Last month, a U.S. consulate worker and her husband were killed in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez. The gunfire sent scores of journalists scrambling across the bridge from El Paso and prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pledge more than $300 million to help border cities like Juárez recover from the blight of drug violence.
But the spotlight on Juárez masks a broader trend in Mexico: since President Felipe Calderón launched a crackdown on cartels in 2007, the violence has spread south from the border, emptying tourist destinations and shaking the country's largest cities. New cartels have sprung up in once-quiet states and veteran cartels have grown more violent. Calderón has succeeded in capturing and killing key cartel leaders, or jefes, but his drug war has left the entire country dangerously in disarray.
"It's obvious that the drug cartels also operate here in the capital," said security expert José Luís Piñeyro, speaking from Mexico City. "We have a major international airport through which they receive drugs from Colombia, weapons from the United States and methamphetamines or pre-cursor chemicals" from all over the world. Earlier this week, Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard admitted that narcos "come and go" as they please in the capital of 20 million. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials privately admit that cartel leaders live in the city's lush suburbs--"they just happen to be smarter about who they kill and when" than in other parts of the country.
Perhaps the most visible sign of the cartels' Mexico City presence came in December when a protected witness was assassinated in a Starbucks. Less than two weeks earlier, another protected witness--Jesus Zambada, the nephew of drug lord Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada--had been found dead in his Mexico City home. Even La Familia, a particularly brutal cartel founded in the 1990s in the mountainous western state of Michoacán, is now rumored to operate in the capital's sprawling suburbs.
Monterrey, Mexico's third largest metropolis, has also become a battleground for drug wars. A once-quiet city three hours from the border, Monterrey has been nearly shut down in recent weeks as traffickers have blocked roads with burning buses and cars. Meanwhile, a feud between the Gulf cartel and its former hitmen, the Zetas, threatens to tear the city apart. Two graduate students were killed in Monterrey in March when a shootout between cartel hitmen and government soldiers engulfed their university campus, and just last Sunday another confrontation outside the city left five sicarios dead.
Even smaller, coastal cities have been sucked into the fray, driving away droves of foreign visitors and crippling Mexico's already wounded tourism industry. In Acapulco, shootouts last month claimed 35 people in a single weekend. And unlike Juárez or Tijuana, where thousands of troops impose wide curfews, Mexico's most famous resort town has only enough security forces to guard a narrow strip of beach. "The gringos are scared of coming here. That's why all the soldiers, police and marines are protecting the tourist zone," said José, an attendant at a gas station where a recent shootout claimed ten lives, including nine cartel members.