'We're living in hell': Inside Fresnillo, the Mexican city with the highest murder rate

In  Fresnillo, a mining city in central Mexico, 96 per cent of residents say they feel unsafe.
In Fresnillo, a mining city in central Mexico, 96 per cent of residents say they feel unsafe.PHOTO: NYTIMES

FRESNILLO, MEXICO (NYTIMES) - The violence was already terrifying, she said, when grenades exploded outside her church in broad daylight some five years ago. Then children in town were kidnapped, disappearing without a trace. Then the bodies of the executed were dumped in city streets.

And then came the day last month when armed men burst into her home, dragged her 15-year-old son and two of his friends outside and shot them to death, leaving Ms Guadalupe - who did not want her full name published out of fear of the men - too terrified to leave the house.

"I do not want the night to come," she said, through tears. "Living with fear is no life at all." For most of the population of Fresnillo, a mining city in central Mexico, a fearful existence is the only one they know; 96 per cent of residents say they feel unsafe, the highest percentage of any city in Mexico, according to a recent survey from Mexico's national statistics agency.

The economy can boom and bust, presidents and parties and their promises can come and go, but for the city's 140,000 people, as for many in Mexico, there is a growing sense that no matter what changes, the violence endures.

Ever since Mexico's government began its war on the drug cartels nearly 15 years ago, murder statistics have climbed inexorably.

In 2018, during his run for president, Mr Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador offered a grand vision to remake Mexico - and a radically new way of tackling the violence. He would break with the failed tactics of his predecessors, he said. Instead of arresting and killing traffickers as previous leaders had done, he would focus on the causes of violence: "Hugs not bullets," he called it. He was swept to victory.

But three years after his landslide win, and with his Morena party in control of Congress, the drumbeat of death continues, suggesting that Mr Lopez Obrador's approach has failed, fuelling in many a paralysing helplessness.

"We're living in hell," said Mr Victor Pina, who ran for mayor of Fresnillo in the June elections and watched an aide gunned down beside him during a pre-campaign event.

Zacatecas, the state Fresnillo is in, has the country's highest murder rate, with 122 deaths in June, according to the Mexican government. Lately, it has become a national horror show, with cadavers found dangling from bridges, stuffed into plastic bags or even tied to a cross.

Across Mexico, murders have dropped less than 1 per cent since Mr Lopez Obrador took office, according to the country's statistics agency. That was enough for the President to claim, in a speech last month, that there had been an improvement on a problem his administration inherited. "There is peace and calm," he said in June.

Many in Fresnillo disagree.

" 'Hugs not bullets' doesn't work," said Mr Javier Torres Rodriguez, whose brother was shot and killed in 2018. "We're losing the ability to be shocked."

Among other strategies, Mr Lopez Obrador has focused on tackling what he sees as the root causes of violence, funding social programmes to improve education and employment for young people. His government has also gone after the financing behind organised crime. In October, the authorities said they had frozen 1,352 bank accounts linked to 14 criminal groups, including powerful drug cartels.

Children exercise as part of a local crime-prevention program in Fresnillo, Mexico on July 21, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

But the collection of programmes and law enforcement actions never coalesced into a clear public policy, critics said. There is "an unstoppable situation of violence and a tragic deterioration of public security in Mexico", said University of Massachusetts Lowell associate professor of political science Angelica Duran-Martinez. "There's not a clear security policy."

Mr Lopez Obrador has also doubled down on his support for the armed forces, embracing the militarisation that also marked previous administrations.

One central pillar of his approach to fighting crime has been the creation of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong federal security force deployed across some 180 regional barracks nationwide. Last week, Mr Lopez Obrador announced that the guard would receive an additional $2.5 billion dollars in funding.

In Fresnillo, the National Guard has not done enough, according to the city's mayor Saul Monreal, a member of the president's Morena party. "They're here, they're present, they do patrols, but what we really need right now is to be fighting organised crime," Mr Monreal said.

Mr Monreal was re-elected during national midterms in June. This was one of Mexico's most violent elections on record, with at least 102 people killed during the campaign, yet another sign of the country's unravelling security.

His family is politically powerful. His brother, David, is governor-elect of Zacatecas. Another brother, Ricardo, leads the Morena party in the Senate and has said he intends to run for president in 2024. But not even the family's political prominence has managed to rescue the city or the state.

Bordering eight other states, Zacatecas has long been central to the drug trade, a crossroads between the Pacific, where narcotics and drug-making products are shipped in, and northern states along the United States border. Fresnillo, which sits in the centre of important roads and highways, is strategically vital.

But for much of its recent history, residents say they were largely left alone. That began changing around 2007 and 2008 as the government's assault on the cartels led them to splinter, evolve and spread.

In the past few years, the region has become embroiled in a battle between two of the country's most powerful organised crime groups: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Caught in the middle of the fighting are residents like Ms Guadalupe. She can remember sitting on the stoop with neighbours until midnight as a young girl. Now, the city lies desolate after dark.

Guadalupe has been too terrified to go outside since the day armed men burst into her home, dragged her son and his friends outside and shot them to death. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ms Guadalupe does not let her children play outside unsupervised, but even that could not stop the violence from tearing her family apart. On the night her son was killed, in the middle of last month, four armed men stormed into her home, dragging out her son, Henry, and two friends who were sleeping over. There was a burst of gunfire, and then the assailants were gone. It was Ms Guadalupe who found the teenagers' bodies.

Now she and her family live in terror. Too scared to stay in the same house, they moved in with Guadalupe's parents in a different part of town. But the fear remained. Her 10-year-old daughter can barely sleep, she said, and Guadalupe keeps dreaming of her son's killing. The motive, and the identity of the killers, remain unknown.