Culiacán through Colombian eyes

Culiacán through Colombian eyes

A panoramic view of Culiacán

A panoramic view of Culiacán

Narco Mexico

Juan Carlos Pérez Salazar
BBC Mundo Special Correspondent in Culiacán

I

If Culiacán really is in the middle of a war, then it started in the suburb of Burócratas, in the early hours of 21 January 2008.

That day, Special Forces troops captured Alfredo "Mochomo" Beltrán Leyva, one of the capos of the Sinaloa cartel. Culiacán is the capital of Sinaloa state.

The war came about - and the politicians, journalists and ex-military with whom I spoke were all in agreement - because the chief of the cartel, Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán, refused to agree to a plan by Mochomo´s brothers to break him out of jail.

II

Who am I to say whether or not there is a war in Culiacán? Did I not learn during my ten years as a journalist in Medellín, throughout the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, that war takes on many forms, that it can be furtive but deadly at the same time?

However I never expected to find this, a city that is modern but peaceful at the same time. Moving to the rhythms of high altitude metropolis in the midst of soporific heat.

Nor was it what was expected by those colleagues, blogs and other contacts I had consulted in Mexico before starting my journey.

"Don´t even think about hailing a taxi. Better not carry a camera. Would it be a good idea to record stuff? Be careful if they see you taking notes."

Faced with this avalanche of advice, I remember thinking to myself, half amused, half concerned: "Why on earth am I going to Culiacán?"

III

To see how a city has been so deeply affected by drug trafficking. That's why. The city where Chapo Guzmán, the Beltrán Leyva brothers and the legendary Amado Carrillo, the "Lord of the Heavens", built their empires. An area that has been home to poppy growing and opium trafficking since the Second World War. Where the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez Reverte gave life to the inscrutable Teresa Mendoza Chávez, the character in his novel, "La Reina del Sur" (Queen of the South).

Although not obvious at first, little by little l noticed things that took me back to the Medellín of the late 80s: rows of army vehicles patrolling the streets. A 4x4 with darkened windows careering along a crowded street without a care for any other driver.

But above all, a sense of opulence: a street where showrooms selling all makes of luxury cars, takes up more than a kilometre. Huge shopping centres. Casinos. And a veritable boom in the construction industry.

I am assured that this is mainly due to the enormous amounts of money drug trafficking has ploughed into circulation. Just like Medellín.

In spite of everything, I don´t have a sense of the fear and tension I experienced in Medellín, when the sight of a motorcyclist on a dark night made you jumpy. When a mere rumour resulted in self-imposed curfew ("I´ve heard they will kill anybody out on the streets after 11pm").

And Culiacán, I´m told, is the scenario not of one war, but two.

IV

The other war began on 1 December 2006 when Felipe Calderón became the President of Mexico. Honouring his election promises, Calderón began the head on battle against the drug traffickers.

This battle has taken its toll on Culiacán. At least for the past decade the average number of assassinations was around 50 a month, but since May of this year the number has increased to 92.

"This is as a result of the extra troops", Carlos Morán, coordinator of the State Council for Public Security, assures me. He is not criticising, simply making a mathematical correlation.

But these figures are nothing like those of Medellín and the metropolitan area, when during the worst period, the number of homicides reached several thousand.

Morán assures me of another fact: that between 90 and 95% of assassinations in Culiacán are drug traffic-related.

This would mean that for the moment, violence has been confined to the confrontation between the cartels and the State, and has not spilt over to ordinary people.

V

The journalist Javier Valdez is of the opinion that it spilt over a long time ago.

"You don´t have to be involved with drugs in order to be affected. It has become a way of life. People have surrendered their streets. To go from your own doorstep to your neighbour´s is like crossing an abyss. Here the danger is being alive, not being a narco or a gunman."

Javier is very intense and somewhat distrustful. And with good reason: he works for "Rio Doce", a weekly paper whose coverage is almost exclusively dedicated to the phenomenon of drug trafficking.

He writes a column - "Malayerba" (Weed) - telling incisive stories of the daily life of the narcos: their unashamed ambition, their 4x4s, their sense of honour, weapons, dealing, music. Life in the fast lane and early death.

VI

Mochomo Beltrán Leyva has had at least six narcocorridos dedicated to him. Three before he was arrested and three afterwards.

This is Banda Imperio with their dedication, "The capture of Alfredo Beltrán":

"Mr Alfredo Beltrán
We´ll be awaiting your release
Your people are ready
To take revenge
I can smell blood in the air
Rivers of it will run, I predict.

And here are Los Buitres with "They´ve taken Mochomo":

In the Malverde chapel
There are many people praying
That you´ll get out soon
And get back in control

VII

The Malverde Chapel is diagonally opposite the Culiacán Government offices. In this little blue and white building, the Christian God and all his saints give up their place to Jesús Malverde, a 19 century bandit who - according to local legend - robbed the rich to give to the poor.

But what made him get his own little shrine is that, as legend has it, after his death on the gallows, he started performing miracles. The walls of the chapel are covered in photographs, icons and votive offerings reflecting these miracles.

A man dressed in sandals, red hat and a crumpled Saint Malverde shirt hands every visitor an envelope for them to leave money. Then he goes back to his place: one of the chapel´s many booths selling every kind of souvenir of the saint: insignia, engravings, invocations, rope-soled sandals, holy water and statuettes.

The latter are copies of the original statue, which is the object of devotion in a little enclosure within the chapel. The effigy is a stroke of genius.

The novelist Leónidas Alfaro Bedolla told me that nobody knows for sure if Jesús Malverde even existed, let alone what he looked like. For that very reason, Eligio González, custodian of the cult who also built the chapel, decided that the earthly representation of the saint should combine the features of Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, two of Mexico´s most beloved popular actor/singers.

The gallant figure of Malverde has a devoted following among the poor - something the Catholic church tolerates - but he also has a special place among the over filled cemeteries of the drug traffickers.

A young man carrying several mobile phones goes up to the bust of Malverde, takes some water from a white vessel, sprinkles it over the statue and crosses himself. As I observe him, I think about the Virgin of Sabaneta, in a church close to Medellín, who became famous for the veneration in which she was held by wannabe narcos and young assassins.

The very same one as in the novel by the Medellín writer Fernando Vallejo, "The Virgin of the Hitmen".

VIII

The narco world is fertile ground for myth and legend and consequently for literature. Culiacán, like Medellín has produced a number of high calibre writers. Perhaps the most famous is Élmer Mendoza, winner of the Tusquets Prize for his novel "Balas de Plata" (Silver Bullets).

I accompany him to Café Miró, the same one frequented by the main character in "Silver Bullets" - Edgar "El Zurdo" Mendieta, an honest but miserable middle-aged cop.

"Drug trafficking is a very attractive topic, a great source of legend, situations; a place for heroes and anti-heroes," says this very tall man, who has the refreshing habit of occasionally letting slip the odd swearword.

And proof of this is that in the school where he teaches, around 30% of the stories have a narco theme.

I ask him a question that´s been niggling me for days: experts claim that the Medellín Cartel was influenced by the "characteristics" of the people of the Antioquia region: hard-working but obsessed with money, bold and resourceful because they manage to succeed in such a harsh mountainous topography. Ultra regionalistic.

Is this the case with the Sinaloa Cartel?

He hesitates. He looks at me. He answers. "Maybe. It could be said that there is a tendency towards recklessness in the area. The Spanish conquistadors who remained here were different, they were prepared to take on whatever Nature threw at them. They managed to tame an inhospitable land."

IX

Men Selling US dollars in the street of Culiacán

Land of myth: buyers and sellers of dollars in Juárez Street, where the main character in "Queen of the South" began her career. According to an elderly local, they launder dollars by the sackload.

X

The mochomo is a red ant, with a ferocious bite. With a little help from its mates it can strip a tree bare in one single night.

XI

Ten seconds. That´s all it took Professor Elizabeth Moreno to take apart my question on whether the characteristics of a region can have an influence on organised crime.

"That´s a stereotype," she says. We are sitting in her office situated deep in the bowels of the Literature Department of Sinaloa University.

"The theory of the influence of the environment on its people is now old hat."

According to Moreno, the press of Mexico City has depicted the north as barbarian territory. A depiction that dates back to Colonial times.

"In the north there were many indigenous groups who refused to be colonised. They were called Chichimecas, meaning "dirty dog". It´s unbelievable, but even to this day textbooks devote pages and pages to Mesoamerican cultures - the Aztecs, Mayas, Tolteca - yet only a few paragraphs to the Chichimecas."

"It´s a cliché that persists to this day. What is so disconcerting is that we northerners believe that it is the case, that we are violent."

Amid all these historic references, I am reminded that in Colombia, the prefix "chichi" is used to trivialise something (take away importance). A "chichigua" (literal translation = nursemaid, tame animal, nursing animal) is something of very poor quality. And in Medellín, a "chichipato" is a petty thief. Or a low grade narco.

XII

In Culiacán the "chichipatos" are called buchones*. They are easily identifiable.

"They are the most ostentatious and always spoiling for a fight. The women like to wear clothes encrusted with coloured beads. The men dress like cowboys, in boots and jeans. They don´t wear much jewellery but the women do. And they always have several mobile phones."

Javier, a seventeen year old student is talking about his university mates in Sinaloa. But he could just as well be talking about any "chichipato" in Medellín.

Whereas, the "emperors" - as Raúl Elénes, a former leftwing MP who knows the city inside out, calls them - the most powerful narcos are more discreet and try not to stand out.

XIII

There is a message of love on a garage door of a house in Tierra Blanca - a neighbourhood famous in Culiacán because the original narcos (of the 50s), used to live there.

It was the humble abode of Alfredo Beltrán. The message, written in huge black letters, reads: "I love you Mochomo. I miss you. From the girl who loves you. 18 September/07".

Nobody has dared to clean if off.

End of Section

* buchones (literally those suffering from goitre. An historical reference dating back to the times when poor quality water caused goitre.