Mexican protest

Protesters in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey taunt riot police during a demonstration in February, one of a number in Mexico demanding the departure of soldiers deployed to deal with drug violence. (Associated Press / February 17, 2009)

The small houses of the Independencia neighborhood climb a hill that rises from the bone-dry Santa Catarina riverbed. Gang graffiti proliferate the higher you go, until they completely cover the cinder-block walls with slogans, threats and declarations.

Young men in baggy pants, sweat shirt hoodies pulled tightly around their faces, populate the desolate street corners, in between vacant lots and shattered wooden stoops.

Look out from the top of the hill and in the distance you see the impressive skyline of Monterrey, the wealthiest city in Mexico, its fancy museums, glistening high-rises, leafy plazas and pristine palaces bathed in sunlight.

Look down, however, to the steep, potted streets of Independencia, one of the city's oldest and poorest barrios, and it's a different picture, one of stray dogs, braying burros and no jobs.

It is here that Mexico's biggest drug traffickers find an easy following of collaborators and pliable disciples.

This is the traffickers' so-called social base: people loyal out of economics more than anything else, people who peddle the drugs and eagerly turn out when the traffickers want to mount street demonstrations against the government and the army.

"There are some bad boys up the road," said a 40-year-old shopkeeper who, like most residents interviewed, would not give her name. "They do drugs at a young age and choose the easy way of life. The police used to come through and sweep them off the corners, but not anymore."

Independencia is distinctive among Monterrey's marginal neighborhoods, community activists say, because it is home to generations of small-time drug dealers, and because it has been penetrated in the last two years by agents of the Gulf cartel, one of Mexico's most notorious and violent trafficking organizations.

Those traffickers demonstrated their pull in this neighborhood last month when they paid residents to block Monterrey's major thoroughfares with hours-long demonstrations, day after day for two weeks.

Protesters included youths with their faces covered to hide their identities, the tapados (covered ones), but also their mothers and grandmothers.

It was an embarrassing turn of events for President Felipe Calderon, as protests spread to cities along the U.S. border, blocking international crossings and showcasing the traffickers' ability to mobilize crowds, even though neither politics nor ideology was really at stake.

Gripes against army

Mexicans have legitimate grievances against the army. Troops in some regions have been accused of illegal searches, abuse and unlawful killings of civilians at checkpoints. Yet most opinion surveys, including one taken in Monterrey last month, show wide support for a military presence aimed at restoring security.

Aldo Fasci, the top law enforcement official in the state of Nuevo Leon, of which Monterrey is the capital, quickly branded the demonstrations "narco-blockades."

A few days into the protests, a police commander was assassinated, more than 50 rounds pumped into him and his car as he drove to work. He had reportedly been given an ultimatum to free a detained demonstrator.

The state governor, Natividad Gonzalez Paras, blamed the unrest directly on the Gulf cartel and its paramilitary enforcement arm, the Zetas.

"These organized criminal groups use [poor] people," Gonzalez said. "We can let them kidnap our peace and our rights, or we can unite to assert a state of law and order." As evidence of the demonstrators' backing, officials pointed to the arrest of Juan Antonio Beltran Cruz, a 20-year-old resident of Monterrey who was accused of being the leader of the tapados and who, according to authorities, had in his possession school backpacks used as bribes.

Authorities did not offer proof of any ties between Beltran Cruz and traffickers. But interviews with other officials, community activists and residents of Independencia provide a more complete picture of the way traffickers recruit among the poor.

Some of the tapados were paid as little as 200 pesos, about $13, plus a cellular telephone; others received 500 pesos, about $33, and the backpacks filled with supplies. After the demonstrations, many returned to Independencia and pointed to pictures of themselves in the newspapers, bragging about their performance, residents said.

"They go to the demonstrations; they don't even know what it's about or why, they just go," said Father Juan Pedro Alanis, the parish priest in Independencia. A woman working at the church said she was offered money to attend the protests.

They go, Alanis said, because of the pay. It's a time-honored tradition in Mexico, where political parties, unions and other organizations reward people for showing up at rallies. There's even a word for it here, acarrear, which in Spanish means to transport but in Mexican slang adds the elements of payoffs and gifts.

Independencia is largely a no-go zone for police, who abandoned a station near the top of the hill two years ago. For many years, residents grew their own marijuana and marketed it, sometimes selling it openly on street corners -- "like popcorn," in the words of one local activist.

Dozens of gangs formed, most of them involved in either dealing or consuming drugs. Around 2006, the Zetas began moving in, taking over the drug operations and forcing residents to become part of their network, community activists say.

The gangs hang out on corners, stroll languidly through Independencia's streets and, by the look of things, freshen up the graffiti periodically. One gang calls itself Watts.

A group of 14- to 19-year-old boys, hanging out under a cracked sign for Carta Blanca beer, would not own up to participating in the demonstrations but showed no affection for the army.

'They stop us'

"Sometimes they stop us, search us," said an 18-year-old in a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and with a huge Virgin of Guadalupe pendant around his neck.

Residents of Independencia view outsiders mostly with hostile suspicion, glaring at and refusing to speak to visitors. One man literally growled at a reporter who passed by.

"Basically you just try to keep to yourself," said a 26-year-old plumber who said he did not belong to a gang. "You don't say anything because if you speak up, they'll slap you down."

Alanis, the priest, said the generational hold makes the corruption here harder to fight, and leaves the residents vulnerable to traffickers' enticements.

"It used to be you tried to help troubled youths. Now there are entire families involved in drugs, consuming and selling," said activist Neli Valadez Macias. "And if the adults are doing it, what can we really expect from the youths? It's a disorientation of the entire family."

Valadez is part of a small church-based organization called the Program to Help Groups on the Corners. Its members minister three nights a week to the youths gathered on street corners. It is a dangerous and tricky mission, and she and her associates pray for a solid hour before venturing out, "sincerely asking for God's protection."

Amid the squalor of Independencia, next to houses that use sheets for windows, there are the occasional monuments to incongruent wealth: the salmon-colored manse with poured-concrete swans along the facade, plus copper-colored wrought iron and double-tier fountains. Then there's the sea-green, three-story house with etched-glass windows that takes up most of one block.

These are the homes of those anointed by the Zetas, so the neighborhood buzz goes; in contrast, there are large homes that have been abandoned, reputed to belong to families who wouldn't go along.

The government was slow to put down the demonstrations in Monterrey, even as they spread to the border cities of Reynosa and Ciudad Juarez and the Gulf port of Veracruz. Authorities appeared reluctant to sic the police on youths and women. Eventually, the protests died down, their organizers having made their point.

"The tapados demonstrate a less bloody, less criminal but most worrisome aspect of the drug-trafficking phenomenon: They show the strength of the traffickers and their networks, not as organized crime, but as part of the social fabric," historian Hector Aguilar Camin said in the Milenio newspaper.

"The narco is part of the landscape, and having become part of the daily life in these communities is the true force of the narco."

wilkinson@latimes.com