Link to Reuters article.
By Robin Emmott
MONTERREY, Mexico | Wed Jan 12, 2011 11:24am EST
(Reuters) – Drug gangs fighting over Mexico’s richest city have launched a wave of attacks against police and rivals since New Year’s Eve, crushing hopes of a fall in violence and alarming business leaders.
Firing automatic weapons and grenade launchers, brazen hitmen in Monterrey have killed at least 10 police officers and shot up police stations, attacked a prison, killed bystanders, and threatened local journalists in a burst of violence across the city that was once known as one of Latin America’s safest.
In a sign that a two-month period of relative calm has ended in the city that has close U.S. business ties, drug gangs hung the half-naked body of a woman from a bridge on December 31, the most gruesome act since 51 bodies were found in a mass grave just outside the city last July.
“We’re on alert, we’re ready for these kind of criminal attacks against the authorities,” Nuevo Leon state Governor Rodrigo Medina, the top regional official, told reporters this week. “We have to be ready for a difficult scenario.”
The jump in violence in Monterrey, where annual income per head is double Mexico’s average at $17,000, is a major worry for President Felipe Calderon as foreign companies question the safety of doing business in the area.
A U.S. executive was abducted, beaten and robbed of his armored car in Monterrey last week, U.S. security consultancy Stratfor said, although police declined to comment.
Home to global cement maker Cemex, top Latin American drinks company Femsa and foreign factories including General Electric and Whirlpool Corp, the region generates 8 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product.
Monterrey’s slide into violence is one of the most dramatic developments in Calderon’s war. The city and the surrounding state of Nuevo Leon reported 610 drug killings in 2010, by far the worst ever for the region, although national security spokesman Alejandro Poire said on Monday violence was systematically falling due to government efforts.
More than 30,000 people have died in drug violence across Mexico since Calderon sent the army to fight the cartels in December 2006. The government says the bloodshed is a sign the gangs are weakening, but business leaders and rights groups worry the strategy has backfired, sparking an endless stream of revenge killings that is spilling out across the country.
Lauded by then U.S. President George W. Bush in 2002 as a model for poor countries, Monterrey is seeing business and tourism suffer while some investors are freezing investment.
Some wealthy residents have fled to cities such as Houston, and while no exact figures are available, demand for so-called U.S. immigrant investor visas, which require Mexicans to make up to $1 million investments in the United States, are surging. “We are talking about an exodus,” said Jose Cornide, a private wealth advisor who helps applicants with the process.
No big foreign companies have pulled out of Nuevo Leon because of the violence, but some executives are holding back on investments and companies are spending 5 percent of cash flow on security, a cost that was nonexistent a few years ago.
Monterrey, a city of around 4 million people some 140 miles from the border with Texas, is prized by drug gangs as a money laundering center, as a strategic hub for narcotics distribution and for its kidnapping rackets. With its sleek highways, posh restaurants and private universities, it is a place for drug capos and their families to live unnoticed.
A cartel alliance wants to flush out the Zetas gang, led by former elite soldiers who switched sides to join organized crime in the 1990s, and argue this would end the violence.
[Fulano’s note: See Fulano’s earlier blog on Monterrey here.]
Here is the Stratfor report on the kidnapped American executive in Monterrey:
A heavily armed group kidnapped a U.S. citizen early the morning of Jan. 4 in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, in an incident apparently not yet reported in open source media in Mexico. The victim, who reportedly worked for a U.S.-based company with operations in Monterrey, apparently was driving a company-issued armored luxury vehicle at the time of the kidnapping, according to STRATFOR sources.
The victim was traveling through Monterrey when up to three vehicles blocked his passage. The attackers’ first vehicle, which had local Mexican law enforcement markings and lights, cut the victim off from the front, while a second vehicle blocked the victim’s vehicle from the rear. According to STRATFOR sources, a third vehicle then blocked the victim’s vehicle from the side, leaving him boxed in against the curb.
At this point, an unknown number of heavily armed assailants emerged from the vehicles and approached the victim. The victim was quickly removed from his vehicle and placed in one of the attacker’s vehicles.
The victim was severely beaten during the ordeal, and was released later in the evening in the nearby city of Escobedo, Nuevo Leon state, just north of Monterrey. No ransom was demanded, indicating that the attackers’ main objective was stealing the armored luxury vehicle.
Armored cars are especially sought-after items by organized crime elements, who see them as offering safety. Multinational corporations sometimes share this view of armored cars, despite problems emerging from a lack of training in their use. As with any luxury vehicle, driving an armored luxury vehicle significantly raised the U.S. citizen’s profile, thereby making him or her a target for such an operation.
This operation demanded at least minimal pre-operational surveillance of the victim’s routes and routine. The tactics the kidnappers demonstrated show that they were highly trained.
Initial reports indicate that at least some, if not all, of the assailants involved in the Jan. 4 incident were members or former members of the local municipal police departments in Escobedo or San Nicolas. Los Zetas have routinely employed municipal officers in these areas for this type of activity.
STRATFOR has been anticipating an escalation in kidnappings in the Monterrey area. This is due to the large concentration of wealth in the region and to the defensive posture the Zetas have had to assume due to their ongoing conflict with the New Federation in the Monterrey area.
The rise in kidnappings in Monterrey over the past six months has alarmed the U.S. diplomatic community there, forcing the departure of all minor dependants of all U.S. diplomatic personnel from the region.
The incident shows the Zetas are in fact focusing on kidnapping operations in the region. With an apparent new push by the New Federation to target Los Zetas’ support network (mainly local police and journalists working for the Zetas), a continuation of this trend is likely, as Los Zetas seek additional funds and resources to combat the New Federation offensive.
This attack also underscores the need to maintain a minimal profile in contested criminal environments in Mexico such as Monterrey and to employ the use of countersurveillance techniques such as surveillance detection routes and varying routines and routes, as the attacker likely keyed in on the victim’s daily routine.