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Is Mexico City safe from drug cartel war -- or the next target?

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 3:02 PM EST, Tue January 17, 2012
A truck carries troops through the historic center of Mexico City, where major cartel violence has not been a part of daily life.
A truck carries troops through the historic center of Mexico City, where major cartel violence has not been a part of daily life.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Once dogged by a crime-ridden reputation, Mexico City has become a refuge
  • Some fear that brutal drug violence is closing in on the nation's capital
  • Analyst: "Some horrendous recent cases" are making people nervous
  • Residents feel unsafe, but the police chief says it's a problem of perception

Editor's note: This story is the third in an occasional series looking at the violence tied to Mexican drug cartels, their expanding global connections and how they affect people's daily lives. A previous article focused on the more than 5,300 people who've disappeared.

Mexico City (CNN) -- Near the ruins of an ancient Aztec temple, a woman shouting into a microphone claims Mexican society is crumbling.

"We are no longer free to walk in the streets because of what is happening," she yells.

Demonstrators behind her tape cardboard crosses to a fence in front of Mexico's National Palace. The names of slaying victims are scrawled with black magic marker on each one.

"I want the impunity to end," a leftist lawmaker says, blaming Mexican President Felipe Calderon's five-year-long crackdown on drug cartels for the surge in violence.

Activists in Mexico City created a cardboard cross marking a victim\'s death near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in January 2010.
Activists in Mexico City created a cardboard cross marking a victim's death near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in January 2010.

A handful of people clap. But throngs walk through Mexico City's massive central square without glancing in his direction.

In this sprawling metropolis, the brutal conflicts between drug cartels and government troops are both strangely absent and omnipresent. They are nowhere to be found and everywhere you look.

At a corner newsstand, the front page of a paper shows a dead man lying in a pool of blood. The cover of a magazine pictures people praying at a funeral.

At an airport gift shop, a book about beauty queens in the drug trade is only steps away from bottles of tequila and souvenir sombreros.

From the halls of his official residence here, President Calderon announced plans in late 2006 to deploy troops in a nationwide crackdown on drug cartels.

Here, too, a peace movement led by a poet whose son was slain has taken root, with protesters staging "caravan" demonstrations that go from the city's central square to some of the country's most violent areas.

But the gun battles, mass graves and fiery road blockades in other parts of the country aren't part of daily life in Mexico's capital.

Organ grinders, food vendors and street performers play to a constant stream of people who flood the sidewalks.

Towering buildings line Mexico City\'s Reforma Avenue. Once dogged by a crime-ridden reputation, the city is now a refuge.
Towering buildings line Mexico City's Reforma Avenue. Once dogged by a crime-ridden reputation, the city is now a refuge.

The city, once dogged by a reputation for being crime-ridden, has become a refuge.

"Just a decade ago people in Mexico City would say they wanted to leave and live in the surrounding states to have a more peaceful life. Today, paradoxically, Mexico City has become one of the safest places to live," Mexico City lawmaker Lizbeth Eugenia Rosas Montero said at a recent government meeting. "Now the people who live in the states spend their vacations in the capital to be away from the shootouts, kidnappings and executions."

But crime still creeps in to the heavily policed capital.

The densely populated city and surrounding state of Mexico are profitable turf for drug dealers. Local gangs fighting over sales fuel most drug-related violence there, says Ana Maria Salazar, a former Pentagon counternarcotics official who lives in Mexico City and hosts a weekly television program on the country's security issues..

Murder rates in Mexico's capital are half the national rate of 18 per 100,000 residents, and are lower than homicide rates in U.S. cities like New Orleans and Washington. But that hasn't stifled fears that something bigger could be brewing.

The city saw more than 120 killings related to organized crime between January and September last year, according to Mexico's Attorney General's Office. In the neighboring state of Mexico, the number was much higher, nearly 600.

"Mexico City, for whatever reason, has not been a battleground," Salazar says. "It could very easily become that."

Finding comfort in the chaos

Julia Alonso crammed as much as she could into a suitcase and headed for Mexico City last year.

Extortion threats at her family real estate business forced her to flee the Pacific resort town of Acapulco.

Others in the neighborhood who refused to pay have been kidnapped, she says.

Students and families lounge on the grass outside the Central Library at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Students and families lounge on the grass outside the Central Library at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Mexico City is a place where Alonso feels safe doing things she had feared for months, like eating on a restaurant's sidewalk terrace or exploring outside her apartment.

"Here you can still walk in the streets when you want, without worrying about getting kidnapped or being in the middle of a shootout," she says.

Before, Alonso was afraid when she visited the bustling metropolitan area of 21 million. She wouldn't wear a watch, fearing someone would steal it off her wrist.

Now she finds comfort in the chaos.

"It is much more difficult for something to happen to me here, where there are so many people," she says.

That's an increasingly common perception.

More than 6,500 companies set up shop in Mexico City in 2010 after moving from violence-plagued locations elsewhere in Mexico, the capital's business owners association says.

"Other parts of the country are just so unsafe that people are sending their families to Mexico City," Salazar says. "The anonymity of such a large city provides you a higher sense of security than in your hometown."

The city has more than just size going for it.

Mexico City, like the District of Columbia in the United States, is a federal district. And the capital has a strong police force that is easier to control and harder to corrupt than local forces in Mexico's 31 states, where notoriously low salaries and unclear command structures have allowed drug cartels to make significant inroads, says Jorge Chabat, who studies security at Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

The existence of more social programs for youth in Mexico City could also help stop gang violence from spreading, he says.

But Chabat says drug cartels haven't taken aim at the nation's capital -- and won't -- because they don't want to pay the price.

Major attacks in Mexico City -- the heart of the nation's media, political and financial powers -- would draw scrutiny and reprisals from federal forces that drug cartels strive to avoid, Chabat says.

Some also speculate that drug cartels have an unspoken truce when it comes to the capital, so their loved ones can have a safe place to live.

"It's very likely that they have family and homes here. They come here for meetings, for negotiations, to make agreements," Chabat says. "But they know that committing violence in Mexico City would cost them a lot. This is like a neutral territory."

But in a drug war that has claimed more than 47,000 lives, are there any sanctuaries?

"There are some horrendous recent cases, which have a lot of people very nervous," Salazar says.

'A bad sign'

A forensic photographer documents the site where two severed heads were found on October 3, 2011.
A forensic photographer documents the site where two severed heads were found on October 3, 2011.

A phone call before dawn led police to the grisly scene.

On a brisk October morning, inside an abandoned car along a busy highway near Mexico's defense ministry, investigators found two severed heads, no bodies and a note.

The lengthy message said a drug gang known as "The Hand With Eyes" was responsible, Mexico City's then-Attorney General Miguel Angel Mancera told reporters.

The suspected gang leader who goes by the same name has been in custody since August, when police arrested him after a series of raids in southern Mexico City.

Oscar "The Hand With Eyes" Osvaldo Garcia Montoya was a Mexican navy deserter and former municipal policeman who became a hit man and body guard for some of Mexico's top drug lords, authorities say. Last year he started his own operation, aimed at controlling the lucrative drug trade in Mexico City and the surrounding state of Mexico.

Officials say he was known for chopping off his rivals' heads.

After his capture, he told police he had killed at least 300 people, and ordered 300 more slayings. Garcia said he chose his nickname for a simple reason: "Because I see everything, and I hear everything."

A forensic team member photographs victims found inside a burnt car on January 11. Two heads are covered by a carpet.
A forensic team member photographs victims found inside a burnt car on January 11. Two heads are covered by a carpet.

Less than two months later, the note beside the severed heads warned authorities -- and rival gangs -- to watch out, even though Garcia was behind bars.

"It ends saying that the territory of 'The Hand With Eyes' is so extensive that it has reached the metropolitan area and hasn't disappeared," Mancera said at the time.

"For us, that was a bad sign," says David Garcia Flores, who heads a national association of private security companies based in Mexico City. "Now it's reached another level."

Last week investigators found two severed heads in front of a mall in one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods. Firefighters extinguishing a blaze in an SUV parked nearby found two decapitated bodies inside.

Authorities have not identified the victims. A message left beside the severed heads mentioned the Sinaloa cartel, local media reported.

A problem of perception?

Last fall, local lawmakers filed into Mexico City's Legislative Assembly with another recent crime fresh in their minds.

A few days before, four men -- two dressed as police -- had burst into a restaurant in Mexico City's upscale Polanco neighborhood. They wielded assault rifles and aimed for their targets, two men dining inside. Three people were slain in the shootout that followed.

Swarms of police rushed to the scene and quickly detained the suspects. The next day, they said the shooting was connected to car robberies, not major organized crime.

But that didn't satisfy local lawmakers, who grilled the chief of Mexico City's police force about the matter during his annual report on safety the next week.

Policemen stand outside Wings Restaurant in Mexico City after a clash with gunmen in September 2011.
Policemen stand outside Wings Restaurant in Mexico City after a clash with gunmen in September 2011.

"This kind of thing wasn't happening in Mexico City, only in other parts of the country," Rep. Norberto Ascencio Solis Cruz said. "We don't want, by any means, for our city to move toward the types of violence that they are currently suffering in cities in the north of the country, where the spiral started like this, with individual executions that were seen with indifference by society and not given attention by the authorities."

Manuel Mondragon, the city's director of public safety, suggested he shouldn't worry.

If any lesson can be taken from the shooting, he said, it's that gangs should beware. "They see that in minutes 20 police cars with 60 officers arrive," he said.

Several lawmakers praised the police response, but others didn't let up.

One mentioned a university professor's recent study showing that the perception of insecurity in Mexico City was growing. She cited a national government survey that ranked the capital as the place in the country where the largest percentage of people -- two out of every 10 -- say they have been victims of a crime.

"We have to differentiate between perception and reality," Mondragon said, pointing out the common refrain that safety is drawing more people than ever to the nation's capital.

He offered one possible explanation for why people feel unsafe: news from elsewhere in the country makes Mexico City residents uneasy.

"Here everyone watches television showing the country," he said, "and whether we like it or not, it is impacting insecurity."

Some prepare as a specter looms

\
"Organized crime is already in the city," says Joel Ortega, a former Mexico City police chief who is now running for mayor.

Joel Ortega, a former Mexico City police chief who is now running for mayor, paints a dimmer picture.

"Organized crime is already in the city," he said at a recent public safety conference. "This is where the country's main airport is, and a large international financial center that facilitates the export of large capital flows that go to other countries, which allows the criminal circle of drug trafficking to continue."

That isn't what most city officials will tell you, says Ortega, who served as Mexico City's top security official from 2004 to 2008.

"The authorities want the city to have another image. They are always trying to downplay it," he says.

As officials tout the city's safety record, stores offering bulletproof clothing and armored cars have sprouted in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods.

Private security companies install panic buttons, provide armed guards -- and even sell tracking chips that can be implanted under your skin in case of kidnapping, a crime that analysts say remains common in the Mexico City area.

At a racetrack a few hours outside the capital, one security company trains business executives and their families how to escape attackers in high-speed car chases.

Armor plating is installed in a vehicle in Mexico City, where security businesses are booming.
Armor plating is installed in a vehicle in Mexico City, where security businesses are booming.

"It's very practical," says Tom Cseh, deputy director of Vance International in Mexico City. "Not only do we teach people how to escape and evade an ambush ... we teach them how the bad guys are out there watching you, not to make you paranoid, but so you know that there are certain signs for look for."

Right now, he says, the most common risks here are street assaults.

Is it only a matter of time before organized crime strengthens its grip and violence grows?

"There's always the specter of that happening, because there's nothing to guarantee that it won't," says Eric L. Olson, a security expert at the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

Still, it's important not to blow things out of proportion, he says.

"You're probably safer in Mexico City, frankly, than you are in New Orleans."

He describes a recent trip to Mexico City, when he walked through the central square in the Coyoacan neighborhood -- known for its scenic cobblestone streets and famous former residents, like artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

"It was like paradise."

Anti-violence activists protest in Mexico City in April 2011. Their signs read, \
Anti-violence activists protest in Mexico City in April 2011. Their signs read, "No more blood."

Making 'these deaths known and felt'

Lydiette Carrion sits on a sun-soaked balcony. Piped-in piano music plays in the background, punctuated by quiet cafe conversations and the occasional clinking coffee cup.

But the words she writes tell a different story.

Carrion, 36, is a freelance journalist in Mexico City who volunteers for "Menos Dias Aqui" -- a blog that keeps a running death toll of violence victims throughout the country. The blog culls information, including names, if possible, from local media reports.

It's a task, Carrion says, that has made her aware of a world many people in Mexico City don't see.

In one week in April, she counted 312 deaths. Four cab drivers slain in Acapulco. Three decapitated bodies inside a truck in Durango. A bus driver in Ciudad Juarez with 17 gunshot wounds. A 32-year-old worker in a Guadalajara creamery chased by gunmen wielding AK-47s.

Carrion says one incident stood out amid all the violence: a shoot-out in the western coastal state of Nayarit, where six people died, according to local media reports. None of Mexico's national newspapers mentioned it.

"I thought, 'maybe it's made up.' But I checked more in local media, and no, it really happened," Carrion says, "but the reader in Mexico City never even knew about it."

Even at a distance, Carrion says, the violence is never far from Mexico's capital. Everyone has family members in other states. Like her, they remember happy summers spent on beaches that have now become battlefields.

Still, some friends can't understand why she participates in the blog project. One, who found out she was involved from a Facebook status post, responded, "What is it for? It's just a message of death."

Carrion tries to explain why she thinks it's valiant to "rescue" the names of people who could be forgotten. She knows some people believe in her cause.

"But there are also people who think all the violence is an invention of the sensationalist media," she says. "You start to realize that a large part of the population is not spending so much time on these things."

That's why Carrion wants to inform them.

"It's very important to make these deaths known and felt. ... There is a search for creating consciousness. This is the only way society can move forward," she says.

Beside Carrion, on the sunny balcony, a waiter takes another order. Cars whiz by on the street below.

Mexico City is always in motion. There are honking horns and jam-packed sidewalk markets and swarms of people shoving into subway cars.

Carrion wants them to see the way she does.

"There really is an armed conflict in Mexico," she says. "There is a war."

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