For the past couple of years, people from all over the world have been asking me the same question: how bad are things in Monterrey, really? Obviously, they are referring to the drug-related violence and overall instability that have recently given the city unwanted international attention.
There’s a saying in Mexico: “cada quién cuenta como le fue en la feria,” which roughly translates to “how the tale is told depends on what the narrator has been through.” Therefore, my experience will not resonate equally among some others who live in Monterrey, but I do hope it will provide a relatively objective conclusion and answer to the above question.
Since the underlying interest behind the question is learning more about the situation of violence, I will not get into details about how Monterrey has a buoyant economy, entrepreneurial society, growing industrial sector, or is the birthplace of the most important higher education systems in Latin America and the home of hard-working, committed individuals. What I will focus on is how daily life has changed for middle-class citizens as a result of the violence and how societal interaction today is less regulated by a rule of law and more so by a rule of fear.
For the most part, people are still able to go to work, attend restaurants, movie theaters and parks and lead normal lives. But a certain fear has now been engrained into the average regiomontano’s DNA and it has changed how we go about our daily activities:
- Public places: There are certain restaurants and bars we don’t go to anymore. In fact, a whole area of the city known as Barrio Antiguo, which used to be the cultural, culinary and entertainment center of Monterrey, is practically abandoned now. Close to Barrio Antiguo, young male adults who used to flock to mens’ clubs and after hours bars late at night are doing this less and less because they fear these establishments to be controlled by the cartels and gangs. If a neighborhood is dangerous—or, more importantly, if it is perceived as such—then we simply avoid it. A lot of the nightlife has migrated and concentrated into San Pedro Garza García, the safest and highest income per-capita municipality in the metropolitan area.
- Get-togethers: You still go out and see your friends. Nightlife is not dead, but there is an undeniable shift toward home get-togethers versus going to night clubs. People try to hang out with people they know and get away from those they don’t know. This can easily be measured by the changes in the sales of alcohol in supermarkets and retail stores in comparison to restaurants and nightclubs. Also, regiomontanos are turning in a lot earlier than they used to and on weekend nights, what used to be bumper to bumper traffic in the main streets of the city is replaced by the few brave enough to speed through on their way home.
- Talking about it: The topic of insecurity, discussing drug cartels or even mentioning certain names, has become taboo in many public spaces because “you never know if one of these criminals or someone linked to them is sitting at the table next to you.” Just based on probability, the likelihood of this happening would be considerably low, but people prefer to just play at safe. It’s a really interesting phenomenon to see how when people are going to discuss the subject in public, they always look around and lower their voices first or just wait to be in a private space.
- Going to school: When middle- and upper-class parents choose the private grade school for their children, the new variable of fear is brought to the table. A couple of the top grade schools in the Monterrey area have excellent curricula, staff, technology, and campuses but they are located in the Santa Catarina municipality and the roads that go to these schools go through some of the crime hot spots. Thus, parents’ choice for quality in education is being put in the balance against peace of mind and security.
- Driving with others: Ironically, regiomontanos have become more polite behind the wheel of a car. Excessive honking has been replaced by an almost eerie silence in many of our streets. Most people have shifted toward using the horn only to avoid imminent accidents because “you never know if the guy who cut into you is a criminal or somebody linked to the drug cartels and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.” People still cut each other off and they still turn left from the right lane. We’re still immensely bad drivers; we just don’t honk, yell and swear at each other for it anymore.
From reading some of these changes in daily lives, one could conclude that people who would not traditionally be considered criminals—the common folk—are actually behaving better than in the past. They are risking harm to themselves less. While that may be the case, the reason for it is rather unfortunate: it’s not that we abide by or respect a rule of law; we are restricted in our liberties because of a rule of fear.
Official sources reported that November presented a significant decrease in executions, house break-in and car theft but that has had little to no effect in society’s perception of the risks they may face in the city they live in.
So what is it like to live in Monterrey, really? The city continues to have several positive and unique aspects to it. But what has changed? We are not caught between crossfire, held at gunpoint or witness beheadings on a daily basis, but the difference from years back is that now is the presence of fear for these things actually happening and our conduct adapting accordingly.
Hopefully, we will be able to eliminate this fear in the near future, through projects and day to day actions which eliminate the reasons for our fear strengthen a culture of lawfulness, reclaim public spaces and harness the strength of an active and organized civil society and a committed private and public sector.