Ground Zero in Sinaloa

FOUR years ago Mexico invented a civil war: the government decided to confront the seven major drug cartels. The army was sent into the streets, mountains and country paths. Even the navy was on alert.

Here in Sinaloa, the western state where the modern drug trade began, poorly armed and ill-outfitted federal and state police were the first to fall. Around 50 of them, killed by the cartels. Those who survived took to the streets in protest, demanding better weapons and bulletproof vests. In Culiacán, the state capital, students are always staging protest marches; it was strange to see the police do the same. You could smell the fear and uncertainty in the air.

At first people believed that it would soon blow over. But weeks went by and the gunfire continued to claim victims. Across Mexico in 2009, an average of 23 people died in drug-related violence every day, and on many of those days Sinaloa was the prime contributor to that statistic. Military patrols and federal policemen prowled the cities looking to uncover troves of weapons. They went door to door in Culiacán. It took them five minutes to inspect my house. “It’s full of books,” the sergeant remarked, a bewildered look on his face.

I don’t know if they did the same in the neighborhoods where the drug lords actually live. The soldiers didn’t look that tough, nor did the police. But still, it was unsettling to see them close up and with such troubled looks on their faces. Ever since the student uprisings of 1968 and the resulting repression of the 1970s, soldiers are seen as threats, even in Sinaloa, where they are trying to protect us.

The Mexican drug industry was established in the 1940s by a group of Sinaloans and Americans trafficking in heroin. It is part of our culture: we know all the legends, folk songs and movies about the drug world, including its patron saint, Jesús Malverde, a Robin Hood-like bandit who was hanged in 1909.

There are days when we feel deeply ashamed that the trade is at the heart of Sinaloa’s identity, and wish our history were different. Our ancestors were fearless and proud people, and it is their memory that gives us the will to try to control our own fear and the sobs of the widows and mothers who have lost loved ones.

It was reported that not long ago, a group of high-ranking government officials from Mexico City paid a visit to Ciudad Juárez, a city in Chihuahua State on the Texas border where people are too scared to go out at night. A troop of Niños Exploradores, akin to Boy Scouts, was trotted out to greet the dignitaries. Warm smiles abounded among the government representatives. The boys’ faces were dead serious.

When the boys were asked to perform their salute, their commander shouted, “How do the children play in Ciudad Juárez?” The boys hit the ground. When asked, “How do the children play in Tijuana?” again the scouts hit the ground. When asked about the children of the border city of Matamoros, yet again, they were on the ground. The visitors looked eager to disappear.

In Sinaloa, at least things haven’t gotten that bad. People live well and our children play other games. At night we go out for dinner, we go for evening strolls down our beaches and our roads as if to say: this is our land, we will not let go of it. But it doesn’t always work.

Sinaloa is a place with a strong work ethic: people tell me, for example, that I write like a farmer, from dawn. Our greatest worry is that, in our fear, we will lose our grip on the code of work and responsibility that guided our forefathers and helped them convert our unpromising salt flats and desert into agricultural bounty.

Élmer Mendoza is a novelist.

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