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measured by more than just the number of victims (most of whom were found dead in the toilets, where they had fled from the guns, only to find themselves caught by the fire and smoke in a building without adequate emergency exits); it was also associated with their primarily middle-class status – many of them elderly women out for an afternoon’s bingo. This section of the population had been targeted individually in extortion rackets, but it was not generally considered vulnerable to a massacre. Subsequent journalistic investigations also uncovered a morass of corruption that not only underpinned a recent explosion in the number of gaming houses in Monterrey, but also suggested links between these and organized crime. The fire at the Casino Royale, and the reluctance of the authorities to pursue the evidence of widespread corruption that it highlighted, undermined the efforts of both the federal and the Nuevo León state government to frame the drug wars as a straightforward battle between the good guys and the bad guys. Nowhere, however, were the lines between the dirty and the clean more blurred, and more complex, than in Sinaloa, the so-called cradle of Mexican drug trafficking. FFF Martín Ferrer builds tombs for a living – and he makes a reasonably good living out of it, too. His are no ordinary tombs, but are the kind of twostorey marble extravaganzas that make the Jardines de Humaya cemetery on the outskirts of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, look like a wealthy suburb for the dead – the narco dead. ‘They pay well and on time, and they are good clients as long as you deliver what you promise’, Ferrer told me one afternoon, as he took a break from his current project. ‘If you don’t, they are not so happy.’ With his hand, he mimed putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. This was, he said, exactly what had happened to a friend a few months ago when he went over budget. Such mortuary luxury does not come cheap. The builder pointed to one mausoleum with five-metre high Doric columns and a sweeping curved staircase up to a second floor. It had cost 1.2 million pesos to build (around $120,000 at the time), he said, though he did not specify whether that had included the solar panels on the roof (to power the air conditioning and in-tomb entertainment) or the bullet-proof glass in the picture window. ‘It’s so the family can get together and relax. They have to be careful these days.’ The view from where we were chatting suggested that domes were almost obligatory, balconies common, and that the most popular
architectural inspiration could be loosely described as neo-classical. Gaudy baroque was also a favourite, and there was a smattering of modernist minimalism that Ferrer said was becoming all the rage. Drug trafficking has a longstanding tradition in many parts of the country, but nowhere is it as organically integrated into the political, economic, social and cultural bedrock as in Sinaloa. The state has many facets: it has industrialized agriculture and is one of the last redoubts of traditional pre-Conquest ball games; but the drug business lurks in the background almost everywhere you look. As well as being the bastion of the Sinaloa cartel, the country’s most powerful trafficking organization of the contemporary period, and of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, its most famous capo, the state is also the sentimental homeland of a good many other leaders of rival organizations. Though their strongholds may be elsewhere, they not infrequently end up being brought home for burial in the Humaya cemetery when their time is up. The ageing mother of the Carrillo Fuentes brothers of the Juárez cartel continued to live in the state, at least up until 2011. She occasionally allowed journalists into her home, where she kept an altar dedicated to her various dead sons. Sinaloa was relatively peaceful at the start of the Calderón offensive, until a split at the heart of the Sinaloa Federation turned it into a major front in early 2008, at just about the same time as the Ciudad Juárez conflict got going. The spark came with the January arrest of Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, one of the four brothers whose organization had grown into one of the most powerful in the country within the Federation. The rumour quickly spread that Alfredo, picked up by the military in a Culiacán safe house, had been ‘given up’ to the authorities by Chapo. Others said that Chapo had not done enough to support an escape plan in the immediate aftermath of Alfredo’s detention. The simmering tension exploded into open warfare when one of Chapo’s sons was gunned down outside a mall in Culiacán that May, reputedly on orders from the Beltrán Leyva brothers still at large. In the conflict that followed, Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada and the other major Sinaloa leaders sided with Chapo. The Beltrán Leyva consolidated a budding alliance with the Zetas that may have been the root cause of the original split. The battle raged in all the states where the groups coincided, but was most intense in Sinaloa itself. Chapo and the Beltrán Leyva family were born in the same part of the sierra, were vaguely related, and had grown up together in the business, privy to each other’s secrets. They knew the
location of each other’s safe houses and which policemen and politicians were on whose payroll. They knew which companies laundered whose money; what restaurants their erstwhile allies liked to frequent; and which schools their children attended. The drug wars had come home. A relatively small city of about 600,000 people, Culiacán is far more pleasant than most of Mexico’s big drug-trafficking hubs on the border, with their anonymous strip-mall culture. The centre is shabby, but the tree-filled plazas are comfortable and the river promenade is populated and fun. At least they were until the priority became to avoid getting shot. During a trip to Culiacán in January 2009, I talked to a taxi driver who had stumbled across seven separate gun battles in the space of two months. A young mother recalled watching armed men abduct another parent as they picked up their respective children from nursery school. A toddler cowered behind her mother as the woman told the story of her little girl’s recent birthday party that ended when carloads of gunmen began shooting at each other not far away, leaving two small guests with shrapnel in their legs. A businessman confessed to a concern that he would become a target because he had friends whom he knew to be narcos. A family described how they had moved their bedroom so as not to have to sleep next to the wall they shared with neighbours they had seen carrying guns. The manager of a tyre-repair workshop told how he had instructed his employees to work at the double whenever obvious traffickers stopped to get new tyres – for fear that they would attract rivals. A woman said she would never recover from the death of her teenage son, killed when gunmen attacked the mechanic’s workshop where he happened to be. A doctor in a private clinic recounted the time he had been forced to put a corpse on an IV drip by distraught assault rifle-wielding relatives, who refused to believe that their loved one was dead, despite seeing the brains spilling from his skull. The stories were not only remarkable because they were so easy to find and so intimate; they also revealed a profound ambivalence among the general population about their city’s status as a centre of organized crime. The taxi driver said that, once things had calmed down, he would consider doing a little trafficking on the side to boost his income. The young mother expressed understanding for her friends who sought out the luxuries that narco boyfriends could provide (though personally she would prefer a politician – less risky). The mother of the little girl whose party had been ruined by a gun battle just wished the hit-men would take more care to fight each other in less destructive locations. The tyre-repair
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