Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

In Sinaloa, cartel operators hide in plain sight

Saturday, June 4, 2011 |

By ALEXANDRA OLSON
Associated Press


The fruits of drug trafficking are on open display in this western state capital: Cartel members honor their dead with gaudy mausoleums at the main cemetery, black-market moneychangers work in the open, and store shelves are stuffed with products from businesses identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as being fronts for organized crime.

The state of Sinaloa, which shares a name with Mexico's most powerful drug cartel, is known as the cradle of drug trafficking in this country, a designation that makes some ask why it has not been the focus of President Felipe Calderon's 4-year-old nationwide war on the cartels.

Only a few hundred federal police can be found here, while thousands have been sent to other cartel strongholds, namely the neighboring state of Chihuahua and Calderon's western home state of Michoacan.

For some, the lack of attention to Sinaloa undermines the credibility of Calderon's strategy, especially after Sinaloa's new governor, whose election was backed by Calderon's party, hired a former state police chief as a top adviser to the force even though he had once been indicted on charges of having ties to the cartel.

The governor, Mario Lopez Valdez, has taken several steps against corruption and the drug traffickers' mystique, but the choice of adviser, by a man who promised change and painted his opponent as the traffickers' friend, came as a shock.

"THE INSULT," a banner headline in the weekly Sinaloa newspaper Rio Doce said.

"It is obvious that in Sinaloa there is a pact," said Congressman Manuel Clouthier of Sinaloa. Clouthier belongs to Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, but has angered the government with insinuations that authorities in his state are collaborating with drug traffickers while the federal government looks the other way.


"It has been a safe state for organized crime to live there and work there and develop with total tranquility," he charges.

The Calderon government did not respond to requests for comment. In the past, it has vehemently denied neglecting Sinaloa or having any pact with the cartel.

As proof the government is pursuing all traffickers equally, officials point to the capture or death of several top Sinaloa cartel gangsters.

"We are making an effort to cover as much territory as we can," Interior Minister Jose Francisco Blake Mora said after a recent meeting with the new governor.

Blake Mora said the federal and state government would consider federal reinforcements in key regions of Sinaloa. But he emphasized the state must first clean up its own security forces under a new federal initiative to help state governments pay for background checks.

Government security officials and experts have also argued that it is natural to focus their efforts on the most violent gangs. While homicides nearly doubled in Sinaloa last year to 2,251 in turf wars with the rival Zetas gang, the state has had fewer of the headline-grabbing massacres and mass beheadings committed in some other states.

"It could be that the strategy has been to focus on the weaker cartels and get rid of them first," said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Washington-based Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. "I think it's clear that their strategy has been to focus on the most violent."

But the failure to eliminate Sinaloa as a haven for traffickers also highlights some weaknesses of Calderon's strategy: While top capos have been arrested, the president has been less successful in going after money laundering or investigating the corrupt officials that protect cartels.

In a place like Sinaloa, "part of it is the perception that legal activity and illegal activity has become so blurred. There is pressure from the legitimate economic interests who don't want their economic interests to be touched," Olson said. "There is a broad sense that there is a lot of money laundering and visible activity related to drug trafficking that has not been fully addressed or combated."

The power of the cartel permeates Sinaloa.

Leaders Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, both wanted by Mexico and the U.S., are thought to be hiding out in the mountains of Sinaloa or the neighboring state of Durango, protected by corrupt officials and loyal locals who live off the drug trade.

In 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department banned Americans from doing business with several Sinaloa-based companies it said were fronts for Zambada, including the prominent Santa Monica cattle and dairy firm. But the so-called Kingpin Act, which prohibits U.S. companies from doing business with known drug traffickers, has not prompted any efforts by Mexico to shut them down. Supermarkets are stacked with Santa Monica milk bottles.

The main cemetery in Culiacan resembles a miniature village of ornate homes. Rows of mausoleums boast balconies, spiraling staircases and photographs of young men who died in their 20s and 30s, sometimes accompanied by replicas of guns and pictures of their favorite cars.

Outside a shopping mall, a large stone cross cradled in well-pruned red plants has been put up in the parking lot where a son of cartel boss "El Chapo" was shot in 2008. One afternoon, a full bottle of beer was left open beside the memorial, a traditional way of remembering the drug-war dead.

Such small monuments to slain young men have become the latest trend, dotting the wealthiest neighborhoods of Culiacan, where neighbors can pinpoint the homes of traffickers by the way they're decorated, the types of cars in the driveway and presence of bodyguards.

Stores in the city of nearly 860,000, meanwhile, are stacked with the latest narco-fashion: baseball hats decorated with skulls and marijuana leaves and knockoff Ralph Lauren Polo shirts made popular by suspected kingpin Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal, who was wearing one when he was arrested last year.

One street, known as the "little market," is lined with informal currency changers who sit beneath umbrellas and openly trade huge sums of dollars with men who emerge from darkened sports utility vehicles with wads of pesos. Local police driving by do nothing.

"If you stop at those umbrellas, they talk about unlimited amounts of money. They sell it to the best bidder. They don't give you a receipt," said German Castro, a Culiacan resident who is the president of the National Association of Currency Exchange Centers.

Castro, however, said he was optimistic about a new federal law that imposes prison time for currency changers who don't register with the government. Before, the penalty was only fines, he said.

Last year's 2,251 homicides made Sinaloa the second-deadliest Mexican state. About half the killings were in Culiacan, where Mayor Hector Cuen needs 500 extra municipal police, but says fear hinders recruitment and many candidates fail lie-detector tests because they can't truthfully say they don't know a trafficker.

Aguilar, Lopez's controversial hire as police adviser, was forced to resign as state police chief in 2004 and disappeared with a state bounty on his head. But in 2009, a federal appeals court dropped the charges and earlier this year, he approached Lopez about a job.

"A person is innocent until proven guilty and I cannot refute what a court had decided," Sinaloa Public Safety Secretary Francisco Cordova said in an interview with The Associated Press. Aguilar "is an adviser who knows police issues. He is qualified for the position of adviser and that is the only thing I can say."

Still, Lopez's election as governor was a stunning defeat for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which had ruled the state - and the country - for decades, and he has moved quickly to present a new-broom image.

He and his Cabinet members have released their personal financial disclosure reports, and this month Lopez enacted a law to rescind liquor licenses of businesses that play songs glorifying drug gangs, known as "narco-corridos."

One of his biggest projects so far is the creation of an elite state police force that his government hopes will reach 850 officers by the end of the year.

The first unit of 140 officers has been formed after passing background checks and an eight-week course at a federal police academy on investigative techniques and operational tactics, Cordova said.

The so-called Elite Group has been deployed to hotspots around Sinaloa, dismantling neighborhood gangs in the port city of Mazatlan and making significant arrests, Cordova said.

It also has faced revenge attacks. Last week, gunmen traveling in seven cars ambushed Elite Group police leaving their base in the city of Los Mochis, killing one officer and wounding two.

Shortly after the ambush, unsigned banners were hung from bridges in Los Mochis and Culiacan, accusing the Elite Group of being allied with "El Chapo." The Elite Group later arrested a man and accused him of putting up the banners to discredit the new force.

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10 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

I never commented before on US involvement , but im going to have to agree that Messico needs US intervention to get rid of the DTOs , I think its the only way -Like what happened in Columbia

Ardent said...

The country is spelled Colombia and not Columbia.

One of the most basic things when you are actually informed in your opinions is to at least spell right the name of Colombia rather than to incorrectly do so. And to spell Mexico out correctly instead of 'Messico' and United States instead of Los Pendejos en Estados Unidos.

Just trying to help you out some, Anonymous... According to you, just what happened in Colombia? The drug cartels are still there, aren't they? So why act as if they are not?

Anonymous said...

The narcos have become the 'elite' class in sinaloa with their money, power, and guns which is going to be very troublesome for the state of Mexico , if or when they decide to take more control of the state. The local population in a place like sinaloa may not support the governments efforts, and things could turn into a terrible bloodbath with such an entrenched enemy with local support.
I have friends in sinaloa tell me that the place is practically lawless with dead people in the streets and kidnappings and other opportunistic crimes on a daily basis, as well as trucks with 'antrax' logos patrolling the streets.
The fact that mexico has bot done shit to seize the assets of the cartels is an obvious sign of how deep the corruption is.

Anonymous said...

@June 4, 2011 4:00 PM

Its spelled Colombia and second what success was there in Colombia? None! Colombia is still more violent than Mexico even though Mexico is in a war against the cartels. Second 95% percent of all the cocaine coming to the US is produced in Colombia compared to 10 years ago where it was only 90 percent. Yeah some success right? So much for US intervention right? I think you need to educated yourself.

Anonymous said...

Legalize, simple, then the real people, everyone, will not be bothered with this prehistoric insane war. Stop sending them to the prison industry and instead mandate users to rehab. dah. Only one law in this universe, what works. Only one thing works, LOVE. How many times must hate go down till the lesson is learned?

Anonymous said...

What pair of bull you are... hahahahahaha i lived in sinaloa my familia has lived in sinaloa for years and too this day non have died in the violence thanks to god the ones who die are the narcos, military, cops, feds, and traoiters snitches, dont mess with them you they won't either.it get violent once a wild but hey its allways been this way we're use to it

Anonymous said...

this aint a spelling bee idiot

porno said...

@9:42 if you can't spell a country's name, maybe your argument is sh!tty also.

Anonymous said...

@8:59pm, exactly. While Sinaloa is not perfect, I go numerous times a year to visit family and it is exactly as he says...if you aren't a narco, family of a narco, a cop/military, or family of a cop/military, you are an unlikely target.

Yes, opportunistic crimes happen and there are gangs of thieves. But do you know who takes care of them? The cartels do, and that is why the people love them...19 at Christmas last year killed in Mazatlan, largely thieves, and done by the cartel.

So, these bullshit stories that get posted here are lies and straight up comedy.

SteveC said...

The signs of the narcos washing cash are everywhere in Mexico. Check out the resort towns and looks, say, at Cabo San Lucas. How many high end silver jewelry stores do you think that such a small place can support? How many are there - a ton. How much business do they do? Hardly any at all, even when the cruise ships are in. Yet they stay open and there are more and more. Check out the amount of business that the high end Plaza Paraiso does NOT do...the place is huge, very nice and expensive, yet the stores there cannot be doing even a small fraction of the sales they might need to do to keep that place afloat. Check out the see-through condos all along the coast from TJ to Ensenada and the ones still being built...where does that money come from? Mexico needs to put the accountants onto these businesses and they'll find a lot of drug money right in front of their faces.

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