The tiny municipio of Sáric, with its 27 miles of desert frontage opposite the Arizona border, is a case study in Mexico-The-Invisible. Sáric brims with secrets, but few observers stumble in to view its exotic mazes.
And some are urban giants. More than 1.5 million people crowd into the municipio of Juárez, facing El Paso, Texas. And, hemmed in by California and the Pacific, the municipio of Tijuana has more than two million. So municipio police work both city beats and rural patrols like deputy sheriffs–amid many pressures.
For one thing, municipios also form building blocks of a non-governmental kind. Their boundaries trace out “plazas,” turf areas for organized crime. Many of the 42 border municipios–perhaps all–hide an unlisted celebrity somewhere in the shadows. A plaza boss supervises smuggling–and more violent crimes–for a large trafficking cartel. When two or more warring cartels overlap their plazas in a single municipio, the plaza bosses can get a little testy.
On July 1, 2010, such tensions at Sáric wiped out at least 21 cartel gunmen in a single Wild-West-style ambush. This was big enough to make nationwide news in the United States. But only for a moment, and with almost no details. The dangers of Sáric’s lonely backroads kept U.S. media from venturing near–or even finding out what the battle was really fought over. Unreported in the background was a classic outlaws’ roost.
The hideout village of Cerro Prieto nestles in a natural stronghold of majestic desert upland. Secluded at the southern edge of Sáric municipio, it is less than 30 miles south of Arizona. The name “Cerro Prieto” translates as “Dark Hill,” like a page out of Tombstone and Zane Grey, or Butch and Sundance with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. The “hill” is a high, gaunt butte with a flat top and steep sides of dark stone, hugging the back of the village. Off a narrow paved road (blocked at times by rockslides in the gulches), an entry lane trickles toward the brooding butte, crossing the dry riverbed of the Rio Planchas. A derelict rope bridge sags overhead, strung for the occasional weather shift and desert flashflood. The rope skeleton frames a smear of rooftops and yard shrubs farther on. Banana leaves and scrawny fan palms mark a sudden oasis. The Mexican census managed to find this place in 2010, though some maps can’t: official population 353.
By early 2010, Cerro Prieto/Dark Hill formed the violent nucleus of a fifty-mile north-south splinter of no-man’s land leading up to the U.S. border: a “plaza” covering two tormented municipios, Sáric at the border and, just behind it, slightly more populous Tubutama. A renegade trafficking organization had carved out this turf between main pathways controlled by the most powerful of Mexico’s crime syndicates, the Sinaloa Cartel. Rejected, the Sinaloa Cartel was not happy.
Dark Hill was said to have a small army in its craggy hideaway, captained by a mysterious local, Arnaldo Del Cid, known as “El Gilo.” To defy the big guns of Sinaloa and pull in drug loads from farther south, Gilo’s band made a counter-alliance. They joined a new national cartel run by three violent brothers, the Beltran Leyvas. The tent had many actors, but one main show: The fabulous profits of drug smuggling led to epidemics of backstabbing, and grabs for the spoils.
In 2010, just after the big battle at Cerro Prieto/Dark Hill, I went chasing its riddles. Desert residents warned that if I dared approach the village, cartel sentries would come out for a little greeting. And sure enough, right at the dry riverbed guarding the entry lane, a gray double-cab pickup roared up, decked out with a rollbar and smoked windows. The driver’s window slid down, like a dark stage curtain unveiling the holder of my fate: lean face, neatly clipped string goatee–and a baseball cap. The voice demanded: “What is your business in Cerro Prieto?”
The subtext was sadly standard for cartel lookouts. On the pickup’s dashboard flashed an angry bubble light: red-blue-red-blue. “We are municipales,” announced the questioner, meaning Sáric municipio police, on rural patrol. “We” referred to shadowy silhouettes, secreted behind tinted glass on the back seat.
According to an area military source, a particular Sáric municipio police officer was moonlighting as chief halcon, or lookout, for cartel interests at Dark Hill–an officer known tartly as El Zorro. The pickup driver fit the description, and I didn’t ask. He studied my press card intently–then suddenly relaxed: “Well, welcome,” he said at last, apparently satisfied. “Feel free to look around.”
This, too, is oddly standard. Even in an atmosphere of casual murder–including the murders of many Mexican journalists–a U.S. press card, at least at certain times, can exempt an intruder, under the label: “Not a Threat–And Not Worth the Trouble His Disappearance Might Bring”–which is a fragile cocoon, ready to dissolve in a heartbeat. Later I caught glimpses of the truck preceding me to village houses, as if making sure nobody got so carried away with the welcome as to actually say anything.
They needn’t have bothered. The place was ghostly quiet, like a discarded movie set. Many natives were said to have fled. The few who came to their doors smiled wanly, repeating the script: We know nothing. A youth strolled out of desert glare in dusty heat, wearing a military-style beret, shirttail out–and he gave a little wave. After the big battle, most of Gilo’s boys were said to be laying low in the hills.
El Gilo had consolidated his hold here months earlier. The stories about his ravages were seldom verifiable or definitively traceable to him, but they set a tone: The wife and daughter said to have been raped in front of husband and father because the gang wanted their ranch; the horses stolen from an impoverished ranching commune to carry bales of pot; the killings for unknown reasons; the houses burned as intimidation, revenge or turf marking; the flood of carjackings; the demands for protection money.
A thousand miles south, the rise of El Gilo was being watched by an irritated presence. “Shorty” (“El Chapo”) Guzmán, the myth-enfolded top boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, was reportedly barricaded in much higher outlaw mountains, down in Durango. With a billion-dollar revenue stream and outlaw armies of his own, El Chapo surveyed a chessboard the size of Mexico. As 2010 deepened, he had brushfire wars going against varying cartel rivals all along the border’s 2,000-mile length. The simple story of Dark Hill–as simple as backstabbing for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre–was being endlessly warmed over, in an alphabet soup of new names, dates, ever-new faces.
But for Dark Hill, a breakpoint was nearing–in the summer of 2010–with a twist. Finally fed up with the Dark Hill competition, Chapo, along with his contractors in the smuggling corridors on either side of Dark Hill, took action. They launched a Convoy of Death–sometimes known in those days as an X-Command. When the Sinaloa Cartel sent a parade of stolen SUV’s and quad-cab pickups to clean out a rival stronghold, the vehicles might be ceremonially marked, by painting large X-marks on the windows with a handy medium, white shoe polish.
As Mexico’s largest, most-business-like cartel, El Chapo’s Sinaloa syndicate could publicize itself as being the least violent–the “protector of the people” against massacre-mad loose cannons (while ignoring its own massacres). In February 2010, X-convoys had crossed the whole of Mexico to the Gulf coast, smashing at the Zetas Cartel.
On the night of June 30, a convoy of perhaps 50 or more vehicles moved toward the municipio of Sáric. At the Tubutama crossroads, only ten miles short of the den at the butte, a Mexican Army checkpoint was conveniently discontinued, just in time for the Sinaloa convoy to pour through.
Assault rifles bounced in the darkness against cup-holders and upholstery, as a blitzkrieg army prepared to clean El Gilo’s clock. They seemed not to notice that the desert road was rising into narrow gulches with no road shoulder, between overhanging cliffs: no room to maneuver or even turn around, and perfect lines of fire from the clifftops. They were apparently counting on complete surprise–a stunningly naive hope.
Somebody had talked, and the clifftops were crowded. When automatic weapons fire began pouring down from vantage points over the road, ranchers across the flats thought it sounded like a war movie. Before ever reaching Dark Hill, the convoy was cut to pieces. The authorities, military and police, arrived after the rather customary delay, once there was daylight. They found a ghastly graveyard of bullet-riddled X-vehicles abandoned along a long stretch of road, in the vicinity of a settlement called La Reforma. Bodies were strewn about. Sinaloa Cartel gunmen had sought to dive out and take cover under the vehicles, to no effect.
Dark Hill had beaten off what had seemed a certain Sinaloa victory. In a Mexican crime war without coherent annals, almost without a public history, it was not publicly noted that this desert showdown seemed to mark the end of an icon. There would no more X-convoys–at least not with the ostentatious white markings. Apparently never again would Mexico’s largest cartel daub its attack vehicles with convenient bullseyes.
The 21 dead acknowledged by Mexican authorities did not include any bodies carted off by retreating survivors. At dawn the confusion was great enough to let a sprinkle of local reporters get in, from Mexican media in towns nearby, though picture-taking was soon stopped. Customary government secrecy closed in: another milestone in the dark.
Soldiers and state police surged to the area–after the fact, establishing a massive government presence once the shooting was done. The victorious occupants of Dark Hill melted away to outlying ranches. Then all was quiet.
A month later, on July 29, the Sinaloa Cartel would strike again, this time more judiciously, burning some Dark Hill vans and smuggling camps on the Planchas riverbed, and killing a few Gilo gunmen (or many, said the rumors).
So then the question: Who, at last, had become the enduring ruler of Dark Hill? Three more bodies would turn up, arranged symbolically at the three different roads leading into Tubutama, the gateway to Dark Hill. Was this a message from El Gilo, saying he was still running things? Or was it the reverse, a little something from the Sinaloa Cartel, saying they had sent Gilo packing? Nobody seemed able to say.
El Gilo, the Khan of high-desert house burnings, was never reported arrested or killed–or even seen or photographed. Under the brow of a dark-rocked butte, at a ragged suspension bridge hanging uselessly above dry sand, the questions go unanswered–and the world seldom asks.
The municipio of Sáric is only one small, beautiful, tormented sister, in the border’s great family of 42 municipios, large and small. Their history is often a wan smile.