A view of Monterrey with its emblematic mountain Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Hill) lies just 150 miles from the Texas border.
By force of lead and fear, the city that served as a hotbed for some of Mexico's most important rock bands, has seen its nightlife annihilated. In the middle of the fight against organized crime, Monterrey, cradle of bands such as Kinky and Plastilina Mosh, has been forced to all but abandon its music scene.
In the last six years, since president Felipe Calderón took office and commandeered the war against drug lords, there have been 45,334 deaths, most of them criminals, as data gathered daily by newspaper Reforma's "Ejecutómetro" (execution meter) reveals.
Nuevo León with 3,494 killings -- 759 of them this year -- is one of the country's most impacted states; its capital, Monterrey, is the third most populated city in the country with more than a million inhabitants, and is one of the richest. It is also situated just 150 miles from the Texas border.
While the town's local bar and nightclub owners are reluctant to give interviews, and if they do they avoid the topic of violence, what seems certain is that the music clubs of Monterrey's Barrio Antiguo (downtown) will not reopen until they are safe from attacks and extortion. For the city's inhabitants, peacefulness belongs to a bygone era for which there is a great yearning.
"I live in a calm middle class sector and two years ago I could hear shootings and explosions near my house every four days," says Pedro Ruiz, a self-described fierce consumer of local rock who used to often frequent Barrio Antiguo. He recalls when there were nearly 80 bars and nightclubs in the area.
Following Mexcio's recent July 1 presidential elections, won by Enrique Peña Nieto who will take office on Dec. 1, a new strategy to battle the drug lords will be outlined. For now, Monterrey enjoys a relative calm. Its inhabitants hope the city will shine again, but insecurity is still in the air: on June 29th, a car bomb exploded in Nuevo Laredo, while four days earlier there was a shooting between police at Mexico City's international airport. The question now is, after six years of conflict and many lethal blows, will Monterrey's once-vibrant music scene return?
View of Monterrey's downtown Barrio Antiguo, formerly the center of Monterrey's bustling nightlife.
After dusk, the streets of the Barrio Antiguo are deserted: the bands now play elsewhere sometimes at diurnal events.
"We had a concert at 10:00 a.m. in the morning, with a lot of bands," laments Temo Santos, lead guitar of Ranchoe, the opening act for Guns 'n Roses' Monterrey concert last October. "It was great. But rock and roll just doesn't feel the same at 10 AM."
In September 2010, a shooting a block away from the venue were the British combo White Lies played prompted a number of international acts to cancel their concerts. Acts such as Tokio Hotel, Kaiser Chiefs and Jonas Brothers feared the violence; Arcade Fire, Noel Gallagher and Peter Gabriel also cancelled their concerts.
In 2010, there were more than 30 shootings in the city, including one in March inside the Tecnológico, one of the city's most important universities, where two students were killed. It was then that Monterrey's residents began staying home at night. To make matters worse, in June of that year Hurricane Alex devastated the area, causing losses estimated at $770 million dollars - $90 million in Monterrey. Social life was brought to a standstill.
"It's unbelievable, but it's happened, and in a city that used to be one of the safest in Latin America," says Fabrizio "Mopri" Onetto, a famous local manager of bands such as Control Machete, Jumbo, Plastilina Mosh, Quiero Club, Sussie 4, Zoé and Austin TV.
"Since many military checkpoints were set up, drugs started moving into nightclubs", Pedro Ruiz says, "and the dealers started charging for security and menacing those who didn't pay".
One of Monterrey's most popular bands, Quiero Club, migrated to Mexico City in 2010.
"I witnessed the transition from a promising city to a desolated town. Social life suffered changes that responded directly to the threat of insecurity", describes Luis "Fara" Dominguez, guitarist and keyboardist of the Quiero Club.
Living with fear
Cafe Iguana's exterior pockmarked with bullet holes a few days after a 2011 shooting.
In 2011, renowned Monterrey DJ Toy Selectah was producing 3BallMty's debut album and had to adapt his work habits to the violence.
"We had to modify our schedule", he recalls, "work all night, waiting until the sun shone again, so the city would be awake and we could avoid any risk just when the boys had to cross the city."
On May 21, 2011, the well-known Café Iguana, a 20-year-old rock venue, came under assault and four people were gunned down by its door. It has remained closed ever since.
"I had never heard a machine gun before, I thought they were fireworks", recalls Saeg, a Mexico City DJ who was to perform that night at the venue. "Feeling the people's panic, on the run to survive, was unforgettable."
Other venues were subsequently attacked, including most violently, the Casino Royale. Last August it was brazenly set-upon in broad daylight with grenades that resulted in 52 civilian fatalities. After the Royale incident, Barrio Antiguo became a ghost town.
The front page of La Jornada newspaper chronicling the vicious attack on
Monterrey's Casino Royale that left 53 people dead.
Exodus and resistance
In the middle of this sea of fire, Monterrey artists have tried to avoid the wreckage in different ways.
"There has been a huge exodus to Mexico City, and there is a social disintegration of Monterrey's artistic tissue", describes Toy Selecta.
Nightlife in Monterrey has moved to San Pedro, one of the wealthier neighborhoods, which has been shielded by the army whose soldiers constantly patrol the area.
"The violence that impacts civilian life has decreased a lot in San Pedro, and there has been a proliferation of small pubs with live bands", says Ruiz.
Bands that have remained in Monterrey express both despair and hope in their lyrics: the phrase "lead over Monterrey" in She's A Tease's song "Ciudad Abierta" ("Open City") has rumbled throughout the country; it was one of the first bands to openly describe the situation:
"Mariana doesn't want to go out anymore, papa can't sleep anymore. I can't stand this situation, it has the keys of my open city. lead over Monterrey, powder in the streets".
Among the most optimistic projects was "Mi Ciudad" ("My City"), a song recorded, among others, by members of 3BallMty, Pato Machete, Celso Piña and norteño music local legend Lalo Mora.
Describing in a playful way the city's terrible situation, the song is full of hope:
"Imagine that all the pistols were water guns, I wish they threw confetti instead of grenades, that the missing people were playing hide & seek". My city is not afraid, my city wants to live, my city has a dream and it is to smile again."
Amidst a situation that has reached levels close to despair, some people are beginning to see light at the end of long dark tunnel.
"It's a terrible business that harms everyone," Pedro Ruiz says, "but when Calderón sent the army and they started cleaning up the police, the criminals started losing accomplices and violence decreased. We definitely feel safer now".
The conflict has left Monterrey as an arid land for the arts; but hope, especially after the election, has not been extinguished.
"The city's spirit is ravaged, but I'm sure that younger people are finding a way to get together and keep their dreams alive. Monterrey is no longer a fertile terrain for rock music," "Fara" Domínguez concludes. "But the fact that the terrain is not fertile does not mean that there are no seeds ready to bloom."