But when the Gulf Cartel and its enforcers – the Zetas – splintered in 2010, the latter took over the Veracruz turf. The Zetas, made up of former elite military members – are perceived as the most ruthless of the gangs, kidnapping migrants and extorting regular citizens.
"As the authorities have combated groups in other regions of the country, it has provoked their moves to other states and regions, like ours," says Gina Dominguez, the spokesperson for the Veracruz State governor.
Mexico is no stranger to violence. The dirty war of the 1960s and '70s; unsolved, ongoing mass murders of women in Ciudad Juárez since the '90s; and violence between criminals that predates Calderón's strategy have marred Mexico's modern history. And yet, while those along the US-Mexican border are hardened by years of violence between groups trying to secure lucrative drug routes into the US, Veracruz residents were largely caught by surprise when things began to deteriorate.
Many do not see this as a neatly defined fight between rivals.
"Between bad against bad is civil society," says a priest in Veracruz, who for the past six months has canceled evening masses and all evening activities for his congregation.
Luis Alberto Martin, the head of the Veracruz branch of the national business association Coparmex, says that a new climate is reflected among his own 500 members. Local businesses have reported at least 39 cases of extortion and four kidnappings since January. (The numbers, he believes, are much higher because, as a recent census survey indicated, 92 percent of crimes go unreported.) Just since September, 82 Coparmex members have hired private security personnel for their families. A company that sells security alarms reports that sales have gone up by 76 percent. Another company reports sales of 110 bulletproof vehicles since July, a record.
"For a harmonious city like Veracruz, this is scandalous," Mr. Martin says.
What "scandalous" means, however, is fraught with political sensitivities and contradictions.