What’s it like to work amidst the Mexican drug violence?

In the past five years since President Felipe Calderón took office in Mexico, government figures show that more than 40,000 people have been killed in the country. The toll for 2010 was 15,237 — the highest number yet. Many people have had spouses, children and siblings brutally murdered, and many have to endure the machine guns and battles outside the windows of their homes — with not many miles between their homes and the U.S. border.

“George” is a south Texas man who works at a maquiladora, an assembly plant on the Mexican side of the United States–Mexico border. Because of the extremely dangerous conditions in the country, his identity and location will remain anonymous. He has worked in Mexico for over 30 years, and has held his current job in a corporate position for 12 years. The colonias, impoverished communities, that surround his company’s location are focal points for the smuggling of drugs, guns, money and people across the Rio Grande River.

As told to Kelsey Lawrence

I usually drive to work very early in the morning, arriving about 5 a.m. at the plant. In the past, I had to cross the border at a downtown bridge and drive through town to get to the highway leading to my plant. Starting within a block of the border, the criminals have vehicles and people stationed with radiophones observing traffic and reporting on any police, military or rival gang movements. These are young punks who make no attempt to hide what they’re doing. They sometimes identify and target vehicles for theft. If someone crosses the border in a nice SUV, they will radio to their accomplices further up the road. The accomplices will stop the vehicle under some pretense (acting as police, or as if they need help) and then just steal the vehicle and leave the driver standing on the side of the road. This happened to one of my co-workers a couple of years ago, and was attempted with another, but he was able to get away.

There has always been drug smuggling along the border, but it was a low-profile activity, and the criminal organizations did not want to be known. More recently, perhaps because of government persecution, internal power struggles, or both, the cartels have made a point of staking out territory and intimidating rivals and the general public in a very visible manner. They have battles on major thoroughfares, poor and rich neighborhoods, around public buildings, schools, shopping areas, etc. They often drive cars (mostly stolen from Texas) with signs marking their cartel affiliation.

I commonly see gangsters speeding through town, completely ignoring stop signs, red lights or other traffic. They will drive right by police cars, who will not make any attempt to stop them or chase them, either because they’re already on their payroll, or they are afraid to get in the way.

I’ve had a few hair-raising experiences over the years.

A maquiladora in Mexico, much like the one where George works. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hilary Mason.

Driving through town one morning, I came upon a dead body in the road. Of course, I made no attempt to stop and “investigate,” but it was a wake-up call as to the violence in that part of town.

Several months ago, there was a battle between the army and one of the cartels adjacent to my industrial park — in fact, right behind a couple of my buildings. At about 6:30 a.m., while sitting in my office, I heard what sounded like loud hammering somewhere nearby. As I continued to hear it, I went outside to see what was going on. I immediately recognized automatic weapons fire, and hunkered down on the front steps of my plant, where I was relatively protected, to figure out where it was coming from. There was an extended battle along the highway just behind my building and the building next door. I could see flashes of gunfire and explosions from grenades. This went on for nearly half an hour.

People who were coming into work at that time were running along the sidewalks with their heads down, or simply frozen behind walls and buildings to keep safe. Traffic on the highway was completely stopped. Blacked-out helicopters were right overhead at low altitude, but I couldn’t tell if they were shooting or not. After the action was over and the sun had risen, I had my security guards investigate to find out what happened. They told me there were about seven dead bodies in shot-up cars on the highway, and who knows how many more had already been removed. When I left work in the afternoon, there were brass bullet casings all over the highway and a few bullet-riddled cars along the road. By the next morning, all evidence had been cleaned up.

I personally was more surprised at the level of munitions and duration of the shoot-out than I was frightened. I was in the army when I was young, so I became accustomed to automatic weapons fire and grenades, and I remain an active sport shooter. I was not afraid for myself, because I was in a position where I could easily duck behind walls if that had become necessary. However, the other people around me, my Mexican staff, were more frightened because they do not have a military background, and probably were concerned about the intensity of the battle this close to our facilities. I was concerned about the people in the industrial park who were running and ducking to try to get to their jobs on time, and I know they were panicked (the vast majority of our workers are young women, between 20 and 35 years old).

A couple of years ago a new bridge was built where I cross. It’s a closer commute from home to work, and I do not have to drive through the downtown or ghetto districts of town, but just cross Mexican customs, turn onto a dark and isolated access road for a couple of miles, and arrive at my park. Although I still use this route, it is no longer as secure and safe.

The week before last, driving pre-dawn to work, I came upon a couple of clusters of cars alongside the road (in the farmers’ fields). The cars were in disarray and many of the doors were wide open. From what I could see as I quickly drove past, the cars were somewhat wrecked and shot-up. I couldn’t see any better because of the dark. Later, when talking to one of my employees who takes the same road to work, I was told that there were bodies in at least one of the cars.

My employees frequently observe or get caught close to gunfights. One of my managers lives in a nice, pretty upper-middle-class neighborhood. She endured a bomb/grenade/rocket attack on the street behind her for several hours one night. Others have had stray bullets hit their cars and houses. Some have had vehicles stolen. A couple have had relatives kidnapped and “disappeared” without any further notification.

My wife’s cousin, a wealthy businessman and rancher in Mexico, was kidnapped earlier this year, but was rescued after about a month of captivity. I still don’t have details on what happened, but it was related to the narcotraffickers.

Perversely, I have to confess that what is going on in Mexico adds a little excitement to what otherwise had become a monotonous daily routine. It injects an element of unpredictability. Also, in a professional sense, our customers are very aware of the violence we face, and they are that much more appreciative of me and my staff for the (perceived) risks we take on their behalf, such as we are exposing ourselves on the front lines in order to assure that their production will continue uninterrupted. This truly does add value to a business such as ours, in that our customers are protected from this aspect of operating offshore.

One thing that has changed is my leisure time in Mexico. We used to come to Mexico frequently to eat, to shop and to travel to some of the more picturesque or historical areas as tourists. I used to ride my motorcycles in Mexico quite a bit, as it’s an interesting change of pace from the “boring” roads in the U.S. Since the violence escalated a few years ago, we spend virtually zero time in Mexico for pleasure. I go to work and go home — that’s it. I don’t know if or when we will feel comfortable enough to travel in Mexico again, but it doesn’t appear to be anytime soon. It’s unfortunate my workers aren’t that lucky.

One Response to “What’s it like to work amidst the Mexican drug violence?”
  1. D Lev says:

    Thank you for your insight. I wonder, have you ever ventured beyond the northern border towns? From what I understand, they are the worst.

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