The time or place does not matter. Be it day or night, the residents and visitors of Culiacán cannot shed the fear. People know, and often accept with resignation, that at any moment one can become one of the dismal statistics. On average, eight to 11 people are executed daily in this city, the capital of Sinaloa, as a direct consequence of violence linked to drug-trafficking, corruption, and impunity.
Sinaloa, a state in the north of México, is considered “the cradle of drug trafficking.” Many infamous drug bosses come from here, particularly from a municipality called Badiraguato. Sinaloa is one of the most violent and dangerous places in Mexico.
Origins of Trafficking
In the 1970’s, the drug traffickers of Sinaloa started to establish contacts at the national and international level. In the beginning, they were residents of rural communities who sold only marijuana and heroin.
In the 1980’s, with drug boss Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, “El Padrino”, drug trafficking took an important turn. Operations got much more organized, and the traffickers started taking advantage of the great demand for drugs in the United States to use their Colombian contacts in order to sell cocaine.
Gallardo, also known as “the first drug-trafficking business man” had apprentices: Rafael Caro Quintero; Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán; Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada; the brothers Beltrán Leyva; Héctor Luis Palama Salazar, “El Güero Palma” and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “El Señor de los Cielos,” among others.
The transition to trafficking in cocaine allowed the drug bosses to accumulate vast fortunes. It also transformed the profile of drug trafficking from rural to urban, using Culiacán as a center of operations, and other places, such as the Tierra Blanca district. This, in addition to the trafficking of high caliber firearms from the United States, empowered the drug traffickers.
After the arrest of Gallardo on April 8, 1989, in Guadalajara, his followers expanded and became independent. “El Chapo” was also captured, but escaped in 2001 during President Vicente Fox’s reign. Now Forbes magazine says he is a billionaire, probably the only one for whom the U.S. government is offering a $5 million reward.
Drug Culture Rules
Drug trafficking has penetrated the very culture of Sinaloa, said Elmer Mendoza, the famous Sinaloan writer and expert on the topic. It flourishes in the context of high isolation, low levels of education, and government impunity and corruption. “All of the important drug traffickers grow with the help of the government,” said Ismael Bojórquez, director of the Río Doce, a newspaper in Culiacán.
The so-called drug culture is not hidden. On the contrary, it is obvious and boastful. It is reflected in the luxurious armored SUVs that circle through the town burning rubber, or in majestic air-conditioned tombs, which are sometimes three stories high, such as Humaya Gardens, known as the “drug traffickers’ cemetery.”
It can also be seen in chapel of Jesús Malverde, known as “the drug traffickers’ saint” or the “generous bandit,” where his followers go to pray or to thank him for favors granted. Drug traffickers’ lives get memorialized in songs called “corridos,” which are listened to by children, teens and adults alike.
The drug trafficker’s philosophy, said journalist and sociologist Javier Valdez, can be summed up in the popular phrase, “I’d rather live five years as king than five years as a fool.”
Now many Sinaloans view (and accept) violent death as just a part of life. For example, after the shooting death of José Antonio Ríos on March 21, 2009, on Madero Street, people were not shocked. They jostled to view the corpse. Some mothers even carried their children on their shoulders so that they had a better view. Violence and drug trafficking, said Valdez, “is a way of life, we are consumed.”
Battling the Traffickers
For the last 20 years, every Mexican president has been involved in the fight against trafficking. Every government has incarcerated some drug bosses from different drug cartels, which has also allowed other drug bosses to rise. As a result, said journalist Ricardo Ravelo, drug trafficking has not decreased; the opposite has happened.
In the absence of effective education and prevention programs, coupled with a drastic increase in poverty, according to the Comisión Económica para América Latina (Cepal), México has not only become a drug- producing and trafficking country but, like the United States, a drug consumer. “It is a generalized problem… Here in Sinaloa, there are entire towns lost to drug addiction and alcoholism”, said editor Bojórquez.
After assuming control on December 1, 2006, the current President Felipe Calderón declared a “war on drug trafficking” in agreement with then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
Since then, more than 16,000 people have been killed in the fighting between the authorities and criminals and in internal territorial struggles among the drug cartels. The majority of deaths has been in the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Baja California, Durango and Michoacán. The level of violence has constantly increased, with 2009 being the most violent year of the decade with 7,724 people killed.
During the “war” there have been large seizures of drugs, and drug bosses like Arturo Beltrán Leyva have been captured and killed. The federal government brags about these through an intense media campaign and insists that the high level of violence is an indicator that it is winning the war. Television is filled with commercials from the government about the subject.
However, journalists and analysts have pointed out that the war against drugs has focused more on some criminal groups than others, and that there isn’t enough focus on money laundering.
Money laundering houses operate in plain sight in the El Mercadito area of Culiacán, where huge transactions from dollars to pesos take place without any records. Luxurious trucks approach the laundering houses and pass bags through the windows. It’s an open secret in Culiacán.
“I would like to see Mexico also strike at the Sinaloa Confederation. That has not, up to now, produced the number of arrests and sentences that have been occured in other criminal organizations, like those of the Beltrán Leyva, La Familia Michoacana, Los Zetas and the Golfo cartel… Let’s hit everyone evenly”, said Edgardo Buscaglia, United Nations expert on security and organized crime after Mexican marines killed drug boss Arturo Beltrán Leyva.
The fall of Leyva, said Buscaglia, fortifies the Sinaloa Confederation, led by El Chao and El Mayo Zambada, known in Sinaloa as “untouchables.”
“Arresting drug bosses and leaders will not slow down the trafficking of drugs,” said Buscaglia. “I have been saying for two years that we need to dismantle the economic structure of narcotics… the money is still in the legally constituted businesses, and that has not been touched.” He also pointed out that “drug trafficking politics haven’t been touched either… here we do not know where the struggle starts and where the agreements do.”
Some journalists, like the acclaimed Lydia Cacho, have interpreted the “war on drug trafficking” more as a strategy of “social cleansing” than a crusade against crime. Universidad Nacional Autónoma of México researcher Bolivar Huerta said that Calderón “invented the war” and put military on the streets for two reasons: in response to pressure from the United States to combat drug trafficking, and to gain legitimacy after having won the presidency in a questionable election in 2006.
Human Rights, Government Wrongs
Deployment of the military has generated an avalanche of accusations about human rights violations. In December 2009, Amnesty International Amnesty called for a global mobilization against the “scandalous levels” of abuse committed by the Mexican army.
“We have many complaints filed against the army for robbery. They think it is war loot,” said Mercedes Murillo “Meché,” director of Frente Cívico Sinaloense. “They do it to frighten the public so they will not get involved.”
“The only ones they [the authorities] respect are the drug traffickers. You see them violate every human right of the poor. The small car that can barely make it to the beach gets detained, but the huge luxury trucks that even talk, those they do not detain, they pass at the speed they want,” said the activist.
Amnesty International, as well as the UN, have documented acts of harassment from the army towards “Meché.” On November 11, 2009 at midnight, soldiers entered her house and aimed their rifles at her head, claiming they were there verifying an address. On the night of January 30, 2010, the army returned to her house and aggressively searched her car.
“One of the greatest obstacles we have in México in defending human rights is the message of impunity,” said Alberto Brunori, UN high commissioner for human rights in the country, during his visit to Culiacán on January 20, 2010. Brunori, who was invited to Culiacán by “Meché,” commented that one of the reasons abuse is not reported is not due to indifference, but because “the public is very frightened.”
The UN administrator revealed that out of 128 cases of documented aggression against social activists, 98.5 percent go without punishment.
“Meché” and other journalists from Culiacán also said that many of those killed have been civilians who had nothing to do with drug trafficking. Nonetheless, said “Meché” the authorities tend to “discredit the deceased” and move trials forward so that it is presumed that if they were killed it was because they were “doing something bad.”
This was the case of Jesús Heriberto, assassinated at 20 by the police for no apparent reason on July 25, 2008. His mother, who is still fighting for justice, explained that at first, the police said he had a prior criminal record. But she was able to prove that was false, and that in fact the police officer who killed her son had a prior history of abuse of authority. However, the police officer is free and still working. Other mothers shared similar stories during Brunori’s visit.
Journalists are also a target for attacks in the context of the “war against drug trafficking,” by both the drug traffickers and by the government, particularly the army. This has turned México into the most dangerous country in Latin America to practice journalism. In January 2010 alone, three journalists were killed in Sinaloa.
“Dozens of aggressions have been recorded in the last year  against journalists, including 14 murders. When journalists have filed reports against the collusion of authorities, police officers, governors or politicians, with the organized crime, sparks fly. The threats can come via telephone, emails, stalking, verbal or physical aggression, robberies, attacks on their houses or cars, and crimes to make examples of the victim,” said journalist Sanjuana Martínez.
Today, the topic of drug trafficking is unavoidable for countless Mexicans around the country. There is fear and distress in all social strata. There is talk of the enormous responsibility that the United States has for the violence, due to the trafficking of firearms and the rising tide of addictions. Many blame Calderón for having missed out on an effective strategy. Some think the solution is legalizing drugs or leaving the country, while for others the key is more investment in social justice and education. But the great majority of those interviewed for this article, those in Sinaloa, as well as those in México City, concur that what the country needs, urgently, is a drastic change.
By Manuel Ortiz
February 13, 2010
San Diego News Network
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