BY DAVID AGREN IN MONTERREY, MEXICO
CATHOLIC LEADERS have spoken out strongly against a wave of drug-gang violence in and around Monterrey, Mexico's third largest city, although they differed on how to combat the worrisome situation that has claimed 83 lives in the first six months of 2007.
"Society, families, schools, media outlets and the Church must raise their voices and condemn these acts of death," Archbishop Francisco Robles Ortega of Monterrey said. "It is necessary for us to be vocal.., to see that justice is done."
Violence has flared across northern Mexico over the past few years as narcotics gangs have waged a bloody turf war over lucrative trafficking routes between Mexico and the United States, but it only recently spilled into Monterrey, a prosperous industrial city located 135 miles south of the border at Laredo, Texas. A series of brazen attacks, including the assassination of a politician outside the statehouse in mid-June, has left many residents lost for answers and taking increased personal security measures.
"For those of us who have lived a long time in Monterrey, it's a surprise that... the level of violence has been increasing," said Fr Juan Hinojosa Vela of Our Lady of Fatima parish in suburban San Pedro Garza Garcia, one of the wealthiest municipalities in Latin America. "'There have previously been problems in the border region, but not here in Monterrey,he said.
In August 2006 the state investigation agency's director was murdered in a park opposite Our Lady of Fatima after being lured away from an exhibition he was attending. According to Fr Hinojosa, the incident and the general level of violence have scared many parishioners, who are changing their lifestyles as a precaution. "People aren't going out to public places as often," he said.
He added that some residents "are sending their children to study abroad — and not just for the cultural experience, but because it's not safe here."
Stories of shootings.and businesses stepping up security measures regularly dominate the headlines in Monterrey. One American pizza chain installed metal detectors when it opened last month. Even a seedy short-stay motet now offers "bullet-proof rooms" complete with steel doors for the equivalent of £2.50 per hour. Business is booming, according to manager Lucy Regalado, who said: "People come here for the extra security.
Fifty miles away in Saltillo, the capital of neighbouring Coahuila state, violence also has erupted, although to a lesser degree. After a June shootout at a casino Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of $altillo called for the establishment's license to be revoked and branded it "a money-laundering front".
The bishop referred to the narcotics gangs involved as "a cancer" that "need to corrupt our political and financial structures". He also criticised the federal government's strategy of sending more soldiers into the region to fight narcotics gangs, citing numerous charges of human rights abuses against the military. Unlike the military, "the police know how to deal with the public," he said.
However, Archbishop Robles disagreed. "I believe we're at a critical moment," he said. "If we don't allow the military to participate, the federal government won't fully be able to tackle this problem."
The archbishop pointed to the "introduction of weapons from the United States" as a serious problem in the region and expressed hope that US politicians take action to stem it. According to Fernando Kuri of the National Action Party, state and municipal police officers are often outgunned by wellequipped narcotics gangs.
He said police officers only earn about £300 per month, making honest police unable to enforee the law and dishonest ones vulnerable to accepting bribes.