Part II: In Culiacán, the Economic Capital of the Sinaloa Cartel, There’s Trafficking and Death

“BaptisteGrandGrand” for Borderland Beat

For Part I 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.

“All, I’m leaving Hotel Tres Rios and heading to the Church of La Lomita. Is the road clear? Over to you.”

As in our previous trip, the Sinaloa Cartel member who transports me in his white pickup takes out his smartphone and broadcasts this message on the special network that all “narcos” in circulation in Culiacan are connected, as well as the dozens of lookouts posted day and night at the major intersections of the city. In a way, it is sort of like the Waze GPS navigation software app for organized crime.

A minute later, the answer comes in a crackling sound: “Don’t move, army roadblock in progress on Rosales Avenue.”

After half an hour of waiting, the way is free.

“The cops, it’s easy, they all work for us,” says the driver, waving his horn at two agents who are controlling a line of cars but letting us pass.

“The only problem is the military. They don’t take the money. If you’re stopped by a patrol, you immediately put your hands on the dashboard and pray that it goes well. They shoot before they talk.”

In the back of the pickup stands a man in his thirties, Miguel (first names have been changed), with his NYC (New York City) cap, branded polo shirt, jeans, and loafers. He doesn’t have the usual look of the cartel’s narcos. I met him a few weeks earlier with other “executives.” His mission: to accompany me – and therefore watch me – on some of my trips, without ever warning me of his presence. He is not armed.

“But in the back, they have what it takes in case of a problem!” the driver says to me, pointing to a car behind me.

Miguel is not very friendly; he has always avoided answering my questions about his role in the cartel, except when I asked him if he had started out as a sicario (“hitman”). He replied with a half-indulgent, half-disdainful smile.

“Yes, but now I bury people in pits with a shovel.”

In other words, he’s moved up a level; he’s now in charge of the sicarios’ teams.

I would later learn that Miguel is a close friend of one of the main leaders of the organization. Aware that what interests me is not to witness their crimes but to understand the workings of their economic model, his “boss” finally authorized me, after a long approach, to come to their territory, here in Culiacan (900,000 inhabitants).

It was Miguel’s job to open the doors of certain groups for me.

Crystal Wedding

Dealing with heroin and marijuana, the cartel’s traditional products, involves significant costs since it is necessary to manage various phases of production, from agricultural cultivation to its transformation into narcotic products.

To optimize this business and its investments, the organization has worked, since the 1980s, to earn billions of dollars more by marketing products that it does not manufacture itself, but that it simply transforms at low cost: cocaine and synthetic drugs.

After an hour’s drive through forested hills, I see one of Miguel’s trusted men at the end of a dusty field. He beckons me to come to him. With an automatic pistol in his belt, this guy tells me that we have to be quick because two military convoys are patrolling nearby.

Further on, in a steep valley, two other men, this time armed with rifles, are posted on a path. We walk in their direction to finally reach a kind of hut whose roof is made of green tarpaulins.

Underneath this rudimentary installation are four small tanks topped by five-foot high aluminum “chimneys.” Until last month, they were producing in labs, but the army spotted the fumes, so they continued manufacturing in spots like this one.

“It takes a little longer, but it’s more discreet,” says Miguel, pointing to two men in white suits 200 meters away. They are standing in the open air, at the edge of a high yellow plastic barrel, rubber gloves on their hands, hoods closed and construction masks on their faces.

One of them is stirring, with a long stick, a reddish mixture from which white fumaroles escape. At regular intervals, his colleague pours a colorless liquid: sulfuric acid. The fumes quickly become irritating, difficult to bear.

“It’s dangerous. If you touch a drop of the mixture, you get burned. And you must not breathe either, otherwise you’ll faint and burn your lungs.”

Staying ten meters back, the boss of the area explains that these men are making “crystal,” the star methamphetamine in the United States, a powerful psychic stimulant that once synthesized comes in the form of translucent crystals, hence its name.

Smoked, ingested in capsules or diluted in water and injected, crystal is produced in Mexico and consumed by 2 million people in the United States. This highly addictive drug has terrible side effects: mouth alteration, gnawed teeth, chronic itching, weight loss and, above all, severe mental disorders.

“It’s very easy to make,” says Miguel’s assistant, “you just have to mix the ingredients with the right dosage and at the right rate. Afterwards, you let it cool down and it gives you a solid drug in less than forty-eight hours. All you have to do is mix the right products.”

According to him, these “good products” are very easy to access: ephedrine (a component of over-the-counter drugs for nasal decongestion), ammonia, alcohol, sulfuric acid, antifreeze, diesel fuel, and a series of cheap chemical components commonly used in industry for the production of fertilizers, air conditioners, batteries and brake fluids such as nitrates or toluene.

This low-cost manufacturing allows for huge revenues. Every year, tons of crystal are sold in the United States. It is about 55 dollars for a gram of 90% pure crystal.

Beyond this maximum profitability, the economic performance of the cartel comes from the efficiency of its procedures and the “quality” of its management.

We are now in a small street in Culiacan. A long gray Dodge 4WD with tinted windows is parked, engine running.

“Okay, you can go,” Miguel announces, pointing to the vehicle.

The man waiting for me inside is reportedly a top cartel member in this city. Let’s call him Juan. He has a thin black hood, an M4 assault rifle in his lap. He drops his gun for a moment to shake my hand, then rests his on the magazine of the M4, decorated with a skull and crossbones. Four of his men are present in the cabin, all hooded and equipped with weapons of war.

A 10,000 Member Cooperative

At Juan’s nod, the driver slowly unhitched and reached a busy street before starting a journey through the deserted streets, slowing down after each change of direction, his eyes glued to his mirrors. After twenty minutes of silent driving, the car stops in front of a modest house, similar to all the others in the neighborhood: one of the many hideouts of Juan’s group in Culiacan.

The man sat on a plastic chair in the middle of the empty living room. He separated himself from his M4, but kept a handgun on his belt. Through the grilles of the patio door, one of his associates scans the openings and the roofs of the surrounding houses. Three other guards flank him, weapons drawn. They are prepared for any attack by a rival group.

The Sinaloa Cartel is a multinational drug company, active in many countries around the globe and with an estimated turnover of 3.5 billion dollars. It does not operate like a pyramid organization structure, but rather a cooperative.

Its membership? About 10,000 members, divided into about 50 major groups, themselves subdivided into several factions of varying sizes. Each faction controls a territory in the state of Sinaloa, but also develops its business towards the United States and the rest of the world in an autonomous way, dealing with its clients and suppliers.

Nevertheless, all the factions obey a staff of about ten cartel bosses who are in charge of the cartel’s strategic orientations. It is at this level that decisions are taken on whether or not to collaborate with foreign organizations, and under what conditions. It is also them who negotiate with high-level political and legal authorities. Finally, these cartel bosses also arbitrate internal disputes. In a criminal cooperative of this size, conflicts are frequent, and every year they result in dozens of deaths.

At the age of 30, Juan leads a hundred men located all over the city. Like him, they come from the poorest suburbs or the surrounding villages. Despite the risks, many young people are ready to do anything to join these structures.

First of all for the money, of course: about 9,000 pesos (370 euros) per month to join as a foot soldier, which is three times the average salary in Sinaloa. As is often the case in this cartel, the members of Juan’s group also receive extra money for dealing with drugs.

Beyond the pesos, a form of social recognition is something these young people seek by committing themselves in this way to a criminal career. In this sparsely populated state (3 million inhabitants) in northwestern Mexico, many poor people protect the Sinaloa Cartel and want to see it prosper under the idea that selling drugs will bring money to poor communities.

The cartel likes to cultivate this image of benefactor.

“Look,” one of Juan’s guys says to me, handing me his iPhone. “This is what the group did earlier to that bastard thief when the lady called us”.

Opening a message on WhatsApp, he launches a brief video filmed from a window. It shows a man in a white jacket approaching a red car parked on a quiet street, then forcing the door open and driving away.

In a second video, the same thief walks on the sidewalk of an avenue, then runs away in the opposite direction at the sight of a sedan from which two strangers get out to pursue him.

With a mysterious smile, my contact ends up opening a photo showing a severed head on a body wearing a white jacket.

“Don’t be afraid. Here, organized crime keeps order”.

This is essentially the message that the cartel spreads to ensure the support in Culiacan and the rest of Sinaloa.

The Covid-19 crisis has boosted this social influence. Faced with the scale of the pandemic, federal and local authorities quickly attempted to impose a strict lockdown in the region and deployed the military and police to enforce it. Tens of thousands of people were left destitute, especially in the countryside, where many poor households survive on the daily or weekly work of the head of household.

At the same time, the shortage of masks in the city quickly affected the poorest neighborhoods, where several generations often live together in tiny houses.

After a few weeks of crisis, the cartel posed as a savior. First, it started manufacturing fabric masks in multiple makeshift workshops, then it orchestrated their distribution in these priority areas.

The cartel also set up food aid for the villages located in its territory, especially in the Sierra Madre Occidental, its historical stronghold. Using their own funds or by raising donations from their affiliates, the cartel factions financed the purchase of thousands of food baskets that were transported to the countryside in 4×4 convoys, with videos posted on social media. Each basket bore the name of the cartel or its donors.

Ultra-Competitive Market

“What do you want to know? We don’t have much time, Juan told me.

Juan’s men are visibly nervous. Two of them snort a line of cocaine from a small bag while keeping guns on their hands.

They are wearing mesh jackets, combat vest … You’d think they were guerrillas. However, this is not the case. Juan is not a rebel leader. He is the manager of a cartel business unit. And like all the operational structures of the Sinaloa Cartel, it is composed of three “departments”.

The first is a unit of about 15 sicarios who are in charge of security.

“The guys you see here have already killed several times,” Juan warns.

All the members of this faction start out this way and undergo a ruthless selection process: either the young man is killed by the military or by a rival clan, or he survives because he is the one who killed them.

The second “department” deals with logistics. The men involved in Juan’s group must transport prohibited goods across several borders, a strategic mission divided into two. The supply of drugs and chemicals is internalized and handled by members of the group.

Deliveries to the United States, on the other hand, are outsourced, chartering avionetas, small Cessna planes whose pilots rent their services to the narcos. They cooperate with other branches of the cartel bsaed in Mexicali and Tijuana, two cities close to the US border.

But the most important dimension of these activities, the “department” that Juan himself manages within his group, is of course the “business” side.

Like all the main factions in the cartel, Juan’s group sells all of the drugs the Sinaloa Cartel offers. On average, his group sells 100 kg of marijuana per week, 5 kg of heroin and 6 to 9 kg of crystal.

But, according to him, cocaine is the most profitable for him.

“The best business is cocaine! In Colombia, I buy it for $1,000 a kilo. Here, a kilo is worth 10,000 dollars. After that, it depends on the country, but once on the market, a kilo can be worth up to 100,000 dollars.”

Like all drug trafficking activities, this one requires cost control. Without giving details, Juan indicates that for an average load of 4 kg of coke, worth one million pesos (40,000 euros), he has two main costs: transportation and police corruption.

Juan said that the bulk of the profits go to him and to the upper echelon of the cartel, and implied that the costs mentioned above do not exceed 50 percent of the turnover. However, this is another obstacle to overcome: competition.

“There are many other cartels. So we fight to be the only suppliers.” And that’s where the parallel with normal businesses ends. It is not with tariffs that the narcos fight, but rather with weapons.

In the Cemetary of Traffickers

Since 2006, Mexico’s drug war has left more than 200,000 people dead and several more gone missing.

“Sometimes we think it’s wrong what we’re doing,” concludes Juan. “But we are all hungry… There is a saying in Sinaloa: ‘Hunger is a bitch’.”

Three weeks after this interview, Juan and ten of his men were killed in a clash with another cartel.

This is how it is in Culiacan: death is everywhere. On the outskirts, dozens of small crosses, simple and discreet, line the roads.

“Some of them are there because there was an accident,” they tell me. “But in general, it is to show the place where the family found the body of a close relative.”

In the square next to the cathedral, in the heart of the city, older people dance merrily to the sound of a modest orchestra, near lampposts on which are stuck posters. On each of them, the inscription Se Busca (“Seeking”) is topped by the photo of a young man with describing the place where he was last seen and a telephone number.

When they do not find their loved ones alive, it is on a long dirt track, outside the city, that the families come to look for them. Once the corpse is found, they plant a cross on the spot before burying it elsewhere.

On the other side of a wide ditch, small metal calvaries with hand-painted names follow cement oratories containing laminated photos of young men with extinguished candles.

Behind a torn black and yellow police tape, worms swarm on the remains of dirty clothes: only a few days ago, a body lay here. At the edge of the runway, behind a car with an open trunk, three women and a white-haired old man come to watch the installation of a cement cross. Who was this individual? A brother, son, or husband?

The victim was only 20 years old.

A few kilometers away, cartel bosses are buried in a surreal place: the pantheon of narcos. On 2 hectares, dozens of mausoleums, each one more luxurious than the other, stand side by side. They include private chapels built to the glory of God as much as to the glory of the deceased.

The colorful domes and golden crosses cover two-story buildings, alternating marble facades, tree-lined terraces, columns and pediments decorated with biblical scenes. The first floor of the largest mausoleums is made of an open crypt, where portraits of the narco in question are exposed, surrounded by pious images and bouquets of flowers.

The return to the city is done on a road lined with high-end motels, among which the Paris, with its pediment decorated with a 30-meter Eiffel tower, is a high place for narco parties. Cartel executives come here to consume unlimited drugs, alcohol and prostitutes in suites with a bar, several rooms and an indoor pool.

Farther away there are dozens of banks, car dealerships and American fast-food restaurants and shopping centers with busy parking lots. In downtown Culiacan, there are lively shopping streets with well-maintained stores with avenues that include modern buildings and green spaces. Further past downtown is a neighborhood, a district of villas that house notable residents: lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and narco leaders. 

No doubt about it: Culiacan is prosperous. While the economic growth of the country is at a standstill, that of the state of Sinaloa shows an increase of more than six percent. A lot of it could be due to drug cartel investment.

The Sinaloa Cartel reigns in Culiacan. It proved it on October 17, 2019, during the short arrest of Ovidio Guzman, one of the sons of “El Chapo.”

When Ovidio was arrested, hundreds of narcos converged from everywhere towards the center of Culiacan. They blocked the main roads by positioning dump trucks equipped with machine guns on the crossroads, and engaged in combat with the military and the police.

The clashes left 13 people dead in a few hours. The officials who were holding him were ordered by their superiors to release him. The next day, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador justified security forces’ decision to release Ovidio.

“This decision was taken to protect the citizens. Because we cannot put out the fire with the fire.”

The President of Mexico, the head of the fifteen world’s largest economy, surrendered to the Sinaloa Cartel.