National Geographic : 2010 May
Occidental, at least 300 miles from the U.S. bor- der, and largely agricultural and poor, Sinaloa was an ideal location for a clandestine trade catering to the U.S. market. e early tra ck- ers' operations were restricted largely to grow- ing marijuana in the mountains or buying it from other growers along the Paci c coast, then smuggling it into the U.S. for a neat pro t. For decades this was a comparatively low-risk and low-volume operation, and violence was con- tained within the drug world. In the 1970s the Mexican government, in coordination with the U.S., carried out a series of o ensives against the Sinaloa tra ckers. It was like trying to get rid of a virus by ushing it into the bloodstream. A number of drug "foot sol- diers," as they were beginning to be called, were imprisoned or killed, but most of their leaders escaped Sinaloa unharmed and set up operations in neighboring states and in the major cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. With every new military o ensive, the tra ckers slipped into a new region and became stronger. As the stakes grew, so did armaments and the number of traf- ckers, and in each new city and region they bought o more politicians and police. ere was no stopping the drug trade itself, because it was run according to a perfect formula: Sell illegal goods at a huge markup to consumers with money, and recruit your labor force primarily among young men with no money and no future, who are desperate to look sharp, act tough, and feel powerful. By the 1980s a new order was in place. e drug lords controlled the underworld and key members of the security forces in cities like Guadalajara, Tijuana, and Juárez. In a shaky peacekeeping arrangement that nevertheless lasted for years, the drug lords parceled out each city to a particular family. In the 1990s the fragile peace among the displaced Sinaloa families broke down. ey fought each other for control of the major bor- der transit points and then began ghting some- times with, and sometimes against, an upstart tra cking group with no Sinaloa connections. is was the self-styled Cartel del Golfo, from In Tijuana a man visits a modest roadside chapel (left) honoring the folk saint Jesús Malverde, a legendary outlaw said to have been hanged by officials in Sinaloa a century ago. Sinaloan drug traffickers adopted Malverde as a Robin Hood-like symbol of honorable thievery. Wor- shippers come to his main shrine in Culiacán (above) to pray and leave votive offerings.