ECATEPEC, Mexico — A family doctor in this tattered suburb of Mexico City, Roman Gomez tends to his patients under the constant threat of death from neighborhood thugs.
A squad of state policemen stands round-the-clock guard at the four-story building that serves both as Gomez's clinic and home, vetting all who enter. He wears a bulletproof vest under his medical tunic, keeps a large pistol tucked into his belt, rarely ventures into the street.
Gomez, 53, has lived this way since early February, when he shot and killed two of three armed men who burst into his crowded waiting room to collect $20,000 in protection money. Now members of the dead men's gang are gunning for Gomez.
“They never imagined that a doctor was going to confront them directly,” Gomez says, noting that he grew up in a violent section of Cartagena, Colombia, and served as a teenager in that country's army before studying medicine. “These people are criminals who have for a decade been doing whatever they want.
“The worst thing, the most serious thing, is that these gangsters live here,” he says. “I see them every day, wanting to kill me.”
Extortion, much of it carried out by small-time hoods with ties to Mexico's vicious criminal syndicates, stalks communities across Mexico, targeting businesses of every size and individuals alike. Citing them as one of the plagues most affecting ordinary Mexicans, President Enrique Peña Nieto has vowed to eradicate the shakedown rackets.
He'll be hard pressed to succeed. But he and other officials seem to have chosen Mexico state, of which Ecatepec is the largest municipality and where Peña Nieto served as governor before running for president last year, for the effort’s launch.
In too many places like Ecatepec, a nerve-jangling sprawl of 2 million people nailed to the right shoulder of Mexico's capital, most everyone either pays the gangs or risks retribution if they don't. In part because of its size, state officials have fingered Ecatepec for a pilot campaign imploring people to call in anonymous complaints against the extortionists.
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“Extortion is spreading a lot,” Salvador Neme, secretary of public safety for Mexico state, which envelopes Mexican City on three sides, tells GlobalPost. “But we can't act if no one makes a complaint.”
Similar efforts have failed elsewhere precisely because many Mexicans suspect that corrupt officials leak callers' identities to the gangs. Recent well-publicized murders of informants have confirmed those fears for many.
“There are always police involved with these groups,” Gomez says of his neighborhood, describing the local branch of the state prosecutor’s office as a “rat's nest” from top to bottom. “I've seen the police talking in a friendly way with many of these people. Either they are afraid of the gangs or they are working with them.”
That reality has spurred citizens' initiative, often with deadly consequences. So-called self-defense militias form in rural towns, standing up to both gangsters and local police. Neighbors patrol city streets to ward off burglars and stick-up artists. Mobs lynch accused thieves, rapists and kidnappers.
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“If this isn't taken care of, this will become like Colombia,” Gomez says, referring to his homeland's decades-long torment of guerrilla war, gangland slaughter and violent crime.
To many observers, Mexico has already surpassed Colombia at its bloody worst, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Since the hyper-violence exploded here in 2006, the criminal wars have killed more than 70,000 people and left thousands more missing. Large stretches of the country near the northern border, down both coasts and surrounding Mexico City have become battlegrounds.
As he tells it, Gomez's lethal hand was forced when the gang that in recent years had been feeding on local shops, restaurants, plumbers and other businesses — charging each $80 to $125 a week — finally came for him.
Gomez began receiving threatening calls shortly before Christmas, threatening death to himself, his wife and three children if he didn't pay what was asked. Although he reported them to state police, Gomez at first minimized the threats, assuming the calls were being made from inside local prisons, as many are, in the hopes he'd panic and pay.
But in the new year the calls became more frequent, the promised violence more graphic. Finally, on Feb. 6 the caller said it was time to pay up, either with Gomez's money or his life. Gomez called the state police office a few blocks away to report the threat.
The gangsters arrived before the cops.
At about 2:30 that afternoon, they kicked in the front door of the clinic's crowded waiting room, where women and children sat on 11 tightly packed chairs watched over by Gomez's personal heroes: a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, photos of his father, a retired Colombian naval officer, and of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
As his terrified patients threw themselves to the floor, Gomez rushed from his office to meet the shabbily dressed and bleary-eyed assailants, each wielding a pistol.
“They were calling my name, screaming all sorts of foul things,” says Gomez, a fit and wiry man who looks far younger than his age. “A moment arrives when a few uneducated idiots want to take away everything we have, everything we've built. You say to yourself, this is it.
“This is it,” he repeats.
One of the men grabbed Gomez by the arm, pulling him toward the door. Gomez pushed back, grabbing the man's gun and opening fire on all three.
The gangsters fled into the street, two of them dropping dead not 20 yards from the clinic. Bleeding heavily, the third man jumped into a passing pedicab, ordering to be taken to a nearby house, vowing to kill the driver if he informed the police. The pedicab operator quickly returned to the clinic and told the arriving detectives where to find the man, who was arrested.
“They have a lot of evil, but not much smarts,” Gomez quips about the attackers. “What fills me with fury is their complete lack of humanity. They act without a trace of it.”
Gomez himself was jailed, facing murder charges. But he was freed days later after protesting neighbors blockaded the busy highway not far from the clinic, demanding his release. Investigators ruled the shootings were in self-defense.
Yet Gomez remains a prisoner, loathe either to abandoned a medical practice 20 years in the making or to yield to the gangs.
“I feel like I am finally reaping all that I have planted through the years,” Gomez says of his clinic. “Starting over, with nothing again, isn't easy.”
Gomez has sent his wife and children away for their safety, visiting them just two weekends a month.
His oldest son, just out of medical school, has abandoned plans to work with his father in the clinic.
Holed up in the family quarters above his office, Gomez passes the more fearful nights sleeping in his armored vest, the loaded pistol at hand. The threatening calls continue.
“The fear is constant,” Gomez says. “My life changed. My peace disappeared. Everyone is worried about what can happen.
“But we have to be ready for anything,” he says. “We have to be tough.”