Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, March 22, 2021

Part I: The Mountains of Sinaloa, Kingdom of the Mexican 'Narcos' and Headquarters of a Multinational Trafficking Company

"BaptisteGrandGrand" for Borderland Beat

For Part II of this series, please click this hyperlink.

For Part III of this series, please click this hyperlink.

Note: This article was translated from French to English by BaptisteGrandGrande. The original article was published by the French newspaper Le Monde in December 2020.

Two Jeeps loaded with armed men are waiting at the end of the road. As soon as our pick-up truck reaches them, they take off in a cloud of dust, and we follow them in the middle of the night. A few minutes later, the convoy stops in the middle of an isolated area. "OK, you can get off," the driver announces.

In between headlights and the noise of the engines, ten dark shadows slowly unfold around us. They are men dressed in black and wearing ski-masks and jeans. They are sporting automatic pistols and assault rifles. These sicarios ("hired killers") belong to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the biggest criminal groups in the world.

Their leader approaches. 1.75 m (5.7 ft) tall, athletic looking, he wears military fatigues. At 35, Luis (first names have been changed) is one of the "commanders" of the city of Culiacan (900,000 inhabitants), the capital of the cartel. It's up to him to decide whether or not I can go further into the organization's territory.

It is here, in the northwest of Mexico, that the wealth of the most powerful of the eight cartels of the country, a multinational drug company, whose annual turnover is estimated at 3.5 billion dollars (2.9 billion euros), was built.

This criminal enterprise has a very efficient business model: selling hundreds of tons of drugs around the world using two assets: corruption and violence. On Mexican soil, and sometimes even abroad, this violence has no limits.

In twenty years, the Sinaloa Cartel has executed more than 30,000 people: “narcos” from competing organizations, police officers, military personnel, civilians, traitors, journalists… The list is endless. In his own fiefdom of Culiacan, an average of eight people die every day.

“I don’t know exactly how many, but I’ve killed more than a hundred men,” the “commander” will soon confirm, Kalashnikov in hand.

The Opium People

If such balances evoke those of civil or religious wars, the killings in question are never committed out of ideology. It is for the sole purpose of securing its profits that this “company”. To understand this reality, it is not so much a question of counting the dead as of counting the dollars. 

If Luis agrees to talk to me, it is precisely because his leaders in Culiacan understood that my goal was not to observe the crimes of the cartel or to denounce this or that person, but to analyze the workings of this business and the hold it has on the region. The first step was to follow the initial phase of the drug trade, the production, as closely as possible.

“If you do something you’re not allowed to do, it’s dangerous for you,” the clan leader warned. “But if it goes well, then it’s okay. In my area, we produce black heroin and crystal meth. And we package tons of cocaine.”

He speaks like a businessman, one could even say like a “commercial.”

His historical headliner? Black tar, one of the three forms of heroin. This speciality goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, Chinese immigrants from the neighboring United States converted the locals to opium extraction from the poppy grown here in the mountains of Sinaloa, a state as large as Brittany and Normandy combined.

Production increased after the Second World War, when the Americans, deprived of their Asian supply channels, asked Mexico to provide them with a derivative of opium and morphine, intended to relieve their wounded.

Twenty years later, the Vietnam War in turn contributed to boosting Mexican production, this time with an ultimate derivative of opium: heroin. Discovered by GIs fighting in Southeast Asia, it was quickly adopted by American junkies. The “barons” of Sinaloa are active in this market and gain in prosperity. Even today, the Mexican cartels supply 85% of the heroin sold in the United States.

So Luis gave me permission to go further into his area, in the Sierra Madre Occidental, where most of the 40,000 hectares of poppies grown in Mexico are concentrated. To avoid the army checkpoints, I will have to take an avioneta, one of 3 the many small Cessna planes that the organization uses for drug deliveries. The pilot is waiting for me at the Culiacan airport to go through the checkpoints without any trouble.

Child’s play: apart from the army, the cartel has the upper hand on all the security forces in its territory, populated by about 3 million people.

Swamps, lakes and mountains follow one another during an hour of enchanting flight, until the pilot shows me the place where the avioneta will land: a 400 meters long dirt runway on a ridge line. At the end of the runway, ten other narcos are waiting for me in three pickups.

All of them are wearing camouflage fatigues or black military uniforms and dark caps over their hoods. Combat vest, walkie-talkie, automatic rifle… A professional equipment for henchmen generally aged between 20 and 30 years old.

The convoy sets off into the sierra, in the direction of the poppy fields. The powerful 4×4 Ford vehicles progress on a steep track, with the squeaking of the shocks and the clatter of the weapons hitting the sidewalls. The expedition continues up the hillside, in fresh air and the smell of pine. The wooded slopes of the mountains stretch as far as the eye can see, sometimes with deep valleys.

At each intersection, plainclothes lookouts sitting on their quads, pistols in their belts, greet us by waving their Motorola radios. At the bend in the road, the track widens, then becomes a road. We enter a village.

Small, well-kept farmhouses stand on either side of the central artery, with sidewalks painted black and white. Women and young children smile and wave. There is no Mexican flag or city hall: the only public building is the school, an imposing white building freshly renovated, extended by a courtyard. Three women are sweeping the playground in the midst of well-dressed and happy students. A truck is parked in front of the entrance, tarpaulin up.

Dozens of small brown bricks have been carefully stacked across the width of its platform: opium loaves. For more than a century, the population of the Sierra Madre has lived on this brown paste, extracted from the poppy that all the peasants of the region cultivate in an intensive way.

Three kilometers after the village, we continue on foot on a rocky ridge, to a field planted with magnificent purple flowers. Poppies cover part of the mountainside.

“There are about 800,000 fields like this in the region,” a man in the group assures me. Grabbing a short, curved blade, he deftly cuts into the bulb of the plant, from which a thick, white sap soon beads up. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” he says.

“My father did it before me. I cut, let the sap dry, and then harvest the gum. In this area, we can produce between 600 and 800 kilos of opium per year. Here, there are about 600 farmers who work with us. Everyone grows poppies. There is no other job. What else could we do?”

The annual salary of this “narco peasant” is 50,000 pesos (2,000 euros). A fortune in a region where 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. If it seems to be a fatality, the culture of the drug is not a curse: it is their massive and voluntary implication in this criminal agriculture which allows these rural populations to leave the misery.

Bosses and Patron Saints

The chief of the sector, silent and closed since my arrival, finally agrees to talk to me. He is a former soldier, a guy in his thirties, who has returned to his land to become one of the cartel’s executives in the area. He alone commands 200 men, recruited among the young peasants of the area. All of them work on the family farm or have their own farms. But they are above all soldiers of the cartel. Armed and trained, they are permanently connected to their leader.

On his orders, they can abandon all activity as long as the situation requires and fight to the death. The sector leader himself is under the authority of a regional manager, with whom he communicates by radio or telephone.

“Once you’re in, you can’t get out. I have three children. I want them to study. I don’t want this life for them,” he says in front of a sumptuous panorama, his Kalashnikov on his lap.

“If I hadn’t worked for the cartel, I would have liked to be an engineer or something like that.” His job is dangerous, he agrees, but he intends to continue, because he likes living here and his salary of 14,000 pesos a month is very good locally.

“The military comes often,” he says. But the whole region is controlled by the cartel. “Every time the army makes an incursion, the lookouts posted in the sierra give the alert. If necessary, his men engage in combat with their assault rifles and machine guns scattered in the surrounding villages.”

Then, come what may… Like all the narcos of the cartel, this local boss is very religious. “God is God,” he summarizes, “and we are what we are. We do not joke with this gentleman” However, he confesses that he has already killed several soldiers. No matter what the sixth commandment of the Bible says, the safety of the “product” is sacred…

Back to Culiacan. Here too, in the heart of the narco country, faith is displayed everywhere. The narco who brings me back from the airport to the city proudly shows me the mother-of-pearl stock of his Browning, decorated with an image of Christ.

This is how it is: the cartel has developed a paradoxical relationship with the Catholic religion. All its members are very pious, while they sell drugs by the ton and execute men, women and children without mercy. One place illustrates this syncretism: the Malverde chapel, in the city center.

On the edge of a main street, this long building with a green tin roof and a cross was built in honor of Jesus Malverde, a highwayman who, in the early 1900s, decided to leave his working-class condition to attack the rich and distribute the riches to the neglected populations of Sinaloa, a state that was for a long time one of the poorest in Mexico.

Since his death in 1909, Malverde has been the object of a veritable cult; the population has made him a saint, celebrated in this makeshift church. Undoubtedly to obtain absolution for their crimes, the narcos also venerate this “benefactor bandit.”

And so, for sixty years, Jesus Malverde has united the cartel’s narcos and millions of Sinaloa’s inhabitants in the adoration of a common patron saint. Illuminated with candles, his bust sits on a small altar in a crypt covered with exvotos and images of Christ.

In the other room of the chapel, an old sacristan sways on her rocking chair, under portraits of Jesus Malverde and imposing crucifixes. Her parrot parades above a marble counter, where busts and icons are for sale for a few dozen pesos.

In front of the building, a couple runs a stall where leather medallions with an image of the hero stand next to key chains and caps with the words “Cartel de Sinaloa” on them. The visit to the chapel ends in an outside alcove, where the merchant has lined up statues of Jesus Malverde and those of another hero: “El Chapo,” Joaquin Guzman, the one who was the emblematic leader of the cartel until his arrest in 2016 and his extradition to the United States the following year.

Bread Multiplication

The organization he brought to the world is now a complex structure of over 10,000 men. It appeared in the 1980s and has many major clans working under the authority of a staff composed of “El Chapo’s” successor, Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo” (a distortion of his middle name, Mario), and about ten “bosses,” including two sons of “El Chapo.”

But while the Sinaloa cartel is undoubtedly a multinational corporation operating in 50 countries and making billions of dollars, it operates like a farm business. Far from the cliché of the pyramid holding company, it is first and foremost a cooperative, where every step of the business counts.

After the poppy harvest in the sierra comes the time for the manufacture of heroin. A hundred kilometers from the poppy fields, we are in another isolated corner of Sinaloa. At first sight, it is a simple farm. Except that there is not a single head of cattle on the horizon, and not a single tractor in the low brick buildings or on the fallow land. Here, they do not produce milk or corn, but drugs. And despite the apparent destitution, it is in such places that the cartel’s profit margin takes off.

Sign of the importance of the place, eight young men guard the farm. Like all the narcos of the cartel, they wear combat jackets, balaclavas, and are equipped with an assault rifle. All of them are constantly monitoring their radios: the army regularly conducts operations in this area to destroy the laboratories. There is even a Drug Enforcement Adminitration (DEA) station a few miles away.

The man who greets me is dressed in a white full-body suit and wears a double-filter mask. José, 28 years old, is the production manager of this lab. He is the one who will explain to me how, with derisory means and in four hours, he multiplies the value of this opium.

The Time of the Agapes

First step: the mixing. In the barn, José’s uncle is at work, wearing a truss and a balaclava. With a small knife, he opens a dozen opium loaves, wrapped in cling film, then pours the fragrant gum into a large plastic container.

“There, there are seven kilos. We buy 10,000 pesos a kilo.”

For thirty minutes, he mixes the paste with water with a wooden handle, until he gets a homogeneous mixture. José, for his part, weighs a bag of lime with precision, which another man adds to the mixture. “Hand 6 holding, you have to let it rest for an hour,” he warns, sniffing two long lines of cocaine in a bag out of his pocket.

No time wasted on the farm… The work never really stops. As soon as he leaves the barn where the diluted opium rests, José heads for another barn to join two of his men. Sitting on wooden crates, their AR 15 rifles resting against the wall, they are busy cutting a pile of cannabis plants to keep only the tops: marijuana, the other product of the farm. In the dry noise of the secateurs and the heady smell of the drug, José explains:

“There are hectares of cannabis around here. We take out hundreds of kilos of marijuana per year. Once it’s dried, we wrap it in plastic and deliver it. The problem is that the demand in the United States is falling.”

Following an implacable economic logic, the legalization of cannabis as well as its derivatives in a growing number of American states, and the local production which sometimes accompanies it, dry up little by little this historical market of the cartel.

Heroin, on the other hand, remains very profitable. And it is time, according to José, to get to the second stage: the presser. His uncle and his two assistants have installed a cylindrical press above a high basin, itself covered with a white nylon sheet fixed to its perimeter.

Carefully, they dipped a plastic jug into the bowl containing the diluted opium and poured the contents into a canvas bag enclosed in the cylinder of the press. Slowly, they operate the mechanical arm until a yellowish liquid flows on the white sheet, then passes little by little in the basin through the fabric.

The operation is patiently repeated until all the mixture is filtered. After each press, the cloth bag is emptied of the solid residue it contains, a brown soil that the narcos pour into a bucket.

“We keep it to sell it to people who make synthetic drugs,” says José.

Nothing is lost in the kingdom of the narcos… Total cost of these two operations, mixture and press, salaries included: 2,550 euros.

“Now we have to wait twelve hours.” José leads me to the small field next to the farm. Under the trees, between a rickety table and a state-of-the-art American pickup truck, his men have set up a barbecue and are handing out grilled beef wrapped in tortillas that the farm women keep bringing in with hot cloths. The radio in the pickup plays narcocorridos, the popular local bands that sing the praises of the cartels. The beer is flowing, the marijuana joints and cocaine bags are spinning non-stop.

On the farm, family life resumes. Young children poke their heads through the door of the house. Their messy toys cover the floor of a clean and orderly room. A white scooter is leaning against the wall of the lab. In the yard, a doll sits on the edge of the well, next to a marijuana head. A young woman spreads out a wash of white sheets that were probably used as opium filters.

Hat on the head, gun and radio on the belt, José’s father joins the party. At 50 years old, he is the patriarch of the zone, a very experienced narco. It is him who invites me to come back the next day to assist to the ultimate stage of the heroin production, the most technical: the heating.

Gross Margin of 1,560%

In the basin, the precious filtered liquid has become a purple paste: morphine. Cut into thin strips, it is put to dry in a pan of 1.50 meter diameter, offered to the sun on the roof of a lean-to. Two hours later, José’s father poured the morphine into a pot, which he took to a nearby field and placed on a large metal burner connected to a gas bottle.

“Now you have to put on a suit, too, it’s dangerous.” He then pours acetic anhydride, a powerful acid derivative, which is usually used for producing aspirin and other chemicals, onto the heated morphine.

The paste immediately boils, giving off strong, irritating fumes. His eyes reddened by the toxic fumes, one of his sons, still a teenager, came to listen to his father teach him the correct dosage of anhydride and how to reduce the flame under the mixture. Once the liquid has congealed into a blackish molasses, the narco apprentice puts the pot in a bowl of cold water so that the drug solidifies. Cost of this third phase, including wages: 85 euros.

“The queen of the queens! This is the best there is!” Two hours later, José proudly holds a black, cracked mass in his hand: a kilo of pure heroin.

Between the purchase of the opium from the farmers in the sierra and the three stages of refining, the cost of making this kilo is 2,635 euros. But its retail value in the United States will be 41,000 euros. This gives the cartel a gross margin of 1,560%, which the costs of transport and corruption will reduce by barely a third…

There is no magic in this formula, but a simple equation, which the actors of this criminal mechanism master to perfection: to provide millions of consumers with a prohibited substance, therefore expensive, by having it produced at a derisory cost in the regions that the cartel keeps outlawed, in the north of Mexico.

It is heroin, its historical product, which, since the 1960s, has structured the entire economic model of the organization: a low-cost industry, likely to generate enormous profits.

Since then, its members have continued to optimize their activities by expanding their offer to distribute, with even higher margins. They are “blockbusters” that they do not even enjoy and that they simply transform: synthetic drugs and cocaine.

Source: Le Monde


  1. Sicario 006 raising his pom poms and dropping his boomers in 1.2.3..

    1. 9:22 cjng tweekers ready to say pura gente de la señora menso

  2. Great share BB. I’m glad this is reaching French readers too.

    - El Choclo

  3. CDS probably paid the journalists to write this fluff piece. Yet another article glorifying the narco lifestyle

    1. How is this glorification? This is REALITY... kudos to that French reporter for getting himself out there. While you, on the other hand, argue from your mothers basement.

    2. 006 is an overweight gamer who for some unknown reason decided to cheer here. He was on Fortnite a lot before.

    3. Tales of Sinaloa are a dime a dozen. These pseudo journalists, like many others before them, are simply capitalizing upon the popularity of shows like "Narcos" to once again parrot the same stories that have already been told by a million other sensationalist wannabe bloggers. Who cares..

    4. @9:18 Your hate is beautiful. Pathetic.

  4. Thank you for all the work you do!

  5. Sinaloa is where it all started they been in the game since day one and it ain't nobody ever taking over Sinaloa them dudes are just to strong hope you keep posting more about Sinaloa MX excellent post

  6. Animo Sicarios !!
    Arriba La Tuna Badiraguato y El Alamo tierra de los Jefes. Del Señor de la Sierra y El Señor del Sombrero !
    Puro Culican Sinaloa las placas del Tomatito solo para los jefes de todo Mexico .
    Cartel De Sinaloa is like the Roman Empire and the British Empire (the sun does not set).
    Puro Chapo Guzman #701 y animo los chavalones de la Gente Nueva Tier 1 Special Forces operators .


  7. Animo Sicarios

    Puro Culiacan Sinaloa. Pura gente pesada en trokas duras tomando Buchanana del 18 con los mejores armas y cuidando los terrenos !

    Attentamenta Ya Se la saben! Como la ven chavalones

  8. Animo Borderlandbeat !
    Thank you for this Pulitzer quality work here.

  9. Sicario 006 is putting his knee pads on

    1. GoFund new kneepads for el sicario600, second hand welcome, --monica Lewinsky still has hers and needs some money.

  10. Nice article BB. seems like These foreign journalists are always able to get more exclusive stories than Mexicans. Maybe they don’t trust Mexican journalists since they could be soy from government or rival cartels? Or maybe they don’t see foreigners are much of a threat?

    1. Afghanistan famously make about 90% Of modern opium trade.
      I suspect the Sinaloans have their poppy plantations underground in the Famous Chapo caves and tunnels where nobody can detect them.
      --These journalists seem to be doing a paid hit job.

  11. Now i know how to make drug lmao

  12. There is nothing "newsy" in this report. This story of Sinaloa has been done many, many times. The frogs won't read anything but their own media though so they had to send some "reporters."


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