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The War Next Door

Page 3 of 7

The killing of civilians marks a turning point in the escalating conflict. "The old kind of narco was generous," says Javier Valdez, one of the few reporters in Mexico to write openly about the drug trade. "He helped people. Before, they didn't kill women or kids. Now they sell fear. Murdering that pregnant woman was sending a message. It says, 'We will stop at nothing.'" So far this year, there have been 800 ejecuciones — execution-style slayings — in Sinaloa alone. There are so many killings that Culiacán's leading tabloid has an entire pull-out section devoted to drug violence, called "The Red Note."

The local police have responded to the chaos by looking the other way. Last summer, when a specially formed police squad tried to crack down on the growing number of corner stores retailing narcotics to addicts, the result was a massacre in which six officers were killed. The squad was disbanded. The nearby village of El Pozo was recently besieged by scores of armed men who murdered 11 residents and forced more than 100 to flee town. "The police are afraid," said the widow of one of the victims. "They know who the killers are, but they won't investigate. They never capture those responsible for our deaths."

For all the terror, in Culiacán the drug wars also operate as a sort of ongoing soap opera starring the most powerful narcotraficantes. The leading man in this life-and-death drama is El Chapo. "He is the biggest star in the movie," says Valdez. "Chapo is the most admired, with the most money and women and weapons. When Chapo is going to 'clear the road,' which means kill people in his way, he doesn't hesitate. He is cabrón — more than macho, a real motherfucker, but also very intelligent."

By any normal measure, Chapo is a killer guilty of horrendous crimes. But in the imagination of Sinaloa, he is like a god from an ancient world: kind, humble, rich, generous, mysterious. Tales of his exploits abound — his fearlessness, his taste in women, his generosity. The area has even given birth to an entire genre of popular songs known as narcocorridos, which glorifies the triumphs and travails of Chapo and his rivals. The music — which draws on old-style German polka and is sometimes punctuated by gunfire — is often performed by musicians dressed like bandits. "The narcos don't care if they die in a shootout, because they know they will get a song written about them," Valdez tells me. "They will literally die for a song."

Chapo, now 53, has been involved in the drug trade for decades. As a fugitive, he lives in hiding, seldom seen in public but somehow omnipresent. Short, with dark hair and a sly smile, he is the peasant who has risen to the heights of the underworld through a combination of bravery and cunning and connection to the people of the Sierra Madres. His life is followed breathlessly in the press, his romance with an 18-year-old beauty queen named Emma covered like they are Hollywood stars. In a mountain village outside Culiacán, it is reported, Chapo held a dance for Emma to help her win a local beauty pageant, with 200 men wearing ski masks encircling the town on motorcycles, as Chapo arrived toting an AK-47 across his chest. When he and Emma married last year, it made the cover of Proceso, the leading newsweekly in Mexico, under the headline THE GREAT GANGSTER MARRIED QUEEN EMMA THE FIRST. Chapo "walks free and in love," the paper reported. "He goes to parties, he marries in public, he goes on a honeymoon." A leading narcocorrido outfit, Los Canelos de Durango, performed at the wedding, dressed as Mexican banditos and toting pistols. One of their songs is titled "El Chapo":

From foot to head he is short

But he is the biggest of the big.

If you respect him, he'll respect you.

If you offend him, it will get worse.

If Chapo is the star of the show, his rivals in the Beltrán Leyva cartel are the antagonists. The clan is run by two brothers: Mochomo ("Red Ant") and El Barbas ("the Beard"). In their feud with Chapo, they have joined forces with the Gulf cartels and Los Zetas, moving hundreds of hit men into Culiacán from other territories, dispersed in cells of three or four to avoid attack and to inflict maximum damage. Mochomo is known as an impulsive man, prone to overreaching and a pronounced lack of self-control, even for a drug lord. According to someone close to the cartels, Mochomo and Chapo recently feuded about a huge shipment of drugs being transported through the airport in Mexico City. Mochomo's men apparently didn't treat Chapo's men with sufficient deference — the kind of insult that sparks gunfire in the narcosphere.

Last January, when Mochomo was captured, his older brother Barbas wanted to stage a frontal assault on the prison. Barbas has a reputation as a man given to fits of drug-addled rage. "He's diabetic," a former police commander tells me. "When Barbas mixes cocaine and alcohol, he loses the floor" — gets high — "and has paranoid delusions." Chapo refused to take part in the far-fetched scheme, enraging Barbas. If Chapo wouldn't help break Mochomo out of prison, he was betraying his brother narcos — and that meant war.

In May, Chapo's 20-year-old son was shot and killed in Culiacán during a drive-up attack by 15 gunmen, one of whom fired a bazooka. Since then, the violence has spiraled out of control. Having been allied for the past decade, the two Sinaloan cartels know everything about each other — who's sitting on caches of arms, which cops are on the payroll, where their hideouts are located. In July, four decapitated bodies from the Sierra Madres were dumped in the center of the city, accompanied by a note addressed to Chapo. "You're next, Chapo, ungrateful traitor," it read. "You're never going to change. Your chickie will be next."

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