Special report: If Monterrey falls, Mexico falls

Wed Jun 1, 2011 2:35pm EDT
 
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By Robin Emmott

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - Mario Ramos thought it was a bad joke when he received an anonymous email at the start of this year demanding $15,000 a month to keep his industrial tubing business operating in Monterrey, Mexico's richest city and a symbol of progress in Latin America.

Sitting in his air-conditioned office looking across at sparkling office blocks dotting the mountains on that morning in January, he casually deleted the email as spam.

Six days later, the phone rang and a thickset voice demanded the money. Ramos panicked, hung up and drove to his in-laws' house. It was already late and he had little idea what to do. Then, just after midnight, masked gunmen burst onto his premises, set fire to one of his trucks, shot up his office windows and sprayed a nearby wall with the letter "Z" in black paint, the calling card of Mexico's feared Zetas drug cartel.

"They were asking for money I could never afford," said Ramos by telephone from San Antonio, Texas, where he fled with his family the next day. "I should have taken the threat more seriously, but it was such a shock. I couldn't quite believe this could happen in Monterrey."

In just four years, Monterrey, a manufacturing city of 4 million people 140 miles from the Texan border, has gone from being a model for developing economies to a symbol of Mexico's drug war chaos, sucked down into a dark spiral of gangland killings, violent crime and growing lawlessness.

Since President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led war on the cartels in late 2006, grenade attacks, beheadings, firefights and drive-by killings have surged.

That has shattered this city's international image as a boomtown where captains of industry built steel, cement and beer giants in the desert in less than a century -- Mexico's version of Dallas or Houston.

By engulfing Monterrey, home to some of Latin America's biggest companies and where annual income per capita is double the Mexican average at $17,000, the violence shows just how serious the security crisis has become in Mexico, the world's seventh-largest oil exporter and a major U.S. trade partner.   Continued...

 
<p>The letter 'Z' is seen painted on a hill next to the toll booth at the freeway between Monterrey and Torreon, in the Mexican state of Coahuila March 13, 2010. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo</p>