REPORTING FROM MONTERREY, MEXICO -- Javier Guzman, a 25-year-old industrial engineer, eased his SUV toward the curb on a recent Sunday as a masked state police officer in the middle of the road signaled him to pull over.
Guzman rolled down his window, greeting the officer with a "Buenas tardes."
"Do you live here? Where are you coming from?" the officer asked.
"I live here, this car is mine," Guzman replied. He had nothing to hide, yet began coughing nervously.
The officer, dressed all in black, from combat boots to hooded ski mask, circled the vehicle. A long automatic assault rifle dangled at his side. After a few more questions, he let Guzman drive on.
Such checkpoints are now part of daily life in Monterrey, a metropolitan region of more than 4 million -- Mexico's wealthiest and third-largest city. The brief anxiety that these encounters produce in people is probably the least of residents' worries.
Monterrey, the sleek capital of Nuevo Leon state, is said to be in danger of "falling" to organized crime.
The city is beset by shootouts, armed robberies and "mass panic" incidents over any sign of danger.
More than 400 people have been killed in the state so far this year, compared with 315 in the same period in 2011, one local report said (links in Spanish). Extortion by cartels or petty criminals is believed to be widespread. And, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009, "all of the region's police forces are controlled by organized crime."
A culture of fear is evident. Last week, a shootout near a mall forced panicked shoppers to cower inside stores in confusion, now a common scene in the city. In 2010, five people died during a stampede at a concert in the suburb of Guadalupe after the sounds of shots were heard.
All of it is leading to what some dub an "exodus" from Monterrey, a brain drain that includes businessmen, artists and young professionals. Most are said to be moving to Mexico City or to cities in nearby Texas.
Guzman, a native of the southern state of Oaxaca, plans to return home later this year. Despite a good job with a U.S. company, he said the security situation is forcing him to reconsider his long-term goals about life in Nuevo Leon.
He moved to Monterrey in 2006 to enroll at the Tec de Monterrey, one of Mexico’s most prestigious universities. The high concentration of top industrial companies in the region nearly guaranteed rich job prospects after graduation, making Monterrey more attractive at the time than crowded Mexico City.
"My parents didn't want me to go to Mexico City because Mexico City was considered crazy and insecure," he said. "And now, it's more insecure here."
Hard data on outward migration from Monterrey are difficult to come by.
Jose Juan Cervantes, a researcher at the Nuevo Leon state university, said efforts by private or public census workers to figure out how many people have left the region have been hampered. Residents hesitate to give out information on their actual whereabouts, and insecurity on roads outside the city prevents investigators from visiting towns that are said to be nearing empty, he said.
"We know people are leaving to the U.S. or other parts of Mexico that are calmer, and not just business people, people of the middle class. But ... we don't have a solid number," Cervantes said. "We don't know yet because it's a line of investigation that we are not really exploiting for the same reason, the war" on drugs.
Scars from the conflict dot the city.
Worn bullet holes mark the exterior green walls of the Cafe Iguana, a music venue in the once-vibrant Barrio Antiguo neighborhood near downtown Monterrey. Four people were killed in an attack there in May, including a well-liked bouncer known as Pablote.
The Casino Royale, where 52 people died after suspected drug traffickers torched it in August, still stands. It is a ghostly structure where mourners were seen recently placing flowers in memory of the victims.
This week, students at the Tec de Monterrey planned protests to mark two years since two Tec students were killed during a shooting involving Mexican soldiers (video link in Spanish). The military at first said the students, Jorge Antonio Mercado and Javier Francisco Arredondo, were criminals.
The National Human Rights Commission investigated and concluded that the soldiers "violated the rights" of the students.
Diana Figueroa, 23, is a Monterrey native who studies international relations at the Tec and also works with the local chapter of Amnesty International. She said regios, as locals are nicknamed, are sometimes hesitant to be seen as voicing protests over violence or corruption in Monterrey.
"You invite people to a demonstration or something, and they say, 'I don't have time' or 'I think I help out more by doing my job well,' " she said.
Some aspects of Monterrey's vaunted urban culture have managed to thrive. A generation of young Monterrey DJs -- stuck at home with their laptops -- is fusing Colombian cumbia with so-called tribal electronic beats to produce a new genre known as tribal guarachero.
The scene is gaining popularity outside Monterrey and among young Latinos in the United States. At NRMAL, an independent music festival held this month, 4,500 fans turned up to see a variety of U.S. and Mexican bands in the suburb of San Pedro.
"We need to see this with a wider point of view, not just as a security thing," said Antonio "Toy" Hernandez, a former member of the popular band Control Machete who helped generate the new music scene under the name DJ Toy Selectah.
"We are living an end of an era, and in Mexico, it's really going on, that end," Hernandez said. "We are probably living -- instead of a revolution -- an evolution."
The idea was echoed by other residents interviewed here, but evolving into what? Parts of the region are kept "safe," presumably in pacts with criminal groups, but other parts seemingly live under an unofficial curfew, in fear of kidnappings and attacks on women.
"It is a good place to live and to study, I like it," Guzman, the industrial engineer, said of the adopted city he is soon leaving. "There was more security [before], but, I don't know. I think now it's evolving."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: The Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico, was torched by suspected drug traffickers in August, killing 52. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times