Monday, September 19, 2011

Monterrey neighborhood epitomizes drug war woes

Residencial San Miguel is one of hundreds of inexpensive housing projects built across Mexico in the past 15 years as its population soared. Photo: Keith Dannemiller/Special To The Houston Chronicle / ©2011 Keith Dannemiller

By:Dudley Althaus
Houston Chronicle

RESIDENCIAL SAN MIGUEL, Mexico — A social reckoning festers in this maw of sun-baked, two-room homes tethered to Monterrey's outlying scrublands.

Tucked behind a U.S.-owned Hershey's chocolate factory and beside a fetid slaughterhouse, most of the thousands of homes in 4-year-old Residencial San Miguel already crumble. Many stand deserted, sacked of everything of value.

The neighborhood straddles the frontier between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas gangs, which are warring for control of Monterrey. Gunshots often punctuate the night. Heavily armed police convoys patrol like an occupying army.

Working-poor families wedged into San Miguel's houses — and the thousands more that ring Monterrey — suffer both the criminal bands and serve as their labor pool, some say.

As Monterrey's despairing business leaders struggle to right their foundering city, these communities wink like beacons too often ignored.

“We took a long time to awaken,” said prominent businessman Jorge Garcia-Segovia, who is leading efforts to build a Boys and Girls Club that's given the task of rescuing some of San Miguel's thousands of children.

San Miguel is but one of hundreds of inexpensive housing projects, and millions of homes, thrown up across Mexico in the past 15 years as the country's population jumped from 96 to 112 million.

Despite rapid industrialization and some income gains, half of Mexicans remain poor, many desperately so. These massive developments — threadbare hinterland cities of 40,000 people and more — are meant for them.

Financed with workers' savings accounts and federal credits, and built on cheap land chosen by construction companies and pliable city councils, the houses sell for as little as $15,000. Their owners bring home perhaps $5,000 a year.

“You well know that housing is legacy, it's security, it's quality of life for families,” President Felipe Calderón says in a television spot trumpeting the housing as a government accomplishment. “It's the place you want to see your children play, study, grow and be happy.”

The new houses come with electricity, tap water, sewage systems and paved streets, in many ways a dramatic improvement over haphazardly built poorer communities of the past. In those, families bought a plot of barren land and built cinder block houses a bit at a time.

San Miguel's white and fading pastel houses stand shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back, along treeless streets, like the teeth of a veiled beast. Many measure less than 400 square feet. Officials deem them suitable for families of four or more.

The homes consist of a cramped front room, eating area and kitchen, and an even smaller bedroom. A bathroom is tucked into one corner.

Many homeowners bought without knowing the houses would be located next to the slaughterhouse and livestock pens, whose stench seems to increase with the waning evening heat.

Security bars shield most windows, gang graffiti blight walls. Weeds and trash snarl the few green public spaces and the postage-stamp patios. Idle teens wander the streets.

“They are building ghettos, spaces of violence, abandoned places,” said urban planner Alfonso Trachea, who has served on Mexico's housing council. “It's a national crisis.”

The development has a single two-lane access road. It is miles from downtown Escobedo, the working-class suburb to which it belongs, and a two-hour bus ride from Monterrey's center.

Primary and junior schools have been built in San Miguel over the past several years. Already overwhelmed, they offer classes in separate morning and afternoon shifts. But fewer than 10 percent of ninth-graders go to high school; many drop out earlier, said Rosario de la Rosa, principal of one of San Miguel's two public schools.

“The great majority of them stay at home, or maybe start working,” de la Rosa said of the dropouts. “A lot of the time they're in the street. You don't want to speculate, but what can they do to get money?

“The social base of a child is the family. ... And we have a lot of broken families.”

Escobedo is a one-time ranch town that exploded into an industrial center of more than 400,000 people, at least half living in new, impoverished neighborhoods like San Miguel, Mayor Clara Luz Flores said. Officials have identified at least 170 street gangs in the area.

“The most important crime problems are here,” Flores said. “We need to achieve more integration of youths.”

In June, army troops raided a Gulf Cartel training camp on the slopes of El Frailer Mountains north of San Miguel. Last month, families threw themselves to the floor as gangsters and federal police waged a running gunbattle on San Miguel's western edge.

About half of the more than 900 gangland murders in Nuevo León state this year have been committed in Escobedo and working-class cities ringing Monterrey, according to newspaper El Norte.

The criminal bands find “their raw material here,” said Rafael Mendez, a Catholic priest whose parish serves San Miguel and nearby neighborhoods. “People have given up. They don't believe anything good can happen to them. We have to change that attitude.”

That's the idea of the Boys and Girls Club, pushed jointly by Flores' city hall and Monterrey civic leaders such as businessman Garcia-Segovia. The club will provide after-school sports, classes and activities for as many as 1,000 children ages 6 to 16.

While its construction was underwritten by cement company CEMEX and other Monterrey businesses, keeping the club running will cost as much as $500,000 a year. Garcia-Segovia is begging for sponsors, including in the United States.

“If we had taken care of these 15 years ago, we wouldn't have the 15-year-old criminals now,” he said. “We have to make sure we get these kids out of the streets so they don't join the cartels.”