Sinaloa is the cradle of Mexico's narcotrafficking industry. Jesus Malverde a Sinaloan bandit is their patron saint.
Having lived in Mazatlan Sinaloa during my early childhood and before my marriage I know for a fact about the admiration of some people towards drug dealers, they are seen as heroes because of their "good deeds" in their communities, which are often striken by poverty. I have heard many of the folk songs "corridos" that have been written for them and last time I was there I was sad to hear young people wanting to be like them.
"Violence is a national problem, but this is ground zero," says Jose Rafael Martinez, a 40-year lawyer browsing a United Nations photo display about the plague of illegal weapons worldwide. "It's good they're trying to do something."
Mexico's narcotics industry started in Sinaloa when mountain communities began producing heroin early in the 20th century for U.S. consumers. Poppy production led to marijuana farming. Then South American cocaine started flowing through the area in the 1980s, heading north.
The drug trade has always enjoyed the protection of local and federal officials, says Luis Astorga, a Culiacan-born sociologist who is one of Mexico's leading experts on the drug gangs.
He adds that the federal government has launched frequent campaigns since the 1950s to eradicate narcotics.
The last big push in Sinaloa was Operation Condor in the mid-1970s, when 10,000 soldiers deployed into the mountains for years to shut down drug plantations and smugglers.
Many of the gangsters simply moved to Guadalajara, Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere, where they or their successors control major trafficking organizations. The senior civilian official in charge of Condor became a drug smuggler himself, until he was assassinated near the South Texas border 15 years ago.
"The officially successful results of these campaigns were of merely rhetoric nature," Astorga has written in a report for the U.N. "Tougher measures in one place created trafficking problems in another."
Most people in this city of nearly 1 million are law abiding and abhor the narcotics trade. Culiacan anchors a thriving agricultural industry that produces tomatoes and other vegetables for Mexico's tables and those in the U.S. each winter.
Most everyone trudges to jobs or school each morning, returns home to their families each night.
Shopping-mall theaters show the latest films. Food courts sell Chinese takeout, American ice cream.
Many people seem scandalized by the violence and the drug trade; they want it to stop. But not all of them. Narco-culture has sunk its roots deep here.
New narco corridos — gushing ballads about the gangsters — hit the streets almost as soon as one of them dies, is jailed, or scores a victory against a rival or the government.
No one writes songs about the police or the soldiers.
Among downtown Culiacan's most cherished sites is a small chapel a few blocks from the state governor's offices. The shrine honors Jesus Malverde, a bandit hanged nearly a century ago.
Mexican drug capital turns into perfect setting for narco novelists 07:51 AM CDT on Friday, May 30, 2008 By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News email@example.com CULIACÁN, Mexico – The setting is this steamy western city, long known as the narco capital of Mexico. The main character is a drug trafficker with an easy smile who wins his young love's heart by replacing an old tin-roofed church so the two can attend Sunday Mass without rain leaks interrupting the sermon. But the young man, known as "El Roba Chivas," the Goat Bandit, is soon gunned down inside his gold-plated SUV on the streets of Culiacán. The scene, drawn from real life, may soon show up in the pages of a novel. "You can't make this stuff up," said Leonidas Alfaro Bedolla, who is gathering material for his next book. "This is the only place where real-life characters are more powerful and interesting than fictional ones." Culiacán – long known for powerful drug lords, crooked cops, narco folk ballads and even a narco saint – is also home to a growing body of narco literature. At least six authors are using the violent city and Sinaloa state as the setting for their novels, chronicling the narratives behind the gunfire, local authors say. "You could fairly say drug trafficking affects every aspect of life in Sinaloa," said Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of an upcoming book on drug traffickers. "Whether we like it or not, it's a part of Mexican popular culture today, part of what we listen to and increasingly part of what we read." The name "Culiacán" conjures up comparisons to the Colombian cities of Cali and Medellín, one-time homes to powerful drug cartels of the same name. Some of the most notorious names in the Mexican drug trade, including Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca, Amado Carrillo Fuentes and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, have used Sinaloa as their base, forever changing the landscape of this vast agricultural region. Soybeans, lettuce and tomatoes thrive beside fields of marijuana and opium, destined for U.S. markets. Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte captured the region's violence and drama in his best-seller La Reina del Sur, or The Queen of the South. Mr. Pérez-Reverte spent months in the streets of Culiacán under the tutelage of local author Elmer Mendoza, one of several novelists to whom the book is dedicated. The novel is described as a "biography" of Teresa Mendoza, a young woman from Culiacán who becomes the mastermind of a multimillion-dollar drug empire. Newer novelists include Mr. Alfaro, Javier Váldez, Luís Antonio García and 26-year-old Elena Méndez, who is preparing to publish her first book, a romance novel. "Morbid curiosity sells, as we all know," said Ms. Méndez, adding that the drug trade is not the focus of her book but is unavoidably part of it. "Drug trafficking will be mentioned in passing, since it is an inescapable reality of my surroundings. The narco culture has now permeated every corner of our society, and if anyone denies it, they're lying."
Critical look Unlike the musical narcocorridos, ballads that typically glorify the exploits of drug traffickers, the novels take more of a critical approach. The novels highlight police corruption and links between drug traffickers and the state and federal government. An accountant, Mr. Alfaro began writing books in the late 1990s and has penned four. They include Tierra Blanca, or White Land, a portrait of drug trafficking in the region, which gained impetus when the U.S. government signed an agreement to buy opium to meet medical needs during World War II. Mr. Alfaro concedes that his books are not best-sellers. They do better in Spain than Mexico, he said. "I didn't get into this to make easy money," he said. "I got into this as a sign of my outrage, my rejection and anger against what's become of our society." Many of the narratives revolve around death, the authors say. And Culiacán is a perfect setting. The city had two funeral homes in the 1980s but has at least 22 today, said Juan Carlos Ayala Barrón, an academic at the University of Sinaloa who specializes in the cultural and economic impact of drug trafficking. An estimated 1,500 hitmen are available for hire in the city, he said, and an entire neighborhood – Colonia Guadalupe Montoya – is known informally as Colonia de Sicarios, or neighborhood of hitmen. During a visit to the neighborhood, Mr. Ayala Barrón pointed to modest, well-kept homes with late-model SUVs parked in front. "There's poverty here, but no misery," he said. "There's a saying here that's part of a narcocorrido and cultural reality: 'I'd rather live like a king for five years than like an ox for 15 years.' " Mr. Alfaro added, "For these people the American dream is not in California or Texas, but here in Culiacán. Wealth, as well as death, is instant." About 450 women are left widowed by the violence each year in Culiacán, Mr. Ayala Barrón said.
The man honored by the shrine to Jesus Malverde in Culiacan, so often packed with locals, is no ordinary Mexican saint — Malverde was a Sinaloan bandit who has been adopted as a kind of a patron saint by the northern province's drug traffickers. Sinaloa is the cradle of Mexico's narco-trafficking industry, producing the majority of the nation's drug kingpins in recent decades. Their number includes such storied figures as Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who ran the Guadalajara Cartel and ordered the savage killing of a DEA agent; Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias "The Lord of the Skies" who died in plastic surgery while attempting to change his appearance; and the Arellano Felix brothers who ran Tijuana as a personal fiefdom. The state of 2.5 million people consistently has the highest murder rates in Mexico, with 350 drug-related killings so far this year. And Sinaloans are also blamed for the killing of federal police chief Edgar Millan in his Mexico City home on May 8, which prompted the arrival of more than 2,000 soldiers and federal policemen earlier this month.
Many locals are happy to see the feds, hoping their presence will break the brutal grip of trigger-happy gangsters over life in the city. "We have grown up with violence here, but recently it has got totally out of control," says Humberto Olvera, a 30-year old accountant. Olvera recounts how he recently crashed into the car of a minor trafficker, and was marched at gunpoint into his parents house until he paid the man off in cash.
But for many others, the federal forces are seen as an invading force, come to disrupt a local way of life. The resentment is particularly strong in the mountain communities close to generations-old marijuana and opium fields. Here soldiers are insultingly branded "guachos," a slang term once used to describe Indians who served as messengers. "The soldiers are abusive and rude," complains Dolores Gamboa, 42, in the ramshackle mountain village of Santiago de los Caballeros. "But most of all they are dangerous." She proudly shows off a bush of opium poppies in her garden, which she says she planted for decorative purposes.
Many Sinaloans hail the traffickers as heroes, saying they have fought hard to bring wealth to the hardscrabble region, and crediting them with helping the poor by rebuilding houses, buying medicine and handing out extravagant Christmas gifts. Their exploits are celebrated in song in narco corridos or drug ballads, which are banned on radio and television but are immensely popular on the street, where the gunslingers are often referred to valientes, or brave ones — and stores with names like "Mafia Clothes" sell gold chains of Kalashnikov rifles to heavily armed men in alligator-skin boots who drive huge, gleaming pickups. "These guys are scared of nothing," says Mercurio Sanchez, 50, a record store owner. "They have no fear of the police, the army or even the DEA."
In some ways, the federal forces who arrived earlier this month were being deployed behind enemy lines, as a show of strength in the heartland of Mexico's drug trade. And that sense may have been underscored, on Tuesday, when local gangsters gunned down seven federal officers raiding a local house — one of the worst ever losses suffered by the agency. Newspaper editorials despaired that government forces have never appeared so vulnerable. Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna retorted that the villains had a home-ground advantage, and ordered more troops to Sinaloa. "We need to be in the very place where the violence is being generated," he said. "We are going to strengthen our operation in Sinaloa."
Some 500 miles from the U.S. border on the Pacific coast, Sinaloa is a crucial battleground in President Felipe Calderon's war on drug cartels — a campaign that the Bush administration seeks to back with $1.4 billion in cash and equipment. It is in Sinaloa's arid mountains that Mexico's drug trade was born, with peasant farmers first growing opium poppies — the raw ingredient for heroin — back in the 1940s. These pioneers developed violent organized crime structures that later took over the business of supplying marijuana, cocaine and then crystal meth to hungry American consumers — a market worth an estimated $30 billion to the Mexican crime families.
Even some of the residents opposed to the traffickers in their midst argue that the military presence does more harm than good. Since Calderon began his crackdown against drug gangs in December 2006, soldiers at Sinaloan checkpoints have killed at least nine unarmed civilians, including three children. "Fighting violence with violence doesn't work. Now we are oppressed by soldiers and gangsters," says Culiacan human rights activist Mercedes Murillo, part of a growing chorus calling for a demilitarization of the anti-drug effort.
The Calderon administration, for its part, has no intention of sending the troops back to the barracks anytime soon. On the contrary, following the killing of the seven policemen earlier this week, officials vowed to increase the caliber of armaments available to federal forces in Sinoloa. "The Mexican government is superior to organized crime," Garcia Luna said. "We are going to confront it with everything we have."