In 2007 I was living in Torreón, Mexico, a town roughly 275 miles from the US border.
It was in the midst of Mexico's bloody drug war, and the city's murder rate had risen 16-fold. In many ways, Torreón used to be a cozy, Hollywood-esque town for drug cartel kingpins—everything was peaceful, they had their houses, cars, and day-to-day lives with their families.
But when Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán—the infamous leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel who escaped from prison for the second time this weekend—lost control of the town, all that changed.
The Sinaloa cartel was driven out of the city by the country's most brutal drug gang, Los Zetas—a cartel known for mounting the severed heads of their rivals on poles and carving the letter Z into their victims' bodies. During that period, the way the cartels distributed cocaine changed quite a bit. For instance, home deliveries stopped, and customers had to go somewhere to pick up.
It was a lot like going to the store to buy beer. My girlfriends and I used to buy the drugs whenever there was a party because all the guys were too scared. That's how we got the nickname "Las Malilas." "La Malila" is what we call the hangover that hits you when you're coming down after a long night on coke.
Finding a point of sale was never difficult. You just had to go to one of the known neighborhoods, look for a few tough guys standing around an altar dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and ask them for cocaine. It was sketchy at times because undercover police were always around. You never knew who was out to arrest you, so the transactions needed to happen quickly.
Sometimes you'd show up and the dealers had nothing, but they'd be happy to tell you when the carrito bimbo—the van that delivered the cocaine—was expected so you could come back. It was around that time that I noticed Los Zetas had their own pretty distinct drug packaging. They used these small colored Ziploc-style bags with logos printed on them.
One day, while making a pick-up from a dealer I knew pretty well, I became intrigued by this new narco-branding concept. I wondered how many different designs there were. It seemed as if the designs on the bags were seasonal.
For instance, at Christmas, there'd be a picture of Santa Claus on there and we'd joke about getting some "ho ho ho." There was a turkey at Thanksgiving and a crown on Three Kings Day. Sometimes there'd be special editions with a Superman logo or a Rolling Stones logo or whatever.
Originally, my collection was just of the bags that I'd bought myself, but when people heard what I was up to, they started giving me theirs. Even now, years later, I get messages from people who have bags they want to donate. I never expected my collection would grow into this archive of one of Mexico's most dangerous drug cartels, but it did.
These are some of the bags that were available in Torreón during that extremely violent time.
Vice/July 13, 2015
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