Mexico City’s trendiest neighborhood is always packed with hipsters, fresas, expats, and tourists who flock to its signature bohemian bars, lively nightclubs, taquerias and restaurants. In a country riddled with narco violence, La Condesa —one of Mexico City's so-called barrios mágicos or magical neighborhoods — has always seemed to exist in a bubble removed from the dangers of the drug war.
But now that appears to be changing. A recent series of journalistic reports have found that narcos are increasingly piercing that bubble and extorting some of Condesa’s businesses with a regular "protection tax."
Last week Mexican daily Reforma published a report alleging that criminal groups are charging area businesses twice-monthly extortion payments of $300-$600. Subsequent journalistic investigations have verified the claim.
El Universal newspaper found that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has been collecting "taxes" in La Condesa and other neighborhoods including Roma and Zona Rosa. According to the report, the cartel and other criminal groups have allegedly been extorting some local businesses up to $200 a week, while gang members allegedly eat and drink at the establishments without paying a single peso.
With extortion comes violence. Last month the owner of a local establishment known as Bar Life was ambushed and shot in the head. His brother told the press that criminals had attempted to extort him prior to the attack. Authorities downplayed the incident, denying any links to organized crime extortion payments.
In spite of the recent wave of bad press, chilangos— as Mexico City residents are known— continue to frequent Condesa after dusk, but with increasing apprehension.
“I don’t feel unsafe while going out in Condesa, but I’ve heard there’s been plenty of armed robberies and people getting beat up, so I try to stay away from dark streets and instead of taking a taxi I take an uber," said recent college graduate Ernesto Sanchez. "Lately I’ve seen way more cops.”
Nicole Klipstein, another recent college graduate who frequents Condesa, told Fusion she thinks the neighborhood could be experiencing the same type of crime problem that other touristy places have suffered in Mexico.
“Acapulco used to be the go-to spot for many chilangos who wanted to party during long weekends," she said; "but a few years back the city became a narco hotbed and many stopped going, or at least frequenting its famous clubs.”
"I've been extra careful over the past couple weeks," a local bar owner who wished to remain anonymous told Fusion. "If my phone rings and I don't recognize the number, there's no way I'll answer. My thought is that if I don't answer, they can't extort or threaten me." The bar owner says he's received threats and "weird calls" before, but is now taking added precautions and avoids staying at his bar after hours.
The government has responded to the Condesa crime reports by increasing the police presence in the neighborhood — a weekend deployment called operation “Zero Risk.” The government is also urging citizens to use an anti-extortion cellphone app created in May known as Mi Policia K8, which allows users to pinpoint their location and alert police.
Some deny there's a problem at all. Hugo Vela, president of the National Industry Chamber of Restaurants and Foods, said publicly that Condesa is a “safe place” that continues to lure new businesses.
But the reports of encroaching criminal activity have left many feeling like there's no where safe left to party.
Until recently, cartel extortion was usually considered a problem affecting only small towns or municipalities, or something that happened only in northern border states, the deep south, or in a handful of cities infested by narcos.
Mexico City, meanwhile, was viewed as a relatively safe urban zone, with a murder rate far lower than that of crime-ridden U.S. cities such as Detroit, according to Forbes magazine.
But for many of Mexico City’s middle and upper class, the drug war now seems to have reached their doorstep — and is creeping on their nightlife.
Andrea Noel contributed to this report from Mexico City.