But the "cockroach effect" – narcotraffickers on the run, regrouping and scurrying to new redoubts – has created a more diffuse, and in many ways more dangerous, violence. Drug battles now crop up in places unaccustomed to them, like Veracruz and Monterrey. And today, fractured groups desperate for cash turn to other illicit activities beyond the transport of narcotics.
"The general population is not worried about drug trafficking. They are worried about kidnapping and extortion and the kinds of activities that impact their lives," says Raúl Benitez, a security expert at National Autonomous University in Mexico City who carried out a study on how behavior has changed in various states because of drug violence.
For the Gomez family, it all began two years ago in the form of rumors in Veracruz of gunmen closing down discos, small businesses being extorted, and kidnappings. Sergio – who raised his three children in small-town, inland Veracruz State before moving to this coastal city a decade ago so they could attend university – told his grown children not to stay out late.
They made other small adjustments. Sergio's Saturday night dinners with his wife and friends got relocated to their homes, instead of restaurants. Enrique took "mom" and "dad" off his cellphone, instead using their middle names, in case he was kidnapped. And, in case anyone was listening, they began to refer to drug traffickers as los malos – "the bad guys" – instead of by the name of the major group operating here, the Zetas.
Still, they weren't overly concerned. Violence seemed to be directed at los malos or the rich, says Sergio, a ranching-related services professional who has invested in small real estate holdings and is solidly middle-class.
Yet over the months, the rumors became realities quietly coiling around them like a noose.
"First it was a cousin's friend, then a co-worker's mother-in-law, then your mother's friend's son. Every day it was getting closer and closer," says Carolina.