If you say the words "Sinaloa," and more particularly "Culiacán" to most Mexicans, the first things they think of are drugs and violence. The state's primacy in the drug world reaches back over a hundred years: Mazatlán is Mexico's largest pacific port and boasts a large Chinese population, and there are accounts of opium dens in both Mazatlán and Culiacán around the turn of last century.
It is common knowledge in Sinaloa that the opium trade began in World War II, when the Roosevelt administration encouraged production for processing into morphine. [Luis] Astorga, the most thorough researcher in this field, says that this is a myth, but it continues to be reprinted with some regularity, and is often quoted as an example of Yankee hypocrisy: First they asked us to grow the stuff, and now they accuse us of causing their problems.
Marijuana, the other big local crop, has been part of Mexican culture since shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Compared to opium, though, it was bulky and relatively unremunerative as an export product, and it only became big business in the 1960s, in response to the heightened demand on el otro lado ("the other side," a common way of referring to the United States). It continues to be smoked to some extent in the sierra, but, once again, is viewed less as a drug than as a commercial product. As with opiates, its use was once respectable &$151; Astorga's book quotes an ad from a 19-century Mazatlán newspaper for "patented Indian cigarettes" from Grimault and Company in Paris, which claimed to be "the most efficacious known remedy against asthma, congestion, nervous cough, catarrh [and] insomnia." The plant grows throughout Mexico, so the Sinaloans had no special claim to its production, but their high-mountain variety was prized by connoisseurs and the connections they had built up in the opium trade gave them a head start when they turned to exporting other banned substances.
When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency began to make life difficult for the Florida-based groups that were shipping cocaine via the Caribbean, the Sinaloans stepped in once again. By the mid-1990s it was estimated that some 60 percent of Colombian cocaine was coming through Mexico. Then came crystal methamphetamine, which is cooked up in laboratories on both sides of the border. Once again, the Sinaloans had no special skills when it came to production, but they were now firmly in control of the cross-border traffic. While Mexico has several drug cartels, based in various parts of Juárez and Tijuana, and on the Gulf of Mexico — the people in charge of all but the last are overwhelmingly Sinaloan.
The Sinaloan supremacy is not simply a matter of having been there first. The drug lords who have come out on top have done so through a ruthless exercise of force, and the willingness to resort to violence and killing has long been considered a Sinaloan specialty. A glance through the newspapers of Culiacán or Mazatlán reinforces this stereotype, not only because of the high murder rate, but because of the attitudes expressed by those in positions of authority. For example, I was reading the paper one morning and found a representative of the district of La Noria protesting that his area was being falsely painted as a "nest of narcos," a slander to his hardworking constituency. He went on to say that the reason there were so many murders up in the nearby mountains was not due to drug trafficking, but rather because "That's how these people solve their problems," that one could not expect the sierrans to resolve their differences just by talking.
All in all, I had come with hopes of seeing a legendary Mexican crime capital, the menacing modern version of what a reporter in the 1950s had called "a new Chicago with gangsters in huaraches." Instead, I found myself in one of Mexico's most friendly and vibrant regional capitals. Despite the absence of obvious gangsters, I had clearly come to the right place. At least, I never found a Sinaloan who did not encourage me to think so. Point out a rich field of tomatoes, and a local would explain that the irrigation system alone costs more than the crops could earn at market, but the on-paper earnings would conceal a small fortune in drug income. Note that a newspaper had reported an astonishing turnout at a concert, and it would be explained that, of course, some of the reported tickets had not really been sold, they were just added on as a way to launder another thousand dollars.
All of which may or may not be true. When the Nexos article said that Culichis discuss drug doings as routinely as baseball scores, it did not quite capture the situation: in Sinaloa, the twists and turns of the underworld are a far more popular topic than sports events, and all discussions of them seem to be designed to showcase the speakers' familiarity with the milieu. Since the familiarity may, in fact, be nonexistent, the result is a folklorist's dream: there are stories everywhere, and one begins to feel like a visitor to the Baghdad of the 1001 Nights or Boccaccio's Italy, a land populated by medieval fabulists.
Of course, if I had been attempting a serious history of the Mexican underworld, this would have been an incredible headache. The difficulty of separating fact from fiction on the Sinaloan crime scene is all but insurmountable, and even the most authoritative chroniclers end up having to fall back on theory and conjecture. So much of the real business is happening up in the sierra, in an illiterate, peasant world that is famously suspicious of outsiders, that even in Culiacán one is living mostly on hints and rumors. Press a Culichi for hard, firsthand experiences of drugs and violence, and one hears of the strange smell that came from the house next door, which later turned out to be a heroin lab, or of a childhood trip to the country during which some village girls got carried off by boys from the mountains in some sort of backwoods mating rite. The facts are spare, but the stories are endless, and for someone interested in the underpinnings of contemporarycorridor culture, they are a constantly unfolding pleasure. In other Mexican states, most people avoid even talking about the drug world and certainly would deny any close familiarity with its working. In Sinaloa, everyone from children to wrinkled elders shares an enthusiastic intimacy with the sierran traffic and la nota roja, the crime news.
Even in Mazatlán, people had constantly fed me drug stories. They would point out the discotheque that Francisco Arellano Felix, one of the brothers who formed the Tijuana cartel, had built to launder money and impress his society friends, or tell how a traficante had turned up during the town's famous carnival the previous year, surrounded by heavily armed sidemen, to ensure that his girlfriend was chosen queen. The incident that really brought the situation home to me, though, was most notable for its ordinariness: I was in a small, relatively scholarly bookstore, looking for a copy of Astorga's drug history, and I mentioned something about my project to the white-haired lady behind the counter. As I was browsing through her stock, she suddenly looked up from her newspaper to say, in a cheerful voice, "Oh, here's something that will interest you. The head of the lawyer's union was just shot in Culiacán." She proceeded to read me the newspaper report, and then to give me her own, off-the-cuff analysis: "You see, we just had an election and the new governor has been talking a lot about law and order. It looks to me as if this is the underworld sending him a message that he had better go easy and not make too much trouble." What struck me was not so much her take on the incident, which was echoed in several editorials during the following week, but that she had a take at all. Anywhere else, one would expect a respectable, grandmotherly woman to simply murmur a few shocked phrases about what a dreadful place the world was becoming. In Sinaloa, everyone is ready to provide the inside story.
Elijah Wald is a writer and musician with 20 years' experience covering roots and world music. He was writer and consultant on the Smithsonian multimedia project The Mississippi: River of Song and is the author of the award-winning biography Josh White: Society Blues. An overview of his work is available at: elijahwald.com. Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas was originally published in 2002 and this excerpt was reprinted here with the permission of the author.