The War Next Door

Page 4 of 7

Three days later, three more bodies, heads and legs severed, were found in the trunk of a Nissan sedan. Among them was a former police commandante. This was taken to be Chapo's reply. Within hours, another cop was shot and killed in downtown Culiacán, along with a companion and a bystander. Within days, two more men were murdered, their heads cut off and dumped outside a dairy farm owned by another kingpin allied with Chapo — the riposte of Barbas and Mochomo.

"The reason for the war is that the capos are struggling for the top," a local who knows Chapo tells me. "I saw Chapo and Mochomo at a party together before the fighting began. They were good together. But since Mochomo was arrested, the balance has been broken. Mochomo was getting more power — he was growing the feathers of the bird, we say. He didn't respect Chapo. So Chapo went after him."

When I arrive in Culiacán, everyone in the city is waiting for Chapo to take revenge for his son's death. I'm hoping to meet Mexico's most famous outlaw: Despite all the press coverage, no one has ever gotten an interview with him. Through connections, I am introduced to a gomero — an opium farmer — I will call Julio, who knows Chapo. In narco style, Julio wears a gold chain to match his gold teeth. He tells me Chapo is hiding in the mountains outside a town called Tamazula de Victoria. He says he can take me there. Perhaps I can talk to Chapo.

As we drive inland from Culiacán, we draw stares from locals. Simply being seen with a gringo attracts attention; if it was known that Julio was leading an American journalist into narco country at the height of the conflict, he would almost certainly be killed. "If we get stopped by the narcos or the police," Julio tells me, "pretend to be a tourist." It doesn't seem to occur to him that the idea of a tourist coming to the Sierra Madres, the scene of one of the most lethal conflicts on the planet, is insane.

Julio calls Chapo his padrone — the man who supplies him with the seeds for the poppies he grows. Many times, he says, he has partied with Chapo and his compadres. The men gather in the mountains and slaughter pigs and cattle and drink whiskey and snort coke and dance the night away. "Chapo is chubby and friendly, and he likes to dance to banda music," Julio says. "He drinks Buchanan's whiskey — the good kind. His favorite song is 'Crossing the Hills and Streams.' He uses the song to pick up women. All of the narcos know that they are going to die young. This is why they live so fast. They have to get all their pleasure from life right now. They are all killers. To be a narco, you have to kill. For me, I don't want to kill. Life is beautiful."

The highway inland from Culiacán is dotted with large haciendas, sheltered behind 30-foot-high walls built to protect the narcos. Beyond the village of Tamazula, the road turns into a rough dirt track. From here, the mountains become impassable to an outsider, the dense and treacherous terrain obscuring fields of opium. Mexican poppies aren't known for their quality, but the mountains offer a natural hideout for a drug trafficker on the run. Locals talk of opulent residences built into caves, providing secure getaways for drug lords. Chapo has reportedly been hiding here since he broke out of federal prison in 2001 — a feat known as the "golden kilogram," for the amount of gold that legend says he used to bribe his way out. In Sinaloa, however, it is widely believed that the government actually let Chapo go, because he is the only narcotraficante brave enough to stop Los Zetas, the ex-military group that has sided with the cartels. The Zetas often dress as federales and travel in vehicles marked as police cars, making it impossible to identify them as gangsters. Contemptuous of the existing order, they openly recruit members of the police and military by hanging banners in public promising money and benefits.

"Chapo is up there," Julio tells me as I pull over on the road leading out of Tamazula. "This is where he came when he broke out of prison. He went to hide in the ranch of a capo named Nachito. Chapo is safe here. He supports the people, and the people support him." Julio pauses, reconsidering the reliability of any intelligence involving Chapo. "Unless he is hiding in Guatemala or Salvador," he adds.

It is only noon, but Julio is already downing his third Tecate. It is 105 degrees in the shade. On the side of the road, a platoon of soldiers laze shirtless in an airport hangar. The troops are here to inspect every plane landing on the tiny dirt strip for illegal drugs. But even this token effort is useless: Scores of airstrips remain hidden throughout the Sierra Madres, tucked away in valleys and jungle clearings. "The government acts like they are looking for narcos and will tear out crops," Julio scoffs. "But they always give warning of their movements — they don't want to get in a shootout."

Tamazula boasts a new school and condo developments, signs of the prosperity brought by narcotics. In the middle of the village, on a hill overlooking the valley, a mansion stands behind large black steel gates. The house belongs to one of Chapo's allies, Julio says, and the narcos stay there when they come down from the mountains, looking for the comforts of civilization. Those comforts are considerable: In one narco residence in Mexico City, the police seized $205 million — in cash. Here, at the foot of the hill, an army outpost sits directly under the gaze of the narco mansion — the kind of contradiction common in the Sierra Madres, where the fortunes of the law and outlaws are inextricably entwined.

Julio ducks into a tiny office to collect the monthly subsidy he receives from the government for not growing illegal drugs — despite the fact he grows opium and pot. He has five acres of poppy, a crop he hopes will yield 10 kilograms of heroin, which he can sell for $20,000. "Chapo came to my village in a helicopter and gave out money to plant marijuana," Julio says. "He did this for the whole town. If I wanted to start a business of some kind in the city, he would provide me the money to start. He uses his money for his people, to help us progress."

On the outskirts of town, however, Julio suddenly decides that we should turn around. It is unsafe to go any further, he insists. Chapo's men will kidnap us or kill us. Or we will be intercepted by gatilleros — triggermen — from the Beltrán Leyva cartel. Or Zetas. Or bandits.

"If you want to find Chapo, you should look near the village of La Tuna," he tells me. "I know people who can take you there."

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