MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - Stunned by rising violence in Mexico's drug war, people laid marigolds on the graves of its victims and lit candles on altars as they celebrated the Day of the Dead in the country's richest city.
In cemeteries across Mexico, people burned incense and crowded graves on Tuesday with papier-mache skeletons, sweets and tequila in the festival blending Catholic rituals with the pre-Hispanic belief that the dead return once a year.
But the joyous spectacle popular with U.S. tourists was a rare public showing of anger, tears and frustration in wealthy, conservative Monterrey, where grenade attacks and shootouts are killing bystanders. This year, the industrial city with close U.S. ties has become a flashpoint of the cartel war that has killed more than 30,000 people across Mexico since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown.
"It's like a bad dream and everyone is afraid," said Chrystel Rangel, a classmate of murdered 21-year-old student Lucila Quintanilla, who was shot by a hitman chasing a prison guard last month. "I know Lucy's gone, but I keep thinking she'll be back," said Rangel as she placed a plate of enchiladas -- meat wrapped in tortillas and drenched in spicy sauce -- on an altar in memory of her friend.
Monterrey, once lauded as a model Latin American city for its low crime, universities and growing middle-class, cannot escape the trauma of the violence that has killed more than 700 people this year, including elected officials and civilians.
Soldiers killed a 34-year-old architect on Thursday, mistaking him for a hitman, one of at least five civilian deaths in Monterrey in the past month. "Fernando's death wasn't just a collateral death. The army can't hide its mistakes and say he was a hitman," the architect's brother, David Osorio, said at the family's suburban home, his eyes full of tears.
Dozens of grenade attacks, including one on a busy public square last month, have raised the stakes for Calderon. Monterrey's spiraling violence is arguably the most dramatic development in his campaign against cartels.
The city that generates 8 percent of Mexico's annual gross domestic product considered itself immune from the beheadings and shootings in dangerous border towns, but this year's surge in drug killings is hurting Monterrey's economy. Home to global cement maker Cemex and plants run by U.S. companies, Monterrey has Mexico's highest per-capita income.
"It's time to end this drug war, because all it has done is provoke tragedy and death," said businessman Ernesto Morales, standing at an altar to civilian dead. The purple altar in Monterrey's main square was covered in candles and emotional, hand-written messages to those murdered. "We won't forget you, silence is complicity with the narcos," read one message.
Some activists urged people via Twitter to light a candle for the dead and pressure Calderon to stop the killings.
Calderon flew to Monterrey on Friday to reassure residents. He asked for patience as the army and police try to quell a turf war between the Gulf cartel and its former armed wing, the Zetas. "No one said it would be easy. There are no magic solutions," he said after opening two public hospitals.
Monterrey's violence is a long way from the criminal anarchy engulfing Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas, which in just two years has become one of the world's most violent places with more than 7,000 deaths.
Hundreds of families carrying plastic flowers mourned drug war dead in the city's rubbish-strewn San Rafael cemetery, where graves were being filled on Tuesday with drug hitmen, police and innocent bystanders. Some are never identified.
October has been the deadliest month in the manufacturing city, with 350 people killed in and around Ciudad Juarez, including 14 people at a birthday party.
A war over trafficking routes between local cartel boss Vicente Carrillo and Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who heads the Sinaloa cartel, has spawned a sense of hopelessness. Jobless youths see a future only in joining gangs and wading into countless battles over protection rackets, drug sales, smuggling and kidnapping.
"These six months have been hell. When my husband died, I was pregnant and now all I want is to go to El Paso," said a 25-year-old widow at the cemetery, while a group of musicians played ballads glamorizing the escapades of drug hitmen.
Additional reporting by Julian Cardona in Ciudad Juarez, Editing by Stacey Joyce