The War Next Door

As drug cartels battle the government, Mexico descends into chaos

April 18, 2011 9:00 AM ET

The dead policeman is found propped against a tree off a dirt road on the outskirts of the city. He is dressed like a cartoon version of a Mexican cowboy, wearing a sombrero and wrapped in a heavy woolen blanket. The murder and symbolic mutilation of policía has become almost routine in Culiacán, capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa: Pablo Aispuro Ramírez is one of 90 cops to be killed here this year. There is a note pinned to the body, a warning to anyone who dares to oppose the powerful drug lord who ordered the execution.

"I'm a cop-cowboy!" the note reads. "Ahoo-ya! There are going to be more soon!"

Video: Guy Lawson on Mexican Drug Lords

In the United States, the War on Drugs is a political slogan for a policy disaster that has cost taxpayers at least $500 billion over the past 35 years. In Mexico, it is a brutal and bewildering conflict — a multisided civil war that has taken 3,000 lives this year alone and brought the federal government to a state of near-collapse. Narcotics are now one of the largest sectors of the Mexican economy, twice the size of tourism. Most of the country's drug trade involves transporting contraband from other sources — especially cocaine from Colombia — to satisfy the nearly insatiable demand in the U.S. But Mexico's narcotraficante cartels have also gotten into the production side of the industry, manufacturing 80 percent of the crystal meth sold in America, 14 percent of the heroin and most of the marijuana. What Mexico offers the global narcotics industry is proximity to the largest market on earth.

This article appeared in the November 13, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

Until the Bush administration's crackdown on coca growers in Colombia began driving the drug trade further north, traffic through Mexico was relatively stable, overseen chiefly by the huge cartels based in Sinaloa. Known as "the federation," the traditional families that led Mexico's thriving narcotics business each controlled disparate areas of the U.S. border, much as the Mafia once divided up the boroughs of New York City. Perhaps the most ingenious and hardworking of these Mexican mobsters is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as "El Chapo," or "Shorty." Chapo, who controls the border towns of Nogales and Mexicali, built massive underground tunnels to smuggle cocaine into Arizona. He concealed tons of cocaine in cans of chili peppers destined for California. He assembled a fleet of boats and trucks and airplanes with hidden compartments to enable them to slip past customs. To the U.S. government, he is one of the most wanted drug dealers in the world, a fugitive with a $5 million reward on his head. In Culiacán, he is more folk hero — part Pablo Escobar, part Robin Hood, part Billy the Kid.

How America Lost the War on Drugs

"We respect him," the owner of a restaurant in the town of Altata tells me. "He grew up poor, planting corn and pot. Then he took trucks with false floors filled with pot to the United States, and speedboats from the coast to California. In Mexico we have a saying: He spread like humidity."

For years, Chapo shared the drug trade with other families in the federation. The Beltrán Leyva cartel was in charge of the traffic in Monterrey, and a former federal police officer known as "El Azul" ran Guadalajara. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the cartel leader called "the Lord of the Skies," worked the border town of Ciudad Juárez, opposite El Paso. At the peak of his power, Fuentes was said to have paid $500 million a year in protection money. It was Fuentes who pioneered the traffic in Colombian coke, and who infamously died during plastic surgery to alter his appearance. (The two doctors alleged to have botched the operation were later found entombed in cement, their arms and legs bound.)

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