Smugglers' Hero Status Hampers Cartel Crackdown

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 (Jason Beaubien/NPR)
(Jason Beaubien/NPR)

As Mexico attempts to crush its drug cartels, violence has increased dramatically in the western state of Sinaloa, where for decades, smugglers have been revered as local heroes, eulogized in songs and protected by local government authorities.

Sinaloa stretches along the Gulf of California; it has been a primary smuggling route for Colombian cocaine on its way to the United States.

The smugglers' route has often passed near Culiacan, a hot, dusty city of about 1 million people on the western side of the Sierra Madre. It's too far from the Pacific to get an ocean breeze, but it's not far enough inland to enjoy the mountain air.

This part of Mexico is known for producing tomatoes and the nation's most wanted man, Joaquin "al Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel. In 2001, Guzman escaped from a maximum-security prison in the back of a laundry truck.

In the streets of Culiacan, you can hear narco-corridos — the songs that praise Guzman and other Mexican drug lords.

A bust of Jesus Malverde at his shrine in Culiacan, Mexico. Malverde, known as the "Narco Saint," was a local bandit who was killed by authorities in 1909. People say he was a Robin Hood-esque figure who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
A bust of Jesus Malverde at his shrine in Culiacan, Mexico. Malverde, known as the "Narco Saint," was a local bandit who was killed by authorities in 1909. People say he was a Robin Hood-esque figure who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

In the central market, Patricio Moreno has a small stall where he sells purses, belts and pirated copies of narco-corrido CD's.

"I'm personally afraid," he said in Spanish. "At times, the convoys of soldiers come right through here."

The federal government has deployed thousands of soldiers and federal police to drug hotspots such as Culiacan. Moreno says the federal offensive has led to shootouts here in broad daylight.

Statistics also show a huge surge in violence. According to officials, 120 people were killed in Sinaloa last month in drug-related violence. The dead included 26 police officers. To the north, the state of Chihuahua tallied 141 drug-related killings last month.

Ismael Bojórquez Perea, editor of the weekly newspaper Riodoce in Culiacan, says the violence has reached an unprecedented level.

"The violence is in the streets, he said in Spanish, "it's in the neighborhoods, the malls, the houses... everywhere."

Bojórquez says part of the problem is that the drug traffickers have infiltrated and corrupted a majority of local government offices.

The Mexican drug cartels each year move billions of dollars worth of cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin and marijuana into the United States.

Bojorquez says President Calderon must also confront the corruption that has allowed the cartels to take root here.

"If he doesn't change his strategy," Bojorquez said in Spanish, "he's not going to win."

In addition to paying bribes, the cartels use their profits to buy heavy weapons. After a shootout in Culiacan in late May left seven officers dead, Gen. Rodolfo Cruz of the federal police said his men should be issued machine guns.

Citing the cartels' grenades and high-caliber weapons, the general said the criminals have similar weapons to those of army and special forces troops.

Professor Jorge Chabat studies security issues at CIDE, the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City.

"What we are seeing right now is a frontal war between the drug trafficking and the state," Chabat said. "And these guys, drug traffickers are not going to stop to kill anybody who is inflicting them some damage."

The cartels proved that last month, when they gunned down the head of the federal police at his home in the capital.

Part of the challenge facing President Calderon is that in some parts of the country, like Sinaloa the drug smugglers have become local heroes. They give generously to local politicians. They help build churches and schools.

On the west side of Culiacan, there's a shrine to Jesus Malverde. Malverde is known as the "Narco Saint" — even though he wasn't a drug-runner. Nor has he been ordained as a saint.

A guard at the shrine, Francisco Cardenas, says that Malverde, who died in 1909, was known as a generous bandit because whatever he stole, he gave to the people.

But in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, a steady stream of people come to visit his alter. On a recent day, two stylishly dressed young women entered the shrine to kneel in front of the white bust of Malverde.

Afterwards, the women, who didn't want to give their names, said that they came to give thanks to Malverde for all he's done for them.

"We pray for good health and enough money," they said in Spanish — "and that everything goes well in business."

Asked what kind of business, they gave a knowing smile and said "the family business." It's clear they're talking about the drug trade.

As the federal government is pushing forward with its bloody offensive against Mexico's cartels, analysts, priests, editors, merchants here all predict that this is going to be a long, long fight.

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