The journey had finally come to its end, after spending more than a year studying in Austria, it was time to go back. Many things were left behind, and even more were awaiting all the way over the other side of the Atlantic. The final destination: Mexico; more precisely, Monterrey.
Four years ago, Mexico’s government, led by Felipe Calderón; declared war against organized crime. This resulted in an increase in shootings, kidnappings, robberies and a general feeling of insecurity for the Mexican people. Monterrey is one of the cities that has been affected the most by this war, specially over the course of this past year.
My flight landed at McAllen, Texas; a city in the United States across the border from Reynosa, Mexico, known by many as “Little Monterrey” because of the many shopping tourists coming from there. After that, the trip back home was to continue by car. The insecure atmosphere everyone had been talking about became tangible as soon as I crossed the border; military trenches and police cars appeared every once in a while during the 2 hour car trip.
The first impression one has of Monterrey in daylight is that of an active city. The lanes of Constitución, one of the city’s busiest avenues, were as cluttered as they were a year ago, and yet they were not the same. The street had to be reconstructed after hurricane Alex, arguably the most destructive hurricane ever to pass through the city, and now is only a one-way road.
Monterrey is known in Mexico for its wealth, hard-working citizens and important industries; this is very apparent if you take a look at the streets: people are always going somewhere, and despite all the constant warnings from the local TV news to not go out unless it’s absolutely necessary; shops are crowded and life is seemingly normal — business as usual.
The page turns at night though. The streets look emptier and emptier after the sun starts to set. “We don’t want to take the risk anymore,” says a school bus driver after I ask him why the last bus goes now at 19:15, instead of 21:00. The police emergency lights seem blinding at times when driving on the street at night. It was not uncommon for me to yield to a police car, speeding, trying to get somewhere; a shooting perhaps. Portable police forts were installed all over the city in a government attempt to enable quicker response to shootings and other violent crimes; police emergency lights have become a part of the city landscape.
The scars of the drug war are visible all over the city. The first day in Monterrey, driving to one of my favorite restaurants on Gonzalitos road, I notice an old pedestrian bridge. On this same bridge a woman known as “La Pelirroja” (The Redhead) less than a month ago was found, disturbingly, hung — a kidnapper who was ironically kidnapped and then murdered by a paramilitary commando while being transferred from prison to the hospital. The first day of school, I take a walk outside the main campus, an old friend shows me the bullet marks embedded on a building almost a year ago, when the army accidentally killed two students who were on their way to classes, and who now are part of the toll of nearly 30,000 people murdered since 2006 in this war against organized crime.
Last year, as a far away spectator living in one of the safest places in Europe, I never realized the full extent of how much life had changed in my home town of Monterrey.
Having lunch with some friends near my school, we begin to hear sirens and a helicopter, I start to get worried and begin to panic, my friends calm me down saying its probably something far away or just a false alarm; I find out later it was a police chase that began a few kilometers away, and ended some hundred meters from where we were, it was yet another shooting, and I, like many other Monterrey citizens, was nearby; the risk was there.
That night, I go back home with undoubtedly the worst culture shock I’ve ever experienced, and I have no option but to embrace change as I always do; or at least as I’m supposed to do. Before going to sleep, I hear a lot of chaos outside, again. I get worried, this time I think someone broke into my house, I go downstairs to figure out what’s happening, and I realize it’s a shooting, right outside my house. The next day, the newspapers report that there was a confrontation between the army and drug cartel members which ended with the death of one of the drug hitmen. Hundreds of bullets were fired and two grenades were thrown, as a result some caps were still lying there on the ground. And to make all this even more tragic, some 14 year-old neighbor kids found a grenade in the park (the main site of the confrontation), started to take pictures of it and when they attempted to move it, the grenade exploded. As I write this now, one of them, a grandson of a well known university dean, fights for his life in the local hospital. As much as I’d like to think I’ve been part of a tragedy, I can’t help but to think this is what millions of Mexicans have to face, even if it’s just indirectly. And the more this happens, the more trivial these events become; people talk about shootings here as if they were the weather; it’s just something you can’t change, it’s something that’s there, something you deal with every day.
Everyone here has a story about the drug wars, sometimes it’s a cousin who was run over by a car escaping from the police, or a friend of a friend who was kidnapped and released on the same day (express kidnapping, as it’s known here), or even the most common one: extortion calls in which they call the victim saying they have kidnapped a family member and demanding large amounts of money, ending with the victim paying the ransom only to ultimately finding out none of his family members were kidnapped. Everyone here has been affected by crime,even if it’s just psychologically.
I’ve been in Monterrey less than a week, and I’ve already been dangerously close to two shootings, heard the touching stories of the suffering of other people and spent a considerable amount of money on security, among other things. I don’t have any other choice but to believe this is just a temporary thing, but here, no one else does.