MONTERREY, Mexico — A 21-year-old university student lies dead from a gunshot to the head. Nearby, paramedics wrap the head of another woman in a blood-soaked shirt while her husband holds their cowering children.
They were shopping in a popular downtown promenade when gunmen chasing a security guard opened fire into the crowd. This wasn't supposed to happen in Monterrey, Mexico's modern northern city with gleaming glass towers that rise against the Sierra Madre, where students flock to world-class universities, including the country's equivalent of MIT.
But drug violence has painted Monterrey with the look and feel of the gritty border 100 miles to the north as two former allies, the Gulf and Zetas gangs, fight for control of Mexico's third-largest — and wealthiest — city.
The deterioration happened nearly overnight, laying bare issues that plague the entire country: a lack of credible policing and the Mexican habit of looking the other way at the drug trade as long as it was orderly and peaceful.
"To a certain extent, we saw ourselves as a privileged city and very isolated from Mexico's problems," said Blanca Trevino, Monterrey-based president and CEO of Softtek, the largest information technology consulting firm in Latin America. "The violence hit us because we were not accustomed to having it and therefore to handling it. Now we live in a sort of psychosis."
The Mexican government announced Wednesday it is ordering a significant boost in military troops and federal police in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas and neighboring Nuevo Leon, home to Monterrey.
The two states are under the heaviest attack since the cartel split earlier this year.
Despite sporadic violence and the known presence of drug traffickers, the city enjoyed a tranquillity that gave it a provincial feel.
That started to change four years ago, when the Sinaloa cartel began battling the Gulf cartel for a piece of Monterrey's lucrative domestic drug market. The violence subsided after the cartels reportedly agreed to share the turf.
With the Gulf-Zeta split, the downfall was swift —"extremely so," in the words of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual — for a city with huge American interests that in some ways identifies more closely with the U.S. than Mexico.