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.