Detective Ramon Jasso was heading to work in this bustling city a few days ago when an SUV pulled alongside and slowed ominously. Within seconds, gunmen fired 97 bullets at the 37-year-old policeman, killing him instantly.
Mr. Jasso had been warned. The day before, someone called his cellphone and said he would be killed if he didn't immediately release a young man who had been arrested for organizing a violent protest in support of the city's drug gangs. The demonstrators were demanding that the Mexican army withdraw from the drug war. The protests have since spread from Monterrey – once a model of order and industry – to five other cities.
"We are at war," says Aldo Fasci, a good-looking lawyer who is the top police official for Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is the capital. "The gangs have taken over the border, our highways and our cops. And now, with these protests, they are trying to take over our cities."
The parallels between Pakistan and Mexico are strong enough that the U.S. military singled them out recently as the two countries where there is a risk the government could suffer a swift and catastrophic collapse, becoming a failed state.
Pakistan is the greater worry because the risk of collapse is higher and because it has nuclear weapons. But Mexico is also scary: It has 100 million people on the southern doorstep of the U.S., meaning any serious instability would flood the U.S. with refugees. Mexico is also the U.S.'s second biggest trading partner.
Canada is the US's largest trade partner.
"We have a serious problem. The drug gangs have penetrated many institutions. But we're not talking about an institutional collapse. That is wrong," says Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora.
It's scary to read of my beloved Mexico being in such a precarious state, yet perhaps there is too much of a tendency for hyperbole. I do hope so.
Officials in both Washington and Mexico City also say the rising violence has a silver lining: It means that after decades of complicity or ignoring the problem, the Mexican government is finally cracking down on the drug cartels and forcing them to fight back or fight with one another for turf. One telling statistic: In the first three years of President Felipe Calderon's six-year term, Mexico's army has had 153 clashes with drug gangs. In the six years of his predecessor Vicente Fox's term, there were only 16."
Calderon is showing toughness, certainly, and resiliency.
"The Mexican state is in danger," says Gerardo Priego, a deputy from Mr. Calderon's ruling center-right party, known as the PAN. "We are not yet a failed state, but if we don't take action soon, we will become one very soon."
The number of weapons confiscated last year from drug gangs in Mexico could arm the entire army of El Salvador, by one estimate. Where do most of the weapons come from? The U.S.
Could not find the size of El Salvador's army, but did notice that 1.6 million people are available for service, and that the country uses 5% of its GDP for military expenditures (vs. 4.06% in the US).
Jorge, clean cut and with an infectious smile, has been a state cop for more than 20 years. He earns 6,000 pesos – $450 – a month. It's an old saw in Mexico that police here don't make enough money to either resist being corrupted by the criminals or care enough to risk their lives going after them. In fact, corruption extends throughout the police forces. A senior state official said privately that he doesn't trust a single local police commander.
Jorge accompanied the reporter. 6,000 pesos a month?
Both the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartels are believed to field as many as 10,000 gunmen each – the size of a small army. The Zetas, for instance, can find fresh recruits easily in Monterrey's tough barrios, where the unemployment rate is high.