drug wars

special reports

the place mexico's drug kingpins call home by jake bergman


Bergman was a researcher for FRONTLINE's "Drug Wars" series
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."

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 cartels:

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.

Culiacan and the  narco saint Jesus Malverde

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.

Malverde's Believers

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.

· More about Malverde -- from journalist Sam Quinones' new book on Mexico

The Roots of Sinaloa's Drug Trade

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 Edward Heath. 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 smugglers.

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.

Deadly Competition

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 continues.

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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