What Cali and Medellin are to Colombia's narcotraffickers, Sinaloa is to the
drug lords of Mexico. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre
mountains in Mexico's northwest, this drug-rich Mexican state is just a
two-day drive from the U.S. border. Sinaloa, says former Mexican Federal
Police Commander Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni, "is the cradle of the
biggest traffickers Mexico has ever known."
Bergman was a researcher for FRONTLINE's "Drug Wars"
For decades Sinaloa has been Mexico's breadbasket. Its fertile fields have
produced huge crops of soybeans and sesame seeds--and vast amounts of
marijuana and heroin destined for U.S. markets. Sinaloa's poor campesinos have
made it big--growing and selling these narcotics and networking their way from
the foothills of the Sierra Madre to become major players in Mexico's drug
Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Rafael Caro Quintero,
Guero Palma, Amado Carillo Fuentes, Ismael"El Mayo" Zambada, Joaquin "Chapo"
Guzman, Manuel Salcido Uzeta a.k.a. Cochi Loco and the Arellano Felix brothers.
They are all Mexico's most infamous narcotraffickers. And they all have made
Culiacan, Sinaloa's state capital, their hometown.
These drug lords live in luxury homes in the hills of Culiacan-- a city of
600,000 which seems prosperous and modern compared to the rural villages that
dominate Sinaloa. The drug business is so ingrained in Culiacan, its souvenir
shops sell items with emblems commemorating the outlaw culure: marijuana leaf
belts, machine gun buckles, embroideries of airplanes, like those used for
smuggling.And, there's even a patron saint of drug smuggling--the legendary
bandito Jesus Malverde-whose image is seen dangling from the chain necklaces
of many young Culiacan men.
Malverde's chapel is in downtown Culiacan, in a glass brick building just
across the street from the Government Palace. On the day FRONTLINE's
production crew visited, a string and horn band played Mexican ballad
songs--"corridos" --glorifying Mexican traffickers and the miracles of their
patron saint, Jesus Malverde.
It was unclear who hired the band until a late-model gold Ford pick-up pulled
up and three men emerged, one wearing shiny snake skin cowboy boots and
carrying a giant wreath of flowers. He placed it inside the chapel at the foot
of Malverde's image. Onlookers and local journalists told FRONTLINE that this
was a prosperous narco-trafficker giving thanks for a good harvest--a
successful run north.
His tribute joined dozens of others; the chapel walls are crowded with
plaques bearing the names of known trafficking families or pictures of men and
their trucks, all paying tribute for "safe passage from Sinaloa to Sacramento"
and other journeys north.
According to legend Jesus Malverde was a thief who robbed the rich to give to
the poor. He was hanged in 1909 by Sinaloa's governor. But the legend of this
bandit's defiance and style of justice was passed along through corridos which
helped turn him into a people's saint. A wedding party, for example, pulled up
outside the chapel while FRONTLINE was filming. The bride in her white dress
entered the inner sanctuary to kneel before the glossy plaster bust of
Malverde. Soon after, a short, graying matron purchased a necklace containing
his image, whispering quietly in prayer.
According to the DEA, Malverde's believers--who usually come and go in pickup
trucks--have carried his image as far as Florida, Texas and California.
And although belief in Malverde is a mixture of Catholicism and Animism the
local diocese says the Malverde chapel is an embarrassment. "Nobody has become
a saint robbing and killing, he was a bandito," laments Father Antonio Ramirez.
Many trace Sinaloa's first narcotics crop--opium--to the numerous Chinese
settlers who arrived in the last half of the 19th century. "It was a good
agricultural place for it. And generation after generation the people just did
it, they perfected it," explains Edward Heath, former Country Attache for the
DEA in Mexico.
But large scale production of opium didn't start until the 1940's and World
War II. Japan gained control of the Asian opium supply and the U.S. military
needed morphine for its soldiers. So the U.S. turned to Mexico for help. "We
were concerned that our supply of opium or morphine would be cut off because
the world was at war. So we needed a supply close by. But,that was one of
those black box things. Who knows when it happened, who did it, and why." says
During this period of a government-tolerated opium trade, many Sinaloans made
their fortune. "Everybody was growing it, it was institutional. Some government
officials bought the harvest from the farmers to export themselves. There were
even soldiers up in the hills caring for the plants," explains Dr. Ley
Dominguez, a 77-year-old life long resident of Mocorito, one of Sinaloa's most
notorious opium regions.
After Japan's defeat, however, the U.S. no longer needed Sinaloa's inferior
strain of opium. But many farmers continued to produce opium and heroin;
operations became more clandestine, and a smuggling network was set up.
In the mid-1980s, Sinaloa's marijuana and heroin smugglers turned to a new
product: cocaine. Colombia's drug traffickers were finding it increasingly
difficult to bring cocaine into the U.S. through South Florida. So they began
looking for alternate routes--and found willing partners in Mexico's
The relationship lasted a few years until the Mexicans tired of just
smuggling cocaine for a fee and began demanding payment in cocaine. The
Mexicans soon set up their own distribution networks in the U.S. and greatly
increased their profits and power. "From that moment on, the power of
corruption definitely increased," said Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni. "The
organizations became much richer, much more powerful, with much more control.
Now it wasn't one million or two million, it was 15, 20, 30, 40 million dollars
that they could make off a single payment. "
And so the gangsters from Culiacan became world famous kingpins of complex
criminal enterprises--many resembling multi-national corporations in structure.
"They're not the common criminal that you're going to see with a golden tooth,
black shirt and a white tie with a .45, just standing in a corner. They're not
like that anymore. They have another type of thinking. They work with
computers, with the best technicians in every field. They have the best
chemists in the world. The best lawyers. The best architects. They have the
best of the best," said Juan Ponce Edmondson of Interpol.
Since the 1940's, competition in Sinaloa for the huge, easy profits of the
drug business has been violent and pervasive. A neighborhood within Culiacan
was called early on "a new Chicago with gangsters in huarache sandals" because
of frequent gun battles. In the 1970's, the violence forced the Mexican
military to launch Operation Condor, which flooded streets and countryside with
soldiers. Face-offs between traffickers and the military were brutal and
eventually gang-leaders relocated to other areas of Mexico-- Guadalajara,
Mexicali or Tijuana--where they were unknown and safe. But the tradition
Today, local newspapers cover an average of two drug-related murders a day.
Young men drive Sinaloa's highways and streets in new trucks and SUVs.
They're seen at the chic honky tonk bars wearing snakeskin boots, cowboy hats,
gaudy silk shirts with jeans and gold necklaces sporting AK-47s or marijuana
medallions. Some are very young. But a fifteen or sixteen-year-old boy in
Sinaloa "is already a bully, a gunman, a man," says former police commander
Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni. "They [the traffickers] were made there. And
that is where they are being made everyday."
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