The historic district in this thriving industrial city was once packed with revelers enjoying Mexico’s economic boom times — but today it’s a ghost town, a victim of the country’s ongoing drug war.
Most shocking was the speed of the change: just two years.
The northern city of Monterrey is an industrial powerhouse, where Mexican corporations like cement giant Cemex, Deacero and the Cuahutemoc Moctezuma brewery have operations, as do multinationals like Johnson & Johnson, Caterpillar, General Electric and Whirlpool.
The city of four million is responsible for 7.5 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product and has one of the highest per capita regions in the country, according to the official city website. It is home to the prestigious Monterrey Institute of Technology, and has hosted United Nations and Organization of American States events.
The historic heart of Monterrey is the Barrio Antiguo, or Old Quarter, where 19th-century adobe brick buildings line cobblestone roads over the core of the original city founded in 1596.
When Monterrey’s economy took off starting in the 1990s, night life in the Barrio boomed. Art galleries opened, and places like the Rio Bar, La Chavela, and Manaus became night-life magnets.
Customers would often line up for two hours just to get into places like La Casa Amarilla, to listen to jazz, or Iguana’s, which has hosted live rock bands since 1984.
Up to 10,000 visitors would flock to the Barrio each weekend, officials said.
“The Barrio Antiguo, as a brand, carried so much weight that state officials began to push it as a destination for national and local tourists,” said Martin Rubio, one of the few veteran businessmen still in the area.
– The Zetas’ new business model –
In 2010 Los Zetas, ex-anti drug commandos hired as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel of eastern Mexico, turned on their employers and the long battle to control the lucrative turf spilled into Monterrey.
Los Zetas, however, were not just interested in smuggling drugs into the United States like other cartels. They aggressively expanded into extortion, kidnapping and selling drugs in the local market, and saw the Barrio Antiguo as ripe for exploitation.
“The most serious thing was when organized crime set their sights on this area as a market and began to sell their drugs to individuals, extorting the business people and terrifying the customers,” said Aldo Fasci, the former head of public security for the state of Leon, where Monterrey is located.
That, said Rubio, “forced many very successful businesses to close, and forced others to put brakes on their growth to keep a low profile.”
Fasci said that the criminals forced night club owners to allow drug sales, then bought liquor licenses and opened their own businesses. This meant they could launder money, sell their products, recruit new members and quietly settle into the legal economy.
“The places that were totally controlled by the drug traffickers were obvious,” said Jorge, who works at one of just eight surviving establishments. Two years ago there were 40.
The “narco” bars “suddenly changed owners, sold liquor before an after the legal time limits with impunity, and sold drinks at such low prices that we couldn’t compete with them,” said Jorge, who would not give his last name, fearing potential reprisals.
Legitimate Barrio bars soon began to close. The American woman who owned La Casa Amarilla fled to the United States one day after the thugs put a gun to her head.
Other owners also took off, along with a vast number of upper and middle-class Monterrey residents. There are no official figures, but plenty of anecdotal evidence of Monterrey natives living in Texas cities for safety.
More than 1,600 people have been killed in the Monterrey area since 2011, including four killed when gunmen randomly opened fire at the entrance of Iguana’s Cafe in May 2011; 52 people killed in August 2011 when a gambling hall was ablaze, reportedly for refusing to make extortion payments; and 49 people found outside Monterrey in mid-May decapitated and dismembered.
Nuevo Leon state Governor Rodrigo Medina, along with an ex-mayor and some local legislators want to revive the Barrio Antiguo, now a virtual ghost town, with a focus more on families and tourism and less on night clubs.
But until those plans become reality, the “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs plastered across the area will keep going up.