just narcotic gangs against other gangs, trying to establish and entrench their territories, nor is it just normal criminal gangs against the police. So many policemen have been killed or fired by the city or the state because of corruption or for working with the narcotic gangs that police presence in neighborhoods and on the highways have disappeared. This enabled petty criminals to become far bolder than they would have dared before to commit more serious crimes, especially home burglaries, car theft, holdups of restaurants and businesses, and kidnapping innocent people for small random amounts.
Monterrey from an airplane. The airport in the bottom and
in the center, in the bowl surrounded by mountains lay the city
Just yesterday the sister-in-law of one of my programmers here was in a car theft-kidnapping incident. For an hour the woman had to negotiate, successfully I must to add, with the thieves/kidnappers to take only her car and not her 5-year old boy too that was in the backseat. Imagine, a desperate woman, facing into the barrel of a gun, picking up her son from school, seeing in her minds eye how someone else in broad daylight wants to drive off with her child and then later call back for a ransom. And they had all the information to do so because they took her handbag with all the things that women usually keep in their handbags. Today, when I spoke to the lady again to ask how her family is doing she told me the adults are worried, quite naturally, because the thieves can get so much information from the things in the handbag and that the little boy is quite traumatized.
A few months ago another one of my employees’ brother was kidnapped. For 2 days near Christmas they didn’t hear anything from him, only from the kidnappers. As she told me the story, she said it was worse than death because of the uncertainty of not knowing whether you will ever see the kidnapped person again. They paid the ransom, gathered from various family members, and the kidnappers dropped the man off on an empty parking lot. They were lucky, very blessed, because many times the kidnapped persons are never returned. Their dead bodies are dumped like trash in isolated spots in the Chihuahuan desert to rot like a dead mouse and turn into dust and to blow back into the city at a future time as a fine white mist carried upon the hot Santa Ana-like winds that race through the canyons of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains or the Cerro de las Mitres (mountains of the Mitres). Car theft and kidnapping is fast becoming the new regional sport here.
South of the city lies the picturesque village of Villa Santiago. I drove there a few years ago and wrote about it in a previous post. Today a trip to Villa Santiago by a foreigner all by himself is a suicide mission. A few months ago its mayor was kidnapped and killed. Now it seems 6 policemen, working for the drug cartels, were involved in the killings. Who can you trust here?
At work I can see the effect this situation is having on the people of this city. At lunch tables the laughter is less, the decibels lower, people smile with their lips but their eyes stare vacantly ahead of them. Worrying. Is my house being burgled at this moment? Is someone in my family being robbed or kidnapped now? Will something happen to me today, tomorrow, when?
Looking out towards the Lindavista area of Monterrey
with the Cerra de la Silla (Saddle Hill) on the left
All of this is so reminiscent of what I and many others experienced so many years ago in South Africa when the escalation in crime and violence drove hundreds of thousands from their homeland to the far corners of the world. It is so reminiscent of what happened in Colombia when the cocaine cartels ruled portions of that country and caused mayhem for the population. Different time, different geography, different circumstances, but the results are always the same, innocent people, just seeking their little piece of sunshine on earth, get caught up in the middle of this murderous and criminal orgy.
Gone are the evenings I would drive into the city center in search for new restaurants to experience the local cuisine in the Barrio Antiguo or in San Pedro. Gone are the days I would go and see the latest modern or contemporary art exhibition in the MARCO galleria or take a stroll on the Macro Plaza, drift off to the narrow side streets and tiny open plazas and do people watching from alfresco restaurant tables while savoring a cold cerveza Bohemia.
Now it is just going from hotel to work and back and driving after dark is only if I really have to, an emergency, and going into the city is strictly prohibited. The bad elements roam at night; like modern day Count Draculas or evil Batmen. Now I stay in different hotels than before, in “safe” hotels, in “safe” areas, where an armed guard stands inside the lobby watching everyone that is coming and going. Now it is more eating in, in the hotel’s restaurant, which usually doesn’t have anything more but the basic fare, than eating out, except if there is a restaurant next door or in very close walking proximity of the hotel.
Monterrey is not Baghdad or Kabul. Not yet in any case. Nor is it Ciudad Jaurez, Chihuahua, yet. But how bad is it going to get before it gets better again, before normal is normal again. Because today’s Monterrey is not normal anymore. Today’s Monterrey is not the Monterrey I got to know and like the past 10 years I have coming here.