Behind the Scenes of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel

A new documentary explores the bizarre and brutal reality of working for the world's largest drug syndicate

David Beriain in a scene from his documentary series, 'Clandestino.' Credit: Courtesy of Discovery en Español

Shortly after Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán escaped from Mexico's supermax Altiplano fortress-prison, a period when his Sinaloa Cartel seemed to have near-total impunity, Spanish documentarian David Beriain somehow arranged to embed for three months with the cartel. With 100,000 slain in the last decade, the scale of Mexico's drug war is on par with industrial warfare between nation-states, and the goal is largely the same: territorial control. Sinaloa holds power over the western Sierra Madre, a fertile agricultural region, as well as the desert underside of the U.S. border from Tíjuana to Ciudad Juárez, giving it a fully integrated supply chain directly plugged into the world's largest drug market. 

But as Beriain and his crew began traveling up the west coast of the country, interviewing street-level cartel employees at every stage of the drug trade, Mexican marines kicked El Chapo's door down in Los Mochis, setting in motion the drug lord's recapture and eventual extradition to the United States. The latest episodes of Beriain's documentary series, Clandestino, which aired in Spain on the channel DMAX (and is available in full on YouTube), give an unprecedented look inside the largest narcotics operation in the history of the world at a critical moment for the Sinaloa Cartel, when leadership is split between warring factions at the top.

For journalists, the only countries more dangerous than Mexico are Syria and Iraq, and many Mexican reporters have been killed, some for trivial reasons – like publishing an unflattering photo of a crooked politician looking fat. After yet another of its reporters was slain recently, a daily paper in Ciudad Juárez called El Norte announced that it would shut down, explaining to readers in a front-page editorial that it was simply too dangerous to continue reporting the news in Mexico. Beriain, who has previously interviewed Amazonian cocaine smugglers and tomb raiders in Peru, never discloses how he managed to ingratiate himself with a group so notoriously lethal to journalists. (In response to Rolling Stone's request for comment, an automatic reply said that he was in El Salvador, filming new episodes of his show on the resurgence of death squads there.) But in the course of the film, he is able to question farmers, chemists, cooks, drivers, boatmen, smugglers, gunrunners and hitmen on what they do, why it's done, how much they earn, and why they choose this work. 

His cast of darkly fascinating characters includes a murderous party boy born into the business; an icy female commander in stiletto heels who justifies her actions in feminist terms; and a cartel gunsmith who has come to loathe guns but would have his hands maimed if he tried to quit. The episodes on YouTube have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, and in the Spanish-speaking press Beriain himself has become a subject for interviews, which have focused on the risks he and his camera crew ran in placing themselves at the mercy of killers whose violent propensities occasionally flash forth on camera. "There were really tense moments in which anyone could have easily shot us," he told a Madrid radio station.

In one scene, Beriain goes on night patrol with masked hitmen who are cruising around the streets of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state, looking for enemy incursions. A police car pulls in front of them with flashing sirens and a cop gets out. The hitmen lock and load their assault rifles. The cop comes around to the window.

"Listen... " the cop says.

The hitman in the passenger seat interrupts him: "We're working here, mister."

The cop grasps the situation. "On your way then," he says, stepping back.

"We are the ones in control," the hitman explains to Beriain. "Police, politicians. Here, everyone is in deep."

Beriain later sits down with a corrupt officer who, like all the interviewees, has his face blurred and his voice disguised. "I'm just trying to survive," he says. Thirteen or 14 of his colleagues in law enforcement have been killed for refusing to do the cartel's dirty work, he says.

At another point in the film, he and his cameraman go to a party in a graveyard full of gaudy tombs and mausoleums dedicated to slain capos. A band is playing tubas and trombones and flashy revelers stand around luxury cars, firing guns in the air. Here Beriain interviews a hitman called Junior, who is dangerously coked up and can't stop twisting and fidgeting, constantly drawing his chrome pistol to unload and reload it, standing up and then sitting down to snort more from a plastic baggie. Junior is lamenting at the unfairness of paying for a woman's plastic surgery only to see her move on to another man. "They're not loyal to you," Junior says. "That's why so many bitches in Culiacán turn up dead."

Beriain asks Junior why he has Osama bin Laden's face engraved on the handle of his pistol.

"The whole world knows that bin Laden never betrayed anyone," Junior says, ashing his cigarette. "And here in Culiacán, we respect that!" he exclaims. Apparently the cameraman found this funny, because Junior points at him and says, "Are you laughing?"

"No, no, not at all," says the cameraman.

"Tell me why are you laughing," Junior says, drawing the pistol with a jittery hand.

On camera, Beriain sits perfectly still.

"I was not laughing, really," the cameraman says. The fear in his voice is evident.

"Look, I'm going to tell you something," says Junior, charging the pistol and getting to his feet. "I engraved his face, and I'm going to see him in Hell."

He ends the interview by flinging his beer can into a swimming pool and shooting it. The partygoers on the dance floor barely react.

Past estimates of the number of hitmen – a rough translation of the Spanish sicario, a word that connotes an assassin and mercenary and member of an underground sect – in the Sinaloa Cartel have ranged from as low as 150 to as high as 150,000. Beriain learns that true number is 15,000, at least according to the commander of a paramilitary base where hitmen in camouflage uniforms mill around in skull masks and bizarre Halloween heads, toting a grim array of military-grade weaponry. This is an interesting revelation, but the intimate conversations Beriain has with individual hitmen are what set the documentary apart, and his meticulousness as an interviewer more than compensates for the somewhat unnecessary voiceovers and dramatic music.

"After killing so many people," says a hitman in a pink polo shirt who is said to have killed hundreds of people, "it turns into a vice. If you don't kill, you feel anxious to kill someone." It's hard to say whether the glint in the man's bulging eyes is depravity or immense psychic pain.

"Are you ready to lose your life?" Beriain asks another hitman, who is sitting under a tree wearing a black ski mask. "Of course," the hitman says. "What do you feel for your boss?" Beriain asks, referring to El Chapo. "Affection," the hitman says. "Loyalty."

In another scene in a warehouse Beriain notices a chair sitting on a sheet of plastic with a pair of handcuffs, rubber gloves, and a number of wicked-looking tools lying around. He asks a scowling hitman what they're for. "We use them to give certain punishments to people who don't observe our norms," the hitman says. 


Why the Sinaloa Cartel would allow a journalist to witness these scenes is a question that pervades the viewing experience, and is never satisfactorily answered. But it's clear that the cartel controlled everything Beriain saw and dictated who he could talk to and what he could film. The interviewees all speak reverentially of El Chapo and deny that his arrest destabilized the cartel, projecting an image of continuity and strength that may be misleading. Across Mexico many top bosses fell in 2016, several cartels splintered, several consolidated, and the nationwide conflict between gangster factions and the federal military has reached a new peak of violence this year. At one point in the documentary Beriain learns from a newspaper that a squad of gunmen has attacked the palatial house of El Chapo's elderly mother. Not long after that, El Chapo's flamboyant sons were briefly kidnapped in a bizarre raid at an expensive Puerto Vallarta restaurant known for its all-white interior. Beriain admits at one point that he doesn't know which side of the split he's on at any given moment, but the people he interviews are largely unaffected. When a boss falls and his top lieutenants turn on one other, the massive workforce beneath them keeps on as before. The cartel is distributed and modular and adaptable. In that regard, the smuggling techniques that Beriain documents – overland by car, on foot through the Sonoran Desert, and by commercial airliner – suggest one reason Beriain might have been allowed to film: The constant, widespread flow of small amounts of contraband by a variety of means can't be stopped, even if the authorities understand the methods perfectly. Drugs seep through the border like water through fabric.

In one scene, for instance, Beriain introduces us to a well-dressed woman code-named Samantha. On the table is a 400-gram oblong rod of shrink-wrapped heroin, a hollow latex phallus, a condom and a jar of petroleum jelly. "My work consists in carrying heroin from here in Culiacán to Los Angeles," she says, "in my vagina."

Beriain follows Samantha through the airport at a distance. The heroin is worth fifty grand. She gets paid $4,000. The flight costs $400. She figures she would get 20 to 25 years in prison if she were caught. Mid-flight, Beriain gets a text message informing him that aside from Samantha, there are two other drug couriers aboard. The camera pans the faces of the sleeping passengers. There is no way to known which two they are.

In an industrial garage near Tijuana, six kilos of heroin are handed off to a skinny kid wearing a facemask and latex gloves. He wipes the packages with rubbing alcohol before packing them in compartments beneath the seats of his car and fumigating the interior with a chemical to thwart drug-sniffing dogs. Beriain asks what would happen if he lost the merchandise.

"You cannot lose it," the smuggler says simply. "My best friend was robbed before crossing. He … he ended badly."

"The cartel killed him?"

"Yes. He had the worst kind of death. Tortured. Burned. Shot."

"Is it worth it?"

"There are necessities. I have a family. I don't do this for fun."

The smuggler bows his head and prays to Saint Judas, the Virgin Mary and El Malverde, the mythical bandit of Sinaloa. With a weary sigh he slams the rear hatch and they set out for the U.S. border. It's four in the morning as they approach what appears to be the Calexico/Mexicali crossing. The line of cars inches forward under harsh floodlights and surveillance cameras. If caught, the smuggler would face a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life in prison.

"Hola," says the American guard, and then in English, with a Minnesota accent: "Where you going now?"

"To San Diego."

A pause as the guard glances over the car.

"Okay," he says. "Thank you very much."

The drop-off is in Lakeside, California, where the smuggler gets paid $6,500, a relatively paltry fee on a load worth $700,000 retail.

"But our work in the United States wasn't done," Beriain says. At the Mexican border, the contraband flows both north and south. The cartels need weapons to fight each other and the Mexican military, but guns are illegal in Mexico, where there is no firearms manufacturing whatsoever. In America, by contrast, the weapons industry is a hugely profitable and politically untouchable big business. The industry manufactures over five millions guns per year, and there are stockpiles everywhere. Two thousand firearms are illegally exported from the United States to Mexico per day, fueling the country's catastrophic conflict as much as the billions of dollars of demand created by the miserable failure that is drug prohibition.

At dawn in a parking garage, an off-camera seller hands over a small arsenal of bubble-wrapped assault rifles and boxes of high-caliber military ammunition new from the factory. Thunder rolls and lightning flashes as the smuggler's car, laden with weapons, crosses the border with no questions asked, barely even rolling to a stop.

"Drugs go up," Beriain says, "guns come down."

Find out what we know so far about the case against El Chapo.