Hunger for drugs brings torture and death to Mexico City

The sadism and violence that has plagued other areas is now as close as 15 minutes from seat of federal government

Signs and memorials in July protesting the fate of the 13 young people abducted from Bar Heaven in Mexico City’s nightclub district in May.
Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

MEXICO CITYA silver sedan sits in front of Bar Heaven in the Zona Rosa here, the nightclub district that serves the rich locals and foreign tourists. Inside is an investigator from the attorney general’s office, asleep with a clipboard on his chest. It’s not clear why he’s there, since the club has long been shuttered with police tape, the walls covered with memorial photos of the 13 young people who were abducted there five months ago, their decapitated remains found later in a grave some 30 miles away.

“Confidential,” the investigator growled when asked why his presence was required at the spot, which now serves as a landmark for the sadism and kidnappings that have long been associated with other areas. Drug-related violence that has claimed perhaps 70,000 lives nationwide over seven years has now arrived 15 minutes from the seat of the federal government.

The brutality at Heaven is the most glaring example of the bloodshed seeping toward the greater metropolitan area. Official figures released in July show that of the country’s 31 states, the one named Mexico surrounding the capital overtook all others in terms of homicides last year, with nearly 2,100 people killed. That’s about 18 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants — roughly on par with Chicago.

A growing local hunger for cocaine, marijuana and a host of other drugs normally transported to the United States has brought cartel spinoffs to the capital, which assassinate, mutilate and extort for control.

“We’ve seen the level of violence rise around Mexico City over the past four or five years, and it is related to retail drug trafficking,” said Jorge Chabat, a leading security analyst. “It’s a myth the drugs are only consumed in the U.S. There is a market here too.”

Working from a survey of drug users published earlier this year, analysts estimate that drug sales in Mexico City’s greater metropolitan area total about $1 billion a year.

The Bar Heaven incident shook city residents because of its fancy location. Until recently, most of the area’s drug violence was the work of small gangs, “cholos,” operating out of high-crime working-class areas. However, affiliates of big cartels — such as La Familia, Zetas and Beltran Leyva — are gaining ground in richer picking grounds such as discos and restaurants.

‘Stop asking questions’

Julieta Gonzalez, left, at a press conference in August. She is the mother of Jennifer Robles, top right on her T-shirt, who disappeared in May from a Mexico City nightclub.
Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Authorities blame the Heaven killings on revenge for an execution at another club, Black, three days earlier, stemming from a dispute between La Union and Tepito, two gangs based in the capital.

Meanwhile, the bloodletting is seeping into affluent suburbs like Santa Fe, whose mall is the go-to place to buy Coach handbags. Last year two headless bodies were found in a burning SUV parked outside.

Extortion once targeting taco joints in slums is spreading to finer establishments serving cocktails, like in the bohemian enclave of Coyoacan, where people expect to see Frida Kahlo’s artwork rather than thugs.

To cite just one more example out of many, over the past year gunbattles have extended to Metepec, an area of gated communities best known for its ceramic handicrafts and colonial buildings. Authorities said they nabbed a member of the big Sinaloa group a few months ago, which came as no surprise to residents who have noted an influx of flashy men driving SUVs.

“Suddenly all these guys appeared who didn’t work normal business hours,” said a personal trainer at an exclusive gym. “One chats with clients, and when I asked what they did for a living, they replied, ‘What do you think?’ My boss told me to stop asking questions.”

Analysts charting organized crime liken Mexico to a bathtub, with the waters of competing cartels rising and falling as they jostle for turf. As powerful syndicates fragment or consolidate a given “plaza,” or market, they push competitors into other spaces. Thus Ciudad Juarez, once labeled the world’s most murderous place, calmed down somewhat as the violence migrated elsewhere.

Action is sloshing toward the capital and the state of Mexico surrounding it, as spinoffs of big cartels make alliances with smaller-scale dealers.

Cartels marking territory

Hot spots lie on the eastern edge of the city in high-crime districts. The gunbattles at one of these flash points, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, got so out of hand last September that the government sent in troops.

Much activity also radiates from Tepito, whose sprawling contraband market at the heart of Mexico City, just 10 minutes from the historic downtown, has traditionally been the place to score pot or coke. Many of the Heaven victims came from there.

On a recent visit, young men deployed at strategic corners eyed outsiders suspiciously and reported their movements on walkie-talkies and cellphones. Meanwhile, their comrades revved up motorcycles to deliver packages to partygoers in nicer neighborhoods.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera insisted that those responsible for the Bar Heaven incident were not part of organized crime — the euphemism for cartels. However, residents say cartels are trying to mark territory, with bloody results.

“Before, people hit each other when they fought. Now they are killed,” said Lourdes Ruiz, a prominent community figure in Tepito.

Concerned about the uncontrollable upward spiral of drug violence, President Enrique Pena Nieto announced a $9.2 billion program in February to help prevent youths from joining gangs.

Yet authorities don’t have a plan to address the frequent complicity between corrupt police and criminals. Few city residents were surprised to hear that two police officers were arrested in connection with the Heaven incident, and that’s only one case among many.

Chabat believes that social programs to save people from poverty can help deter crime. And there’s the fact that many cartel members have houses and families in Mexico City.

This, he believes, will keep the capital from turning into another Mexican city where bodies are hung from bridges. Such blatant brutality attracts the attention of politicians and police — never good for business. However, the activity is so lucrative that it flourishes in more subtle ways.

“We really don’t know what is happening below the surface,” he admitted.

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