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The War Next Door

As drug cartels battle the government, Mexico descends into chaos

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.

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“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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Over the past decade, however, that relatively stable structure has erupted into full-scale war — largely as the result of the unintended consequences of U.S. drug policy. When the Drug Enforcement Administration blocked cocaine shipments through the Caribbean during the 1980s, the trade simply migrated to overland routes through Mexico. Likewise, the DEA’s success against the Cali and Medellín cartels in Colombia has only emboldened Mexico’s narcos, driving the drug traffic ever closer to home. Newcomers on the Gulf Coast eager to break into the industry are challenging the rule of the existing cartels, sparking a bloody battle over territory and supply routes. And the Mexican government — under pressure from the United States to curb the flow of drugs — is waging an all-out campaign to destroy the cartels.

Indeed, much of the current bloodshed can be traced to the special forces that Mexico trained to find and arrest drug traffickers, receiving instruction from the U.S. military on tactics, intelligence-gathering, air assault and advanced weaponry. In the late 1990s, one of the new Gulf cartels began recruiting these American-trained soldiers to work as hired guns against the Sinaloan cartels, offering vastly higher wages than the government. Known as “Los Zetas” — the Mexican police’s term for a high-ranking official — these mercenaries are now the most violent force in Mexico, moving massive amounts of drugs into the U.S. while murdering journalists and police and politicians who challenge their authority. Led by Heriberto “the Executioner” Lazcano, the Zeta paramilitaries are far more sophisticated in their weaponry and combat skills than the hapless and corruption-addled policía. It is as if the Navy SEALs or an FBI SWAT team went to work for the Russian mob.

Through the early part of the decade, the war steadily increased in intensity, but it was only with the inauguration of President Felipe Calderón in December 2006 that true chaos enveloped the nation. A conservative elected by a narrow margin, Calderón has made going after the drug traffickers a central part of his administration. He has deployed more than 40,000 federal soldiers across the country and imprisoned thousands of narcos, from lowly street dealers to drug lords and money launderers. But the result of Calderón’s war has been catastrophe. In reply, the traffickers have directly attacked the legitimacy of the government, targeting politicians and senior law-enforcement officials. Ten days after Calderón took office, in what was seen as a message from the cartels, a cousin of his wife was killed and stuffed into the trunk of a car in Mexico City. In May, the chief of the federal police was gunned down in the capital. That same month, a village in the state of Chihuahua was overrun by 70 gunmen; the police chief and two officers were killed, the rest of the force quit in fear. In August, 12 decapitated bodies were left on the outskirts of Mérida on the Gulf Coast, the letter “Z” tattooed on their bodies, the calling card of Los Zetas. On September 15th — during a celebration of Mexican Independence Day — two fragmentation grenades exploded in the square of President Calderón’s hometown of Morelia, killing eight civilians and wounding more than 100. The government’s war on drugs has sparked a war on the government itself.

The war has now spread to America’s own border. In three days in August, 43 people were killed in drug-related murders in and around Juárez, just across the river from El Paso. Experts agree that the violence could soon pose a threat to national security in America, with the already porous border turning into a floodgate for Mexican refugees and gangs. “I worry that the country’s political class won’t truly act until a major figure is assassinated,” says Luis Astorga, a sociologist at the Institute of Social Research in Mexico City. “But right now it’s not very clear what the ‘war’ means. No one is sure who is fighting who. It best resembles a circular firing squad.”

The day I arrive in Culiacán, the front page of the local newspaper reads WORSE THAN IRAQ. Only days before, in broad daylight, a gang of gunmen had pulled up in front of the Mega 2000, an auto shop in the center of the city, and opened fire with high-caliber assault weapons — AK-47s and AR-15s. Within moments, nine were dead. As the assailants fled along Zapata Boulevard, they gunned down two police officers. Panic swept across the city as the streets echoed with the tinny pop-pop-pop of automatic-weapons fire. Businesses rolled down their steel doors, trapping customers inside. On Insurgentes Avenue, the killers opened fire on federal soldiers stationed outside a judiciary building. There was no pursuit and no arrests. It was reported that the gunmen were after a narcotraficante known as “Alligator,” but even the simplest facts of the attack — as well as the attackers themselves — disappeared into the fog of war. “There are many versions of events,” a local official told reporters. “But no one wants to talk.”

The front line of the drug war is here in Sinaloa, a small state on the Pacific coast across from the Baja Peninsula. Bordered to the east by the Sierra Madres, a line of remote and impenetrable mountains that stretches to the Arizona border, Sinaloa is part of Mexico’s Golden Triangle — bandit country patrolled by sicarios (hit men), corrupt sheriffs and trigger-happy Mexican federales. The capital, Culiacán, is a drug-industry town the way Los Angeles is an entertainment town. Every business is connected, directly or indirectly, with illegal drugs. There are narco discos and narco restaurants. In the upscale malls scattered around town, high-end jewelers sell the gaudy and expensive necklaces favored by narco wives and girlfriends and hookers. Narco chic is Valentino and Moschino pants, ostrich-skin boots, a black belt with a narco nickname engraved in it and a Versace handbag big enough to hold a stash of drugs and the cash needed to pay off police.

There are, on average, three drug-related murders a day in Sinaloa. Simply to walk the deserted streets of Culiacán at night is to feel the weight of fear that has descended on the city. The drug cartels have stored caches of weapons in “safe houses” scattered across town, from the poorest barrios to the most upscale neighborhoods, and thousands of federal troops garrisoned in the local baseball stadium patrol the streets day and night. But the soldiers have little or no intelligence about the drug traffickers they have been sent to stop, and the military checkpoints set up around the city have done nothing to stem the violence. A few days before I arrive, assailants killed a man driving a car in front of a mall, then doubled back through traffic to shoot his wife — a pregnant woman — in the head at point-blank range.

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.”

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.”

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.

But Chapo had a plush suite in the prison, complete with a personal chef, plenty of Buchanan’s whiskey and an endless supply of Viagra. He also had a girlfriend, an attractive ex-cop coke addict named Zulema. By 2001, faced with the prospect of extradition to the United States, Chapo was growing despondent. After he slept with Zulema, he would fall into long brooding silences. “I knew that if he escaped, they might kill him,” she later told a reporter. “He knew what he was going to face. It’s all your life running. It’s all your life hiding. It’s all your life desperate. I knew that there were many voices in his silence.”

At the time, President Vicente Fox had just been elected, ending decades of rule by the PRI. The Gulf cartels and the Zetas were inflicting unprecedented violence along the border to seize control of supply routes from Chapo and the Sinaloan-run cartels. The government was unable to contain the crisis. The new groups acquired enough weapons and intelligence to rival the Mexican armed forces; the Sinaloan cartels were cowed by the megaviolent Zetas.

Then came the miracle. With Chapo’s extradition to America only days away, suddenly, magically, deus ex machina, the bars and doors and gates of Grande Puente swung open, and the kingpin was spirited out — in a laundry van, say some, brazenly walking out the front door, say others. The feat became the latest and most audacious act in Chapo’s long history of eluding the authorities. But what if his magic trick was arranged by the government? What if Chapo was set free to fight the Zetas and the other violent cartels — in the streets, to the death? What if Chapo is an unofficial instrument of government policy? This view is commonly held by political and law-enforcement elites in Mexico. The academic Luis Astorga is careful to refer to Chapo’s “escape,” using his hands to indicate quotation marks.

“Chapo is protected by the narcos and the people in the mountains,” Edgar says. “But he’s also protected at the federal level. The prison doors didn’t just open by magic. Chapo was released by the government. They let him go so he could fight the other narcos and the Zetas. There are severe limits on how the government can fight. It is difficult for the police to raid a house, because of human and legal rights. But not for Chapo. He is very powerful. Very brave. He’s not afraid of the Zetas or anyone.”

The notion of using one narco to counter other, more dangerous narcos makes perfect sense to Edgar. The strategy was born of necessity, he says. Chapo comes from a long line of Sinaloan cartels. He doesn’t reject the state entirely or want to rule the country himself. He was in prison so prosecutors could make a deal with him, in the way informants are flipped during investigations of organized crime.

“Today Chapo moves from state to state, from country to country, without a problem,” Edgar says. “Many people know where he is. You can’t do this without federal protection. Chapo can deal his drugs and do his business, but he must respect certain limits. No women or children should be killed. Don’t kidnap. Don’t steal. Chapo respects the government.”

As we talk, the ex-commandante grows increasingly uneasy. His back is to the window; he can’t see the Hummers and Escalades with tinted windows passing by outside. He asks to switch tables. Since his promotion, the only way it is possible for him to move around Culiacán is with an armed escort. But his security detail has been taken away, and he fears for his life. We shift to a table in the middle of the restaurant.

“Most people in Culiacán are only one or two steps away from the cartels, through a brother or a cousin,” Edgar continues. “It is very common for police and prosecutors to eat with narcos, to go to their weddings. Chapo could be arrested if they want to. We in law enforcement don’t have good coordination. It’s all fucked up. The disorganization is huge. People don’t follow orders. They don’t speak to each other. Intelligence isn’t working. But the priority right now is the Beltrán Leyva cartel. The police would rather get Mochomo than Chapo. Mochomo is crazy. He kills a lot of people. The same is true for his brother, Barbas.”

“Where do you think Chapo is?” I ask.

“In the mountains,” says Edgar. “He’s very protected there.” He pauses. “Unless he’s in Costa Rica.”

“Do you think I could get an interview with Chapo?” I ask.

“There is a $5 million reward out for Chapo,” Edgar says. “They will think you are DEA.”

Searching for more leads to Chapo’s whereabouts, I stop by Las Palmas, a steakhouse in Culiacán. Last November, according to Valdez, the restaurant was taken over by dozens of Chapo’s armed guards, the doors barred and all cellphones confiscated. “We’re going to have my boss here,” a guard announced. “Don’t worry — nothing is going to happen to you. And don’t worry about the bill. He is going to pay for everything.” Chapo entered with a group of 20 men, said good evening to the crowd, then retired to a private room.

When I visit Las Palmas, I find a brightly lit place with a vaguely gangster air. An ancient waiter in a white shirt and a black vest says the story about Chapo is bullshit. He had told the police the same thing: Chapo didn’t have dinner here. But then the waiter can’t help himself — he needs me to know the truth. “If Chapo was going to eat a steak — if he was looking for the best steak in town — he would certainly come here,” he says with a conspiratorial smile.

The next morning, Julio calls. He has been trying to convince a friend to take me to another area in the Sierra Madres where Chapo is said to be hiding, but the man refused. “Not for a million pesos,” he told Julio. “For no amount of money.” Julio has another contact who is already up in the mountains. This man is “with” Chapo, not as a narco but as a gaucho, tending to Chapo’s horses. It is agreed that Julio’s friend will meet me at the edge of a town in the foothills, at a gas station. I rent a Jeep and head out with Sara. But when we reach the gas station, Julio’s friend doesn’t turn up. We call his cellphone. The cowboy is furious. Rumors have been traveling around Chapo’s circles about me. He wants to know whose “people” I am “with.”

Sara explains that I am a reporter, but he doesn’t believe her. He says I have to be “with” someone — an assassin sent by Barbas, a gringo hired by the Zetas, an undercover DEA agent. “This happened before,” the man says. “A man who said he was a journalist went into the Sierras. He never came back. You can come. But no one will speak to you. Not about Chapo. And you might not get out.”

At the gas station, a local man agrees to guide me to the village of Santiago de los Caballeros, which translates as Saint of the Knights. The village is the heart of narco territory, the equivalent of Corleone for the Sicilian Mafia. A few miles along the road, we turn onto a ragged side track. The route cuts through deep jungle, across riverbeds and up mud-sloped rises. The man asks why I want to go into the mountains. As I reply, his face goes pale. Four people were massacred recently, he says. Soldiers get drunk and high and paranoid and start firing at the slightest provocation — or for no reason at all.

We drive through some of the most rugged and isolated terrain in the world, high atop jagged outcrops where the clouds literally meet the earth. Below the path is a plunge of thousands of feet. The road is muddy and slippery, and there is no guardrail. After two hours of white-knuckled driving — during which we cover perhaps 10 miles — we reach the village. Three dozen houses are scattered in the valley, modest homes with gardens and clothes drying on laundry strings. A tiny airstrip for narco planes is tucked into the brush, visible only by the small red markers strung across the treetops to guide pilots. On a hilltop, in a graveyard, stands a cluster of huge, ornate mausoleums the drug traffickers have built for themselves while they’re still alive. It was in these mountains that the United States introduced narcotics to Mexico, setting off the chain of events that would result in the creation of the cartels and culture in Sinaloa. During the Second World War, the American government encouraged farmers in Sinaloa to plant fields of poppy to provide morphine for wounded soldiers. As so often happens, one war has led to another.

At the lone restaurant, a small gathering of men eyes us suspiciously. The driver refuses to let me get out of the vehicle. “The law doesn’t work out here,” he says. “It’s dangerous to ask questions of these people. We don’t know who they are. We must go now.” This is as close as I will manage to get to Chapo and his base of operations — an airstrip in the mountains used for smuggling drugs, a graveyard filled with self-erected monuments to the narcos and their reign.

Back in Culiacán, the front page of the newspaper features a street-by-street diagram of the recent beheadings and assassinations: EL MAPA DE LA MUERTE. The killings also continue apace across the nation, in border cities and resort towns and industrial centers. In the first week of October alone, at least 49 people are murdered in Tijuana. Every sign in Mexico points to a war that is only just beginning. “The confrontation is escalating,” says Astorga, the sociologist. “The narcos are threatening governors, the military, mayors. Eventually the state will find a way to prevail. In the end, war is not good for business.”

But here in Culiacán, the defeat of the narcos doesn’t appear likely anytime soon. The local leaders I meet talk about long-term solutions. Twenty-five-year plans are standard — the political euphemism for “never.” “The federal government is overwhelmed, and so is the state government,” a leading politician says. “If here the police feel unsafe, how are the citizens going to feel?”

Of all the perversities of American drug policy, none is greater than the fact that the metaphorical War on Drugs has inflicted an actual war on some of the hemisphere’s poorest people. The Bush administration’s answer to the chaos in Mexico is something called the Mérida Initiative, which was signed into law this summer. The plan will provide $1.6 billion to the Mexican government, much of it for high-caliber weapons, night-vision goggles and air support — the kind of resources that the super-rich drug cartels already have in abundance. “We’ve had the same policy on drugs since the Nixon administration,” says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “We ask other countries to fight the war for us. The same thing happened in Colombia. We try to export the problem by asking other countries to not sell us the goods we want to buy. Thousands are dying every year in Mexico for our war.”

In the end, the chaos in Mexico is the direct result of America’s misguided War on Drugs — the Latin American version of blowback. Every effort to counter the cartels only serves to empower them. Cracking down on cocaine use in the United States has encouraged the Mexicans to produce more heroin and crystal meth, at the same time as they fight over the shrinking coke market. Killing the heads of the Mexican cartels has sparked a civil war, as lower-level rivals fight to replace the fallen leaders. Yet some DEA officers I speak to, who refuse to be named, ache for an even more aggressive war on drugs, the kind of force used in Iraq, with a full-frontal assault in the Sierra Madres by the United States military. Others favor supplying more aid to Mexico, as the Bush administration is doing with the Mérida Initiative. “The initiative is a step in the right direction,” says Pamela Starr, the author of a recent report on Mexico for the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is designed to build Mexican law enforcement, and it is focused on the police and the judiciary.”

But if the past is any guide, the Mérida Initiative will prove to be yet another strategic miscalculation, increasing the very violence it seeks to curb. The result could be a failed state in Mexico on the scale of Afghanistan — a lawless society ruled by drug lords. “The violence threatens the government’s ability to govern effectively,” says Starr. “It threatens the oil supply. It makes Mexico a potential transit point for terrorists. The worst thing in the world that could happen to the United States is to have an unstable country on its southern border.”

In fact, there are already signs that the violence in Mexico is moving into the United States. In major cities like Los Angeles and Dallas, Mexican street gangs are turning up in growing numbers, as the cartels increase their reach across the border. In June, two vehicles filled with Mexican narcos disguised as U.S. policemen staged an attack in Phoenix, unloading 100 rounds of high-caliber ammunition into a dope dealer who had angered their boss. Three of the hit men were apprehended after fleeing into an alley, but the rest of the assailants escaped.

The surest way to curb the violence is the one the U.S. government refuses to consider. “There is no national conversation about legalization, and we need to start doing that,” says David Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute. “From the Mexican point of view, decriminalization would rob organized crime of the monopoly it now has in the black market. The monopoly is what gives the drug traffickers enormous resources. They can challenge and compromise the state in extremely dangerous ways. They use profits we’re creating to undermine our efforts to fight them.”

In Culiacán, no one wants to discuss the decriminalization of drugs. They know that any move to legalize narcotics would devastate the local economy, even as it freed the city from the death grip of narco culture. The “war” on drugs being waged by the United States keeps the town prosperous, and residents at all levels of society have a stake in protecting Chapo and the cartels from foreign interference. When I get back to New York, my translator calls to say that my reporting has continued to cause a stir in Chapo’s world. Julio and his friends are now certain that I was a DEA agent gathering intelligence on Chapo and the Sinaloan cartels. The accusation isn’t nonsensical: The same month I was there, U.S. forces helped free hostages held by the rebel group FARC in the jungles of Colombia by having soldiers pose as journalists.

Sara says that Julio has been threatening her, insisting that they talk face to face. Terrified that he might kill her, she agrees to meet — but only in a public place. At a restaurant, she shows him links to articles I’ve written. Julio angrily tells her that he is being threatened for talking to me. He is worried that he could be shot by Chapo’s men.

“If someone has to go ‘into the floor,’ it will be you, not me,” Julio tells her — narco shorthand for getting killed.

“It’s so stupid,” Sara says to me. “But in this war, people die for stupid reasons.”


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