The War Next Door

Page 5 of 7

The next day, while I wait for Julio to set up the trip, I drive with my translator, Sara, to the beaches of Sinaloa, about an hour from Culiacán. Developers are hoping, bizarrely, to turn the coast here into the next Acapulco. When we stop at a restaurant, the owner boasts that Chapo visits the area often. "Chapo swims at the beach," the man says. "We protect him and make sure it is quiet for him. Here Chapo is adored. He falls in love easily. He has eyes for the women. Like with Emma, his new wife. It was love at first sight."

The problem, the man says, is not Chapo, but those who emulate him. As more drugs pass through Mexico, the rate of addiction has skyrocketed, further fueling the violence. "The worse thing is the young people who try to imitate the narcos. It used to be only Americans took drugs. But now kids are stoned. For 200 pesos, a girl will fuck. The boys are copycats, and they get killed in the street. Not Chapo. Not any asshole can be Chapo. You have to be clever. As a leader, he's like Pancho Villa."

"Do you know where Chapo is?" I ask.

The man turns to Sara and speaks rapid-fire Spanish. They begin to argue. I ask what the disagreement is about. The man grows angrier. "Why does he come and ask questions about Chapo?" he demands.

Sara explains that I am a journalist.

"How do you know he's not DEA or Interpol?" the man asks. "Or even the CIA?" He demands that I leave at once.

That night, I drive with Sara to meet Julio again, hoping to connect with his friend who has offered to take me up into the mountains to meet Chapo. According to Julio, the man is a sheriff who is "with" Chapo. After Mexico's ruling political party, the PRI, lost its grip on power in 2000, the drug cartels have scrambled to ensure their control by bribing corrupt cops and politicians. "It used to be expensive but clear who the drug traffickers had to pay off," says Astorga, the sociologist who studies the drug trade. "Now it's cheaper but more fractured. It's not always clear who is in charge."

It is dark as we pull up to the compound where Julio has told me to meet him — a classic narco fortress with high walls and a massive steel door. Pulling onto the dirt track next to the gates, we are suddenly blinded by lights. Two Humvees filled with Mexican soldiers, weapons trained on us, flash their high beams. They are followed by two pickup trucks filled with federales, who pull up in a cloud of dust. Sara and I are ordered out of the car at gunpoint.

"Who are you?" an officer demands.

"What are you doing here?" says another, brandishing his gun.

Another SUV full of federales arrives. Looking for drugs or weapons, they order us to open the trunk. The air bristles with the holy trinity of war: fear, violence and stupidity. It is hot and humid, and everyone is sweating heavily. Sara fast-talks the soldiers, explaining that I am a journalist, not a drug dealer. She is careful not to mention that we are here to see Julio — a fact that could get him in serious trouble.

Finally, after I show them my identification, the soldiers relent. As we drive away, Sara explains why the standoff terrified her. "You never know who you're dealing with in Culiacán," she says. "You never know what their motives are. But what was very dangerous was not the soldiers but the narcos. They could see us with the army and decide to throw some bullets at us. This could easily happen."

The next day, back in Culiacán, I meet with a former senior commandante from the area. The officer, who insists that his name not be used, held very high-level positions in Mexican law enforcement and was trained in intelligence-gathering in the United States. We meet at a restaurant downtown called California. The officer — call him Edgar — sits at a table by the window, his back to the street. He is in his 30s, cleanshaven, with a precise military bearing and eyes that quietly surveil the room.

For years, Edgar was the rarest of breeds in the drug trade: an effective and incorruptible investigator. Rewarded for his honesty, he was promoted to a top job in recent months. On his first day in the position, one of the officers under his command brought him an offer from the Beltrán Leyva cartel. Edgar would work for the cartel, he was told. In return, he would be provided money and protection. Edgar said no, as diplomatically as possible, telling his officer he wanted to stay neutral in the war.

The next day, a leading defense attorney came to see Edgar. He had a message from Chapo. If Edgar agreed to be "with" Chapo, he would be paid handsomely. Chapo would also provide Edgar with a steady stream of criminals to "capture," so he could appear to be doing his job. The perversity of the situation — the narco offering protection to the law — wasn't lost on Edgar. Nor was the implicit threat. Edgar told the lawyer he didn't want to take sides, but the lawyer said that wasn't good enough. If "something happened" — if Chapo were attacked or captured, or a large shipment of drugs was seized — the drug lord would have to assume that Edgar had sided with his enemies.

After reporting what happened to senior politicians, Edgar was offered an even higher position in the government. He talks in a quiet voice, stopping occasionally to look around the restaurant. He is convinced he could be killed at any moment, like the three police commanders who have been forced to seek asylum in America this year. The narcos have sources inside every aspect of government, he says: Chapo controls the local police, while the Gulf cartels and the Zetas have allies in the army.

Given such widespread corruption, the commandante does not believe the legend that Chapo miraculously "escaped" from federal prison. Only a few basic facts are known about Chapo's incarceration. Arrested in 1993 on drug trafficking and homicide charges, the drug lord was held in Grande Puente, a maximum-security prison in Guadalajara, for eight years. He was under 23-hour-a-day lockdown, in a facility with 157 electronic gates and constant video surveillance, trapped in a cell behind concrete walls surrounded by a maze of wires and fences patrolled by armed guards and attack dogs.

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