Outwardly, life seems normal; but as drug war kidnappings, extortion, and violence brush closer to the average citizen, experts say, the mental terrain looks like post-traumatic stress.
By Sara Miller Lana, Staff writer, Photos by Alfredo Sosa, Staff photographer / December 3, 2011 THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
The sights and sounds of firefight in a Veracruz neighborhood captured by a Imagen del Golfo reporter caught in the crossfire.
It was not a stifling evening, so Carolina Gomez, a pretty and petite kindergarten teacher in this Gulf coast city, turned off her air-conditioning unit and slid open the window over her bed. The tropical breeze lulled her to sleep by 11 p.m.
But not three hours later, she was jolted awake by a rumbling, like rocks being dumped on asphalt. As her head cleared, alarm dawned: The air of her neat middle-class neighborhood was thick with automatic weapons fire and explosions.
Wishing she could hide under her bed, she lay immobile, partly due to a sprained ankle she was nursing and partly assessing her fears: How close was the shooting? Could bullets stray into her window? Worse, could a fleeing gunman enter her home, her bedroom?
Her cellphone rang: It was her parents in the room next door. "Are you OK? Stay put," they advised.
Next, they placed a call to their son, Enrique, who lives on the ground floor of a two-story apartment building next door. "Get in your bathroom," they told him, because there are no windows there.
He and his new wife crouched for 40 minutes on the tiled floor as gunfire continued to pierce the air, interrupted finally by the arrival of authorities in helicopters flying so low that Carolina's father, Sergio, says he saw one pilot's face through his window.
Even now, six months later, the bullet-pocked commercial street six blocks from the Gomez home is a testament to the collateral damage of the drug war – the imprint of fear on ordinary lives and what it can do to the civic fabric, from choices as simple as changing shopping habits to changing the nation's presidential politics.
A culmination of months of creeping insecurity, the April shootout here was a defining moment for the extended Gomez family: They began arranging an escape – to immigrate to Spain.
The family agreed to explore their experience with the Monitor if they could use pseudonyms they felt would assure their safety.
The shootout itself seems almost statistically ordinary in a nation that in 2010 saw 14 mayors assassinated, a surge in kidnappings and extortion acknowledged by the government, and cautionary beheadings become a new standard of criminal threat.
Indeed, here in Veracruz it was hardly the first time Carolina had had a brush with violence; and it wouldn't be the last. In the past 22 months, a corpse was left outside her school, family members of her kindergarten students have been kidnapped, and she had to undergo security training in how to survive in the event of a shootout at the school.
"But," she explains, "it was the first time I did not feel safe in my bed. I used to go to sleep with confidence. I have become totally convinced that there is not a single safe place in Veracruz."
It's a new prism through which an increasing number of Mexicans see their world. The fight against organized crime, begun by Mexican President Felipe Calderón when he took office in December 2006, has cost more than 40,000 lives. The government maintains that 90 percent of victims are rival traffickers.
But there is a growing sense – especially as violence spreads to new parts of the country like Veracruz – that there is another kind of victim. Most Mexicans are not direct targets – traffickers, public officials, police, journalists. They do not figure into any official violence tallies, but many feel that they are more than mere bystanders. They have been forced to change how they live: how they commute to work, how they travel, what they do in the evenings, how they dress, and how they socialize.
Even if they are not directly affected, "people are experiencing terror from this world of death and violence," says Raúl Villamil Uriarte, a social psychologist and anthropologist at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City. "The nation is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from all this violence playing out."
The 'cockroach effect'
President Calderón's drug war strategy, which unleashed 45,000 military troops to loosen the grip of organized crime in the most-affected municipalities – such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, and more recently Acapulco and here in Veracruz – has had some formidable success. In July, the government boasted that its campaign had taken down 21 of the 37 most-wanted drug traffickers.
But violence has exploded. Drug-related homicides surged from 2,826 in 2007 to 15,273 last year, according to government data.
And while Mexico's homicide rate is lower than those of some countries in the region, like El Salvador and Honduras, it is the type of violence that sets this nation apart. It is decapitations and bodies dangling from bridges with warning notes, or the grenade thrown into a plaza in Michoacán's capital, Morelia, in September 2008. And it is massacres such as that of 13 Juárez high school students and two adults gunned down at a birthday party in January 2010; a car bomb that killed four and wounded more than a dozen in Juárez in July 2010; 72 bullet-riddled bodies of migrants found at a ranch in August 2010; a casino attack in the industrial city of Monterrey in broad daylight last August in which gunmen burst in and set fire to the building, killing 52 people.
The government maintains that its pressure on illicit groups has caused them to splinter, creating more havoc, a temporary but necessary byproduct of the fight.
It is true that most of the violence is contained: 80 percent of all homicides took place in 162 of Mexico's more than 2,400 municipalities, a national security spokesman said in August 2010. While urban violence abounds in Mexico City, the nation's capital, it is not the gang-on-gang gore that makes international headlines. And tourists can book hotels in Cancún and US retirees can nest in towns around Lake Chapala in Jalisco with little sense something is askew.
But the "cockroach effect" – narcotraffickers on the run, regrouping and scurrying to new redoubts – has created a more diffuse, and in many ways more dangerous, violence. Drug battles now crop up in places unaccustomed to them, like Veracruz and Monterrey. And today, fractured groups desperate for cash turn to other illicit activities beyond the transport of narcotics.
"The general population is not worried about drug trafficking. They are worried about kidnapping and extortion and the kinds of activities that impact their lives," says Raúl Benitez, a security expert at National Autonomous University in Mexico City who carried out a study on how behavior has changed in various states because of drug violence.
'Dirty belly' survival
Schoolchildren in Saltillo, Coahuila experience "dirty belly" survival during a shootout in October of this year. Like Veracruz, Saltillo is another comfortable colonial city that has fallen victim to Mexico's drug war.
For the Gomez family, it all began two years ago in the form of rumors in Veracruz of gunmen closing down discos, small businesses being extorted, and kidnappings. Sergio – who raised his three children in small-town, inland Veracruz State before moving to this coastal city a decade ago so they could attend university – told his grown children not to stay out late.
They made other small adjustments. Sergio's Saturday night dinners with his wife and friends got relocated to their homes, instead of restaurants. Enrique took "mom" and "dad" off his cellphone, instead using their middle names, in case he was kidnapped. And, in case anyone was listening, they began to refer to drug traffickers as los malos – "the bad guys" – instead of by the name of the major group operating here, the Zetas.
Still, they weren't overly concerned. Violence seemed to be directed at los malos or the rich, says Sergio, a ranching-related services professional who has invested in small real estate holdings and is solidly middle-class.
Yet over the months, the rumors became realities quietly coiling around them like a noose.
"First it was a cousin's friend, then a co-worker's mother-in-law, then your mother's friend's son. Every day it was getting closer and closer," says Carolina.
Her life, the family agrees, is the most affected, because she has the largest network of friends and works at a private school. It was there that she saw her first corpse, left on a grassy patch in front of the school's tidy facade last year. It was there that the director disclosed last spring that five parents of students had been kidnapped in the course of one month. And the school is where she sees signs of a nascent exodus: Families began uprooting to move to Cancún, the United States, and other places, just as her extended family now is planning.
Carolina even perceives the change through the play of her 4-year-old students, recalling the day one of them tugged at her shirt saying, "Ms. Gomez, Ms. Gomez, the boy with the dirty belly wins."
"What?" she asked, perplexed.
The little boy repeated himself.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"When there is a shootout, the boy must drop to the floor," the child explained.
"You used to see what happened in Afghanistan and say, 'poor Afghanis,' " says Enrique, Carolina's brother. "Now it is right here."
Marimbas and mobsters
Veracruz is a fun-loving city, hot and humid, where musicians on the central plaza strike their wooden marimbas as giant ships at the busy port in the background offload everything from Volkswagens to beef.
Narcotraffickers also have long used the port and the highway system here that winds from the Yucatán Peninsula along the Gulf coast. Yet the dealings around the trade rarely affected the average citizen's life.
But when the Gulf Cartel and its enforcers – the Zetas – splintered in 2010, the latter took over the Veracruz turf. The Zetas, made up of former elite military members – are perceived as the most ruthless of the gangs, kidnapping migrants and extorting regular citizens.
"As the authorities have combated groups in other regions of the country, it has provoked their moves to other states and regions, like ours," says Gina Dominguez, the spokesperson for the Veracruz State governor.
Mexico is no stranger to violence. The dirty war of the 1960s and '70s; unsolved, ongoing mass murders of women in Ciudad Juárez since the '90s; and violence between criminals that predates Calderón's strategy have marred Mexico's modern history. And yet, while those along the US-Mexican border are hardened by years of violence between groups trying to secure lucrative drug routes into the US, Veracruz residents were largely caught by surprise when things began to deteriorate.
Many do not see this as a neatly defined fight between rivals.
"Between bad against bad is civil society," says a priest in Veracruz, who for the past six months has canceled evening masses and all evening activities for his congregation.
Luis Alberto Martin, the head of the Veracruz branch of the national business association Coparmex, says that a new climate is reflected among his own 500 members. Local businesses have reported at least 39 cases of extortion and four kidnappings since January. (The numbers, he believes, are much higher because, as a recent census survey indicated, 92 percent of crimes go unreported.) Just since September, 82 Coparmex members have hired private security personnel for their families. A company that sells security alarms reports that sales have gone up by 76 percent. Another company reports sales of 110 bulletproof vehicles since July, a record.
"For a harmonious city like Veracruz, this is scandalous," Mr. Martin says.
What "scandalous" means, however, is fraught with political sensitivities and contradictions.
When US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton compared drug violence in Mexico to an "insurgency" in September 2010, she was lambasted in Mexico. Yet after the Monterrey casino massacre, Calderón called the at-tackers "terrorists." ("We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits," he said.)
No one interviewed for this article considered today's drug violence in Mexico terrorism. In fact, all were adamant that it is not. But violence has cowed many Mexicans, particularly in the zones of highest conflict, says Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert in organized crime at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) in Mexico City.
"In some cities, people have become captive in their own houses, without going out to the street," he says. "The patterns of social and economic interaction have been drastically changed in many Mexican cities, not just small towns."
That might mean placing bars over windows, no longer going out at night, or opting not to visit friends or family in other parts of the country.
In a national survey headed by Mr. Benitez, the security expert, 80 percent of those surveyed say they worry often about drug trafficking violence; 61 percent have stopped going out at night; 30 percent no longer drive the state or national highways because of fear of drug trafficking violence; 22 percent have quit going to public events like concerts or sport events. (Even that poll was affected by the violence: Pollsters were briefly kidnapped in the state of Guerrero.)
Benitez says habits vary greatly depending on location. For example, in the state of Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is, 53 percent of respondents said they no longer go out to eat, compared with 18 percent in Jalisco.
In a shootout: Tweet; walk, don't crawl.
Aparecen 3 personas ejecutadas atrás de las instalaciones de la ganadera de Ylang Ylang con mensaje twitpic.com/7ggj9w #veracruz
Twitter post on BalaceraVER warning of a triple execution in Veracruz. The message on the TwitPic image reportedly read: ”Sigan mandando más gente y así van a quedar “mugrosos”. Para los que piensan que ya nos fuimos, aquí andamos: Atte. Mata Zetas”
(Keep on sending more people and they'll continue this way "disgusting". For those who think we left, we are still here...sincerely, MataZetas)
In Veracruz, Carolina's lifestyle has changed dramatically. Some of it she calls practical, some she recognizes might verge on paranoia.
The first thing she did after the shootout in her neighborhood was sign up for a Twitter account, where by punching in #VerFollow residents are updated on the latest shootouts, military patrols, or any other suspicious activity someone feels the public should know about.
She checked #VerFollow so often – about 10 times a day, she says, before going to work, between tutoring jobs, and on her way home – that she purchased a BlackBerry. Today when anything big happens – like the grenade hurled steps from the city's iconic aquarium – she calls both her husband and father.
"The thing I worry the most about is getting stuck in the middle of it," she says.
Social media has become an important tool in many violent parts of Mexico because the nation has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for traditional journalists – 34 were assassinated between 2007 and 2010 – who self-censor. One reporter in Veracruz, who doesn't use a byline and didn't want to be named in this story, explains that he worries about the limits of freedom of expression but says that he sees no other option. "Some people call us cowards," he says. "People from outside can come in. But here they know us; they can identify us. I have lived my whole life here."
In that absence, the influence of Twitter and Facebook has soared, a point underscored on a Thursday in August when information circulated on both sites that children would be kidnapped from schools by the Zetas. Parents stopped what they were doing and, running red lights, headed to their children's schools.
Miguel Angel Matiano, a local union leader, was at a hospital visiting one of his members, when a friend called him about the threat: "I dropped what I was doing and fled." He brought his two children home and kept them there until the following Monday. "It was like a horror movie from the US."
As Carolina recounts that day – taking children in her school one by one to their parents, focusing on her breathing so she wouldn't break down or show fear – it is the only time she tears up.
Teachers in Mexico are among the innocent victims in this fight. In other parts of the country, like Acapulco and Ciudad Juárez, drug gangs have threatened to extort them. In Veracruz, rumors spread after the school incident that Zetas also wanted to kidnap teachers, perhaps because they are a bridge to students.
Whether the rumors are true or not, Carolina's school requires that the staff no longer wear clothes bearing the logo, and they've been told to take all references to place of employment off Facebook pages. The school also hired a specialist from Monterrey to give security training: If a bullet comes through a window, it comes in at an angle, so teachers should herd their students behind an imaginary line in each classroom; and counterintuitive as it may seem, if there is a shootout, children should stand and walk briskly away, not crawl on the ground, because crawling makes a slower-moving target.
Carolina refused to drive to school alone in the days following the social media scare. It's not practical for her husband to drop her off, so she came up with a palliative measure for her fear: She leaves her school ID at home and keeps two stacks of fliers for a water company in her back seat so that, if stopped, she can claim she works for a water company, not a school.
When winning is losing
There is definitely a growing public weariness that is affecting Calderón politically. The largest national movement was started this year by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered along with friends in Cuernavaca, outside Mexico City. Less than half of Mexicans believe the government is making progress against organized crime, and 29 percent believe it is actually losing ground, according to a September poll by the Pew Research Center. Indeed, many believe criminal elements have the upper hand: When Mexico's interior minister was killed in a plane crash in November the government immediately had to go on the defensive to persuade citizens it was not because of foul play.
Political foes call for the complete withdrawal of troops from the streets. Former President Vicente Fox, of Calderón's party, polemically called for the government to consider a truce with drug traffickers. Perhaps most worrisome to Calderón is the political speculation that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held power for 71 years, is poised to retake the presidency in 2012, in part because Mexicans are looking for change in their violent nation.
Drug trafficking existed under the PRI, which is widely accused of cooperating with criminals instead of prosecuting them. "Organized crime used to be managed by a very strong authoritarian state," says Mr. Buscaglia, the ITAM organized crime expert. With the transition to democracy, they were left without a rule book. "They went from being managed to being the manager."
That has corrupted Mexican institutions more than those of other countries with organized crime problems, says Buscaglia, who does comparative research on the issue from Italy, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Russia, among others. "They compete to capture little pieces of the state, like piranhas," he says. "In Italy, during the worst years of the mafia, they had judges investigating organized crime and investigating politicians.... It makes a huge difference; the amount of state capture is limited."
Though Mexicans complain of escalating violence and are expected to vote the National Action Party out of power over the issue in 2012 presidential elections, the population still widely supports that party's strategy in using the military to fight the drug war. A Pew survey showed 83 percent continuing that effort. And despite Mr. Sicilia's protests, nationally there has been no widespread backlash.
Calderón's strategy has been multipronged. He has pushed through judicial reform, with states in the process of transforming closed-door judgments into oral trials in part to reduce impunity that stands at about 98 percent. He has sought to re-create a trustworthy police apparatus by unifying commands. (Census surveys show state police have no credibility with a majority of the population; and entire police units in some municipalities have been disbanded for collaborating with traffickers.)
But many critics say he has focused too much attention on the military and not enough on these underlying structural and institutional problems.
Buscaglia says that corruption has infiltrated 71 percent of the nation's municipalities, and that the judicial system and police apparatus are widely co-opted. He says Mexico has also failed to seize illegitimate revenue from companies or go after the political class.
By just throwing more soldiers and police at the drug trafficking problem, without rooting out corruption, he says, it is simply creating a greater pool of people to be co-opted by traffickers "and it increases the violence."
Calderón launched this strategy without fully realizing what he was up against, suggests Eduardo Valle, a former high-level adviser to the federal attorney general. "They did not have a proper diagnostic of the problem," he says. "[Organized crime] has been penetrating the government and state for years, and now we are at the explosion point."
But, Mr. Valle says, the only way ahead is forward. "The federal government had to confront this," he says. "And there is no way back."
The tipping point for Veracruz came in September – a month that business association chief Martin calls "the worst since Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico."
In the middle of afternoon rush hour, a van-load of 35 bodies was dumped on a highway underpass in full view of customers at a high-end shopping mall and cinema complex as well as passing commuters. Carolina was one who happened to drive right past on the way to her tutoring job.
And 14 more bodies were found days later as top state and federal prosecutors gathered in the city for a convention. Amid the chaos, a group emerged on YouTube to take credit for the killings. They call themselves the "Zetas Killers," and suddenly Veracruz was faced with the prospect of a paramilitary force operating in the state. "We are anonymous warriors, without faces, proudly Mexican," a man says on YouTube.
Tired of violence, some locals quietly support the Zetas Killers. Sergio gives them a "thumbs up."
But the state has quickly professed no tolerance. "The state will apply the laws that govern, not [support] any groups that want a parallel state," says Ms. Dominguez at the governor's office.
The Mexican Navy, which coordinates the drug fight in the state of Veracruz, has dismissed them as a rival drug group posing as vigilantes. Similar groups have emerged in other parts of the country claiming to be protectors of the people, but they've also been dismissed by the government as drug traffickers playing on the fears of the population.
In the wake of controversy and confusion in Veracruz, Calderón lamented publicly that Veracruz had been left in the hands of the Zetas. He announced Operation Secure Veracruz on Oct. 4, tripling the number of troops in the state to 1,500.
In search of 'innocence' and a dance beat
But will troops – more of the same strategy – make a difference?
Residents – from the Gomez family, to the priest, the union leader, the journalist, the state governor's spokesperson, and the business leader – all support their arrival and say Veracruz is already safer.
But will this splinter the drug traffickers and spread crime to another locale? And how can they be sure it won't return?
For Sergio, the sound of Navy helicopters overhead is not solace enough to make him trust that safer days are ahead. He plans to leave Veracruz, something he has contemplated over the years but an idea that turned into action in the midst of violence.
There is not a mass exodus from Veracruz, at least one that officials can demonstrate, but in Ciudad Juárez, where the drug war was stubbornly centered for most of 2009 and 2010, locals have counted thousands of "refugees" leaving the city for El Paso, Texas, and other places in the US, by counting abandoned houses and boarded-up businesses, among other parameters.
Six months ago Sergio put a property he owns up for sale, in hope of profiting enough to relocate to Spain with his wife first, and have the children follow later. Part of the draw, apart from the cultural experience, is a return to freer times.
"In Spain, you can walk at any time of night by foot. In car, you can take the highway," says Sergio, who has yet to sell the building because, he thinks, violence has dampened the market. In the past he has always dealt directly with clients; this time, to avoid extortion or kidnapping, he is going through a middleman and has implored that his name not be used in any advertisements or communications with potential buyers until it comes time to sign legal documents.
It is "innocence" that Carolina also says she longs for. On the face of it, her life is not dramatically different. She goes to the movies with her new husband or they watch them in their room, strewn with clothes and shoes, at her parents' home, where they are living to save money. She feels grateful that she works in the job she has wanted to do since she was in elementary school. She goes out to dinner with friends and their kids.
And yet, the little changes mount to cast a shadow over her quality of life. She says that when she goes to a restaurant, she always makes a mental note of how to exit. (Her 18-year-old cousin was recently at a restaurant and had to dive for cover under the table as a shootout erupted.) Carolina says the last time she went to a bar was last spring. She chooses not to dress in short skirts or wear much makeup anymore. She doesn't want to draw needless attention.
She says she can't seem to shake the intensity of noise from the shootout near her house, something that returns to her each time she hears a loud noise on the street.
From time to time, she has nightmares. The most recent involved a gunman bursting into her school and taking three children.
What does she miss most?
"I would just love to go to a disco," she says, simply. "I need to feel the punchis, punchis, punchis," she says, to the beat of her favorite techno music. "But at this risk? I do not feel it is worth it."