Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

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.”


  1. Great article, this gives insight on what lifes really like for the working class poor, really what chance do the youth have given the harsh lifestyle day after day, I'm praying they don't give up hope and join the criminal gangs.

  2. Take a good look at those government subsidized housing because soon the USA will have entire areas just the same.

  3. “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.”

    No the people that live there make it a Ghetto, not the buildings themselves. If you tolerate and allow crime to spread and your children to grow up to be criminals then you have no one to blame but yourself. Being poor is not an excuse to rob, kill and deal drugs. That excuse has been worn out and personal responsibility needs to be enforced.

  4. @ Aleric 3:56

    It seems that you are applying first world logic to a third world reality. Can you understand that in 15 years the population of Mexico boomed almost by 20 million by conservative estimates. At the same time the primary source of employment growth was that provided by the "great sucking effect" of NAFTA. At that time great for US multinationals and arguably a boom for Mexican workers.

    Now as the world reorganized from Clinton's world view to Bush's that is when things began to spiral out of control for Mexico because of its complete dependence on the US for two things: Mitigate overpopulation by having the US absorb Mexico's most desperate and daring adventrures who immigrated north and Stabilize the economy with an influx of low paying high volume jobs from the US.

    Now a major initiative to repatirate Mexican Nationals has been underway for over four years while the economic downturn in the US severly affacted the social conditions of many low middleclass and poverty stricken Mexicans because of the overwhelming unemployment, (which by American standards would be in the impoverished class down to the downright destitute). Add to that this bonegrinding battle for a lucrative illegal market and trafficking territory which Mexico has become and how can you expect a common, unemployed, essentially abandoned by its government jose blow to have money to initiate a social watch group, fix his roof, invest in an annex to his 2 room government housing shack, let alone pay for a few miserable tortillas?

    The same thing has already happened in Juarez now Monterrey I wonder which city will be next?

  5. Aleric honestly I don't like most of your comments, but on this one I do agree with you.

  6. @ 1:56 they already do man

  7. the magnolia projects

  8. 508. You forgot to explain to me how the hell is it the government's job to do anything for you?! Where, in the world is there a country where the government is expected to do anything for you, let alone provide you with a job or a school? What next, wipe your ass too? If you can't feed yourself, do not have babies. If you can't read, pick up a book, learn, then teach others. Is this what they mean by Mexican'ts? These people need to be asked: Do you like the way you live? If they say no, you should tell them, then do something about it dummy. It has to start somewhere, it has to start with YOU. There's nothing free in this world. Ass, Grass, or Cash, NOBODY rides free. If I was poor as hell and lived next to a guy getting money and providing for his family, you know I'm gonna see what this guy's doing that I'm not doing or doing wrong so I can get that paper and live proper. C'mon people, there's no excuse, not one goddamn to be living like a bum-ass slave.

  9. @ 6:44

    There you go as well with your use of first world logic to resolve a third world issue.

    If you were poor you would NOT be living next to a guy getting money and providing for his family legitimately, point blank. This guy would put a social wall between you and him so insurmountalbe so as to make it practically impossible for you to have the connections which have allowed him get to the point he is at in the socio-economic ladder. In fact it would be something that you are completely oblivious to in experience so much so that your possibly-post-graduate mentality would not be able to process.

    If you were living next to a guy that was illegitemately getting money and providing for his family, well then you got what is happening in Mexico right now and you would be part of the problem.

    Please, next time don't think that you hold all the answers just because YOU got it made. By the way thanks for giving me yet another insight into an ignorance that only people like you are capable of being proud of.

  10. @ September 19, 2011 5:08 PM You are a really smart guy but just for you to know 16 million is not almost 20 million ok. U.S in 15 years went from 278 million to 312 million thats 34 million and we don't go around saying almost 40 million.

  11. Government is not the problem, nor are the buildings. Americans built America. Mexicans should retake Mexico.

  12. @4:13

    Prior to the mass exile of Ciudad Juarez residents from the city during a relatively prosperous time about five years ago the city was oficially estimated at about 1.8 million but by most unnofficial and more local estimates the figure was widely accepted at anywhere from 2.5 million to 3 million. So take that differnce and multiply it by the handflul of northern big cities in Mexico and then add that to all the unreported population growth that actually took place in Mexico during the time in question and it would still be a conserative estimate.

    The reason that you can't go around over estimating your population growth is becasue to do so would by to acknowledge that American institutions are incompetent, something that many in this case would by careful not to do. Mexicans have no problem with this since for generations Mexican institution have proven to be incompetent for the majority of the population and only effective for a much smaller minority of its citizens.

    Does that answer your tangential question?

  13. 832 why don't you just admit you want the government to do everything for you, you communist. What they need is a revolution, and not a communist revolution before you start salivating.


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