Marcelo Garza Y Garza didn't want a lot of security around when he went out with his family one night last fall. Like most residents of Monterrey--a modern, U.S.-friendly metropolis in northern Mexico--Garza believed his city was still one of the safest in the country. But Garza was the top criminal investigator for the border state Nuevo León. That made him a marked man not just to the drug lords who had moved into Monterrey's posh suburbs but also to certain members of the local security services who, police say, have been recruited as hit men for drug cartels, earning as much as $15,000 for each kill.
Garza went to a children's art exhibit that night at a church in San Pedro, a wealthy suburb of Monterrey. As he stepped out for a moment with his daughter to take a cell-phone call, a gunman shot him repeatedly in the head with a semiautomatic pistol. A witness testified that the triggerman was left-handed--leading investigators to suspect Israel Ibarra, a rogue member of the suburb's élite SWAT unit, police sources say. But before police could arrest Ibarra, he was eliminated by another narco gunman. Like most of the more than 100 other drug-related killings that have occurred in or near Monterrey since Garza's death, the case remains unsolved.
This year Mexico as a whole has logged more than 1,300 drug-related murders, well on pace to eclipse the 2,000 of 2006. The atrocities would seem more familiar south of Baghdad than south of the border: mass executions, contract shootings carried out at funerals and ghastly videotaped beheadings posted on the Internet while victims' heads are tossed into the streets. Mexicans have long held the view that drug traffickers kill only one another, but the latest surge in violence is claiming a broader range of victims, including police, businesspeople, journalists and politicians. "Now people realize these animals finish off innocent lives as well as one another," says Fernando Margáin, San Pedro's mayor.
The security meltdown has sparked concern in Washington. Mexico's $25 billion- a-year drug-trafficking industry moves at least 75% of the Colombian cocaine that enters the U.S. Law-enforcement officials fear drug violence is spilling into the U.S. and sending more Mexicans across the border illegally. "Whenever something impacts the border as dangerously as this does," says a high-ranking U.S. law-enforcement official, "Americans need to consider it a national-security issue." Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has pledged to "give no quarter" to the cartels, has deployed 25,000 army troops to battle them--but to limited effect. The narcos aren't shy about attacking military barracks, and Mexican soldiers, who have a long history of human-rights abuses, are often mistrusted by locals. Officials in both countries expect that when President George W. Bush meets with Calderón in Quebec on Aug. 20-21, the leaders will unveil an antidrug aid package for Mexico totaling at least $500 million, including advanced crime-fighting technologies and Black Hawk helicopters.
Why is Mexico's drug war worsening? Democracy may be one culprit. As countries like Russia know, democratic transitions often create power vacuums that benefit organized crime. Under the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the drug cartels were tolerated but regulated by party bosses. After the PRI's 71-year rule ended in 2000, the government took steps to dismantle the cartels, only to watch them atomize into smaller but more sinister gangs. The most vicious is the Zetas, a 2,000-member army led by ex-commandos hired by the border-based Gulf Cartel because of their military skills. The Zetas recently recruited ex-members of an infamous Guatemalan-army commando unit, the Kaibiles, which is believed to be responsible for the growing use of beheading as a terrorizing tactic. "That militarization of Mexican drug trafficking was a watershed," says Sergio Aguayo, a public-security expert at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. "It raised the violence far beyond what anyone ever imagined."
Nowhere is the drug war's resurgence more stunning than in Monterrey, a city of 3 million where 1,200 U.S. businesses have major operations. As recently as 2005, the global consulting firm Mercer ranked it Latin America's second safest city (behind San Juan, Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory). But then the Zetas arrived. They terrorized the border by day and retired by night to garish mansions in Monterrey and suburbs like San Pedro, not far from the city's business nobility. "No one wanted to admit that we'd become a dormitory for drug lords," says Monterrey publisher Ramón Alberto Garza, head of the online newsmagazine Reporte Indigo.
Even in affluent places like San Pedro, where police salaries are double those of most local and state cops in the rest of Mexico, drug kingpins can be attractive employers. Some San Pedro officers have been spotted moonlighting as security guards at Zetas' homes, police sources say. A rival cartel, the Sinaloa mafia, has countered by recruiting members of San Pedro's SWAT unit. More than 200 police officers in Monterrey and Nuevo León have been either arrested or investigated for involvement in organized crime this year. "We never imagined the penetration of drug trafficking in our society was this vast," says San Pedro's Margáin.
Calderón insists that the U.S.'s voracious demand for drugs--as well as the deluge of U.S. guns being smuggled into Mexico--is the key factor driving the drug war. But inside Mexico, security experts say the only long-term solution is to clean up the police culture. This month Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, who recently replaced 284 federal police commanders, ordered federal and state officers to undergo training courses with U.S., Canadian and European experts. Many cities and states have announced pay raises of as much as 40% to dissuade cops from joining the narcos. In San Pedro, Margáin has created trusts to finance better housing and benefits for police, and he'll spend $500,000 this year to give them heavier weapons, like AR-15 automatic rifles. "Mexico has no choice," he says, "but to start treating police with more human dignity."
But until then, the daily lives of many Mexicans will remain laden with fear. On a recent Friday night, scores of regiomontanos, as Monterrey residents are known, crowded into the upscale bistros and cafés of San Pedro. Then the rumors began circulating on cell phones and BlackBerrys: gunfights had broken out again in local restaurants and nightclubs. Almost immediately the cafés emptied, and the streets were clogged with frantic regiomontanos racing in their Lexuses and BMWs to save their kids from the cross fire.