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Notes on the Violence in Sinaloa, Mexico

For two weeks I sensed violence as an invisible force. I only experienced one act of direct intimidation: a thirty-something, ultra-well-dressed woman with five-centimeter nails adorned with precious stones barged into me in an OXXO grocery store while I was paying. I look her in the face, raise my voice and emit a DF-style “be my guest,” forgetting the typically Sinaloan comment “you put up with it or they kill you.” And nothing happens. No “now you’re gonna shave your head and walk straight home; and if you let your hair grow, we’ll kill your family,” as I am assured a woman ordered her hairdresser in order to silence the clientele who were applauding the arrest of Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, alias El Mochomo, on January 20, 2008 (the real beginning of the war here in Sinaloa). No, she asks my permission to put her Louis Vuitton bag on the counter. Breaking the sudden silence, the checkout lady casually remarks, “She sounded foreign. The Buchones [the Rural and Urban Drug Brigade] aren’t mad with the Mexicans.”

. . .

“Violence has already affected language, and when something affects language, it affects everything,” as the Sinaloan writer Geney Beltrán Félix told me.

. . .

One night, a thirty-seven-year-old man, from a family that works in the service sector, the one that produces the greater part of the state’s gross domestic product, takes me to a neighborhood where even the soldiers don’t go. “See those motorcyclists. They’ve got their guns under their sweatshirts. The drug gang vigilantes are around here the whole time.” We settle ourselves at the long table of an open-air roast meat stall. “Here, the killers protect us: they’re good people, they’re my friends,” Victor insists, before telling me that they killed a young boy he knew.  The boy’s protector, an important drug trafficker, turned up at the funeral and said to his mother, “I want to borrow him.” And he left with the body to say his farewells. He brought it back later and the burial went on.

“And do you see those really well-built houses opposite? Ten years ago they had cardboard roofs and metal sheets on the ground. So, where did all this come from?” He points to a boy. “He’s lost several fingers. They held him for ten days. The drug traffickers’ interrogation techniques are something terrible. They’re often high on coke. They have them locked up for three or four days, cutting them into little pieces.” I tense. “They’re good people but they do that?” “Oh no! Drug trafficking is a social cancer,” says Victor, changing his tune. “I’ve known them all since I was a boy. They’re really nice. But they’re hard as nails when it comes to business. They live just for themselves ‘cos they’ve suffered so much. Their hearts got hardened. They’re ice cold.”

“How many dead were there in the shoot-out across the road?” Victor asks the owner of the stall. Looking into the dark street, the man answers: “Six, but they said four.” In this obscure corner of darkest Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa State, I learn that it wasn’t a bazooka but a grenade launcher that killed the son of the drug baron El Chapo in 2009. “That’s journalists for you.” The night ends with the story of the hanging of a well-known personage who southern landowners, enemies of Lázaro Cárdenas’s Agrarian Reform, gave a bad name. Victor’s infuriating gestures are getting on my nerves. But he continues his dizzying tale, in crescendo.

. . .

I think of Culiacán as a hellish place, but Sinaloa is a land of extreme contrasts and has paradisiacal spots like its botanical gardens, one of the most important in the world and the center of the most ambitious public art project in Latin America, sponsored by the collector Agustín Coppel. Created twenty-four years ago, it has three ecosystems—jungle, forest, and aquatic—and thirty thousand visitors a month. But the violence reached there, too, when the police came after a hit man contracted to kill a professor. Luckily, he did not achieve his objective.

. . .

The corner of Sinaloa Avenue is, at ten at night, a place of noise and confusion around which the Hummers, Lobos, Pathfinders and other luxury cars, many without license plates, drive to the eternal screech of tires. In addition to showing off their powerful motors, the owners display great, but rather banal, skill at executing every imaginable maneuver on the tarmac. In this motorized Babel, the drug trafficking corridos blare out from the speakers of the expensive stereos equipped for the party.

. . .

We introduce ourselves in a small red car one ghostly night. Three or four clinics have been set up on the Sinaloa road to attend to the wounded and half-dead traffickers; we drive along the Bulevar Francisco Madero. Instead of the traditional Sinaloan bands, we come across three mariachis, all alone due to the craze for corridos among the new drug-trafficking heroes; we pass a brothel with its traditional red light; and stop at an enormous vacant lot packed with people waiting for the El Coyote concert, the way they have fun in the provinces. There are dozens of guys drinking in the street by the open doors of their trucks, with the volume pumped up on their stereos in excess of all by-laws.

Two minutes later, someone pulls in ahead of us to stop and chat with his friends. Cuamea tries to reverse but a guy pulls up behind and blocks us in. She purses her lips, does a sharp maneuver and avoids the trap. I don’t look at our aggressor. I’ve already learned that in Culiacán you can go from thinking to acting in the blink of an eye. Gloria sums it up: “Life has no value here. Drivers can have their children in their left arm, hold the steering wheel and answer their mobiles all at the same time.”

“They’re restricting our personal freedom. It’s a drugtatorship. And it’s everywhere. They arrest the children of the heads of the gangs in Mexico City. It’s only a matter of time before they take over the streets. The bodies start appearing, the police find them. It’s a culture of abuse of power based on impunity and corruption,” says our Virgil.

From Cuando llegaron los bárbaros, vida cotidiana y narcotráfico [When the Barbarians Arrived: Everyday Life and Drug-Trafficking].Published 2011 by Planeta.  © 2011 by Magali Tercero. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Christina MacSweeney. All rights reserved.