WORLD -- November 30, 2010 at 10:05 AM ET
Mexico Dispatch: A Town in the Heart of Narco Country, Pretending It Isn't
BADIRAGUATO, Sinaloa, Mexico | The radio on the bus from Culiacan to Badiraguato was turned up full blast, playing "narco-corridos," popular songs with lyrics that spin tales of the drug trade. A few of the passengers were singing along, but most kept quiet, as if in another world.
The headlines that day were filled with news of shootings, kidnappings and decapitations. "More Women Being Killed in Sinaloa," one read. "More Young People Joining the Criminal Ranks," declared another. But none of the passengers were reading the headlines. None of them seemed afraid.
People from Badiraguato mind their own business. But they always seem to be aware of new faces. Even if you speak Spanish and try to dress like them, they spot you immediately. The moment you open your mouth, they know.
The native Sinaloense speak in a nasal, high-pitched tone more akin to a clarinet then a horn. It doesn't take much more than a simple greeting -- "que tal, como le va?" -- for them to deduce your intentions.
Sinaloa is the center of Mexico's narco economy. But any mention of drugs, cartels or violence will elicit a smile and the response that nothing like that happens in Badiraguato.
Asked about Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of the most sought-after criminals in North America, people promptly answered that they had never seen him. A few others came to his defense, saying, "El Chapo helps people in need when asked." When pressed for details, the same people would become silent and turn away.
"We have been carrying the burden of this myth for decades, but Badiraguato is actually one of the most peaceful counties in the state," says Mayor Martin Meza, clearly exasperated with the question. "True, we have a reputation for being the birthplace of the most famous drug bosses in Mexico, but that doesn't make the rest of our citizens drug dealers or criminals," he adds.
"Not long ago, I was interviewed by a French journalist who got mad at me because she thought I didn't want to show her the bodies, or the places of people killed in Badiraguato, but there are no bodies to hide," Meza insists. "This is a peaceful town of citizens involved in legal activities."
The Edge of the 'Golden Triangle'
Geographically, Badiraguato sits on the western edge of Mexico's "Golden Triangle," a busy trafficking corridor with an imposing landscape, defined by a seemingly endless chain of mountains that joins the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango.
It is a region of few paved roads, but if you value your safety, you'd better know where the ones that do exist are coming from and better yet, where they are going. Most locals advise foreigners against carrying a passport, saying they would be better off traveling with someone well known who can vouch for them and their intentions.
In other words, this is no land for the faint of heart. You can walk for days without seeing another human being, then suddenly stumble into a field of poppies or marijuana, to be quickly followed by the rumbling of 4x4 vehicles. If that were to happen, you might not live to tell the story. Whatever is left of you might never be found.
"Everybody you see around here is armed," confides Gustavo Lizarraga, a journalist and editor with El Debate, a newspaper in Culiacan, who has reported on some of the military's drug eradication operations, in which soldiers cut down and burn marijuana and poppy fields. "Unless you are protected by the army, you can have a hard time getting out."
It is exactly the remoteness and isolation of this land that has made cultivation of these crops possible. Some say that it all began as a result of a secret agreement between the United States and the Mexican government to grow poppies during World War II to meet the demand for morphine for wounded U.S. soldiers. Others claim that Chinese immigrants brought the poppies.
The truth, however, is that marijuana and poppies were grown in Mexico long before the Spanish ever set foot in America. Their medicinal qualities were known to indigenous cultures centuries before the U.S. government decided, under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, that both substances were harmful to Americans and therefore should be banned on both sides of the border.
But more than 70 years after the United States outlawed marijuana, the craving of its citizens for this and other drugs has not wavered. News reports last year named Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman ("Shorty") as one of the richest men in Mexico, with a billion-dollar fortune built on drug trafficking. Guzman even turned up on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people.
Forbes estimated that Guzman and other cartels laundered $18 billion to $39 billion in proceeds from wholesale shipments of narcotics to the United States, though it did not reveal any sources or explain how it arrived at those figures. The U.S. government, meanwhile, is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
A Town of Modest Means
What is clear is that Badiraguato is a modest town with a lot of poor people. There are no bars and no big restaurants, other than a few locations around the main plaza, including one that seems to be the favorite of those who can afford a $15 plate of seafood and thus is usually empty.
From the city, you have only two choices: to head west on the main highway to the city of Culiacan, or east into no man's land.
"Don't get me wrong," says mayor Meza, a few minutes after presiding over a small ceremony where he awarded 20 or so grants to poor school children. "Up here in the mountains, there are no schools, no roads, no electricity and no water other than that provided by Mother Nature. But there are families, and they need to live somehow.
"If we want to win this war against drug trafficking," he adds, "we - as government - have to start by providing people some hope and some future, aside from the one they provide for themselves by growing drugs."
This story was originally published by New America Media