Mexico's Drug War Goes 'Behind Enemy Lines'

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Daniel Aguilar / Reuters

A couple visits the Jesus Malverde chapel in in Mexico's state of Sinaloa.

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."