I lived in this city for over a year in 05-06. It's very hard to see what has happened here!
The tragedy of Tampico, Mexico: a city of violence, abandoned to the trees
Years of gang warfare has turned the spring-breaker destination into a Gotham-style nightmare. Now some of its remaining residents are taking to the streets in a desperate call for peace
Thousands of people dressed in white, carrying white balloons and waving white handkerchiefs, have been parading down the main streets of Tampico, Mexico, recently. But these people weren’t part of a local carnival, art event or other joyous
So-called “ultra-violence” has converted Tampico – a lush, tropical city on the Gulf of Mexico with a population of 300,000 – into a Gotham-like nightmare. In the last couple of weeks, shoot-outs on crowded streets in broad daylight have resulted in 25 deaths. A gas truck was set on fire at the main entrance to the city. A grenade was thrown into a bar (it didn’t explode); another bar was sprayed with machine-gun fire. A much-loved locale that sold tortas de la barda (a sandwich made with ham and beans) was burnt to the ground. Fires were lit in a gas refinery. A sales lot of new cars was torched.
Tampico’s air has long been blackened by emissions from the nearby refinery, but these days the dark smoke hovering over the city testifies to the presence of an all-out gang war. Tampico is one of Mexico’s most violent cities in one of its most violent states, Tamaulipas.
As a result of the violence, the local real estate market has bottomed out. Those who flee the city usually can’t sell their homes and businesses, so more and more buildings, including some of Tampico’s largest and most impressive ones, lie abandoned. Buildings that could easily survive for another century are mere empty shells, with huge trees growing through the roofs and out of the windows. Such levels of abandonment are rarely seen in the centre of a major city.
Of those who remain, the most recent march, on May 11, saw an estimated 12,000 protesters turn out. Made up largely of what’s left of the city’s middle class, they called on the government not to abandon them to the city’s criminals. (Naturally, nobody demands anything of the criminal cartels themselves and lives to talk about it.)
Eduardo José Cantú, the protest organiser, asked the state congress to force its governor to stop saying Tampico was a “Disneyland and that things are fabulous and that everyone should come and spend Easter vacation here” – and instead admit the local authorities are unable to contain the violence and crime that has plagued the city over the last few years.
Tampico had, in fact, been a kind of Disneyland for several years, with US and Mexican spring-breakers transforming the miles and miles of city beach into 24-hour party people territory. Now the bars have almost all closed down, restaurants are hard to find, and the beach remains empty most of the year. Fear has sent tourists scurrying to other Mexican beaches; it has also forced thousands of locals to relocate, and made hundreds of local businesses close up shop, especially in the centro histórico. The local economy has collapsed.
The city’s informal economy (the illegal activities run by criminal organisations) has muscled out the formal economy, making it very difficult to earn a legal living here. Fear has taken the joy out of living in the city.
Locals keep each other informed about events in the city’s zonas de riesgo (risky areas) via blogs, twitter and other social media – part of a war-zone mentality that has inhabitants constantly checking their mobile phones to see if it’s safe to go out.
“Anyone who looks suspicious makes me very nervous. I’m afraid to go to the city centre and lots of other places at night,” says Bebe, an art curator in her early 30s who doubles as an entrepreneur to makes ends meet. “I try to avoid driving in empty streets and the big parking lots where cars are stolen a lot.” (Bebe, like everyone else I interview, asks not to have her full name published in this article.)
For almost a hundred years, the oil and gas shipped to the US from Tampico fuelled the local economy, but today, the trafficking of cocaine, marijuana and meta-amphetamines to meet the demands of gringo consumers represents the city’s largest source of income. “Poor Tampico,” goes the saying, “so far from God and so close to the USA".
A city run by gangs
In 2010, the Zetas, recruited from the Mexican military’s elite paratroopers and originally working for the Cartel del Golfo as hit-men and enforcers, decided they were strong enough to take over drug trafficking and other criminal activities within the city. Thus began an all-out turf war: in April 2010, the Cartel del Golfo announced that there would be a curfew in the city, that they had orders to defend their territory (they are from Tamaulipas, unlike the Zetas), and that it wouldn’t be their fault if stray bullets killed innocent people. There were more than 20 bombings against military and police installations in the city in October 2010, and since then hundreds of hired guns have been killed by both sides.
To call the cartels “narcos”, as almost all media in the US and Mexico do, is a misnomer. These cartels control all major criminal activity in Tampico, from prostitution and table-dancing clubs to arms and drug trafficking, pirated goods and extortion. They also exert control over the local newspapers, periodically killing reporters and editors who disrespect them (the state has one of the highest murder rates of journalists in Mexico).
The cartels also control the armoured trucks that deliver cash to the city’s banks. They make bank executives hand over information about clients, and get notaries to sign away properties at gunpoint. Most of the local law-enforcement officers were on the cartel’s payroll until the army recently decommissioned the police; only traffic cops are to be seen on the streets of the city these days.
Things had already turned ugly in 2007, when almost 12 tons of cocaine were confiscated and the cartel bosses in Reyonsa, on the US border, told those in Tampico that they had to cover the losses. This started a wave of kidnappings that ended up with the taking of Fernando Azcarraga, former mayor and cousin of the owner of the Televisa media empire, in September 2010.
After that, wealthy citizens began fleeing the city. And when the wealthy left town, the cartel began targeting doctors and other middle-class professionals for kidnappings, provoking a further, middle-class exodus from the city.
Miguel Angel, in his 50s, teaches photography at a local university. He relates a typical story – one so common that he only reluctantly tells it, as he feels it’s “boring” and not very newsworthy. “The family of a student of mine had a small restaurant that sold carnitas (pork). One day some men came to visit them and said they wanted money every month. The owner said no, so they kidnapped his son. The family sold the restaurant, paid the ransom, and moved out of Tampico.”
The New Orleans of Mexico
This once-beautiful tropical city, traversed by rivers, canals and lakes, has a long history of exploitation and abandonment. The modern-day city was founded in 1823 as one of Mexico’s first ports, rerouting African slaves to New Orleans and shipping silver to Spain. In 1904, the first commercial, US-owned oil well in Mexico was drilled in Tampico, and soon after several more foreign companies entered the city and began extracting oil from Mexican soil.
In the early decades of the 20th century, with Tampico enjoying an economic boom from its port activities and several (mostly US-owned) gas and oil mega-refineries, a modern city with tall office buildings unlike any other city in Mexico was constructed around the port. By the start of the first world war, Tampico had become the second most important port in the world for oil exports.
Then, in 1923, Mexico’s largest oil deposit (located very close to Tampico) dried up. The foreign oil companies soon began a massive migration from Mexico to Venezuela, oil production plummeted by 75%, the local economy collapsed, and thousands of workers and their families were forced to flee the city. The centro histórico, built during the Europeanised reign of Mexico’s great dictator Porfírio Díaz at the turn of the past century, was largely abandoned.
The historic centre has long been compared to New Orleans for its French-style buildings with ornate steel balconies and art nouveau details, for its city’s rich musical tradition, and its draw as a tourist destination. These days it continues to mirror New Orleans but in its post-Hurricane Katrina phase: empty, abandoned, economically devastated, rife with crime. Over the past few years, more than 200 hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes, as well as half of all businesses in the centro histórico, have closed down. Hotels tend to remain empty, and most of its streets are deserted after dark.
Yet the thousands of citizens dressed in white who have taken to the streets still believe their city must one day rise again from the ruins. The federal government responded to these protests by sending in the army to quell the cartel violence – unfortunately, bringing more weapons into the city doesn’t end crime and violence; it tends to exacerbate it.
José, a local historian whose grandparents are buried in the city cemetery, has stayed put because of his love for Tampico. He regards the civic action as positive, especially when the alternative is the para-militarisation of the residents, as has happened in other states in Mexico.
“The citizens of Tampico don’t expect much from the government,” Jose says. “Maybe that’s the most distinctive trait of Tampiqueños; that even with all the economic and social difficulties they have had to face throughout the city’s history, they somehow manage to fend for themselves in order to survive.”
Perhaps that is why José, and plenty more like him, have no plans to join the exodus from their city. “Fear hasn’t made me or most of the people I know leave,” he says. “It’s a lot harder with the economic depression and the violence, but I will still live my life here.”