Pubdate: Fri, 30 May 2008
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2008 The Dallas Morning News
Author: Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News
Bookmark: (Marijuana)


Writers Find Inspiration in Culiacan, Where Real Life Can Be More 
Intriguing Than Fiction

CULIACAN, Mexico - The setting is this steamy western city, long 
known as the narco capital of Mexico. The main character is a drug 
trafficker with an easy smile who wins his young love's heart by 
replacing an old tin-roofed church so the two can attend Sunday Mass 
without rain leaks interrupting the sermon.

But the young man, known as "El Roba Chivas," the Goat Bandit, is 
soon gunned down inside his gold-plated SUV on the streets of Culiacan.

The scene, drawn from real life, may soon show up in the pages of a novel.

"You can't make this stuff up," said Leonidas Alfaro Bedolla, who is 
gathering material for his next book. "This is the only place where 
real-life characters are more powerful and interesting than fictional ones."

Culiacan - long known for powerful drug lords, crooked cops, narco 
folk ballads and even a narco saint - is also home to a growing body 
of narco literature. At least six authors are using the violent city 
and Sinaloa state as the setting for their novels, chronicling the 
narratives behind the gunfire, local authors say.

"You could fairly say drug trafficking affects every aspect of life 
in Sinaloa," said Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist at the 
University of Texas at El Paso and author of an upcoming book on drug 
traffickers. "Whether we like it or not, it's a part of Mexican 
popular culture today, part of what we listen to and increasingly 
part of what we read."

The name "Culiacan" conjures up comparisons to the Colombian cities 
of Cali and Medellin, one-time homes to powerful drug cartels of the 
same name. Some of the most notorious names in the Mexican drug 
trade, including Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca, Amado Carrillo Fuentes 
and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, have used Sinaloa as their base, 
forever changing the landscape of this vast agricultural region.

Soybeans, lettuce and tomatoes thrive beside fields of marijuana and 
opium, destined for U.S. markets.

Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte captured the region's violence 
and drama in his best-seller La Reina del Sur, or The Queen of the 
South. Mr. Perez-Reverte spent months in the streets of Culiacan 
under the tutelage of local author Elmer Mendoza, one of several 
novelists to whom the book is dedicated.

The novel is described as a "biography" of Teresa Mendoza, a young 
woman from Culiacan who becomes the mastermind of a 
multimillion-dollar drug empire.

Newer novelists include Mr. Alfaro, Javier Valdez, Luis Antonio 
Garcia and 26-year-old Elena Mendez, who is preparing to publish her 
first book, a romance novel.

"Morbid curiosity sells, as we all know," said Ms. Mendez, adding 
that the drug trade is not the focus of her book but is unavoidably 
part of it. "Drug trafficking will be mentioned in passing, since it 
is an inescapable reality of my surroundings. The narco culture has 
now permeated every corner of our society, and if anyone denies it, 
they're lying."

Critical Look

Unlike the musical narcocorridos, ballads that typically glorify the 
exploits of drug traffickers, the novels take more of a critical approach.

The novels highlight police corruption and links between drug 
traffickers and the state and federal government.

An accountant, Mr. Alfaro began writing books in the late 1990s and 
has penned four. They include Tierra Blanca, or White Land, a 
portrait of drug trafficking in the region, which gained impetus when 
the U.S. government signed an agreement to buy opium to meet medical 
needs during World War II.

Mr. Alfaro concedes that his books are not best-sellers. They do 
better in Spain than Mexico, he said.

"I didn't get into this to make easy money," he said. "I got into 
this as a sign of my outrage, my rejection and anger against what's 
become of our society."

Many of the narratives revolve around death, the authors say. And 
Culiacan is a perfect setting.

The city had two funeral homes in the 1980s but has at least 22 
today, said Juan Carlos Ayala Barron, an academic at the University 
of Sinaloa who specializes in the cultural and economic impact of 
drug trafficking.

An estimated 1,500 hitmen are available for hire in the city, he 
said, and an entire neighborhood - Colonia Guadalupe Montoya - is 
known informally as Colonia de Sicarios, or neighborhood of hitmen.

During a visit to the neighborhood, Mr. Ayala Barron pointed to 
modest, well-kept homes with late-model SUVs parked in front.

"There's poverty here, but no misery," he said. "There's a saying 
here that's part of a narcocorrido and cultural reality: 'I'd rather 
live like a king for five years than like an ox for 15 years.' "

Mr. Alfaro added, "For these people the American dream is not in 
California or Texas, but here in Culiacan. Wealth, as well as death, 
is instant."

About 450 women are left widowed by the violence each year in 
Culiacan, Mr. Ayala Barron said.

Dangerous Ground

At the Humaya Cemetery, rows of freshly dug graves await their 
tenants. Elaborate stone memorials and mausoleums commemorate the 
dead, many of whom were younger than 30 when they were killed.

Inside the crypts, signs of religious faith and superstition abound, 
from figures of St. Jude to the less conventional Santa Muerte - St. 
Death - and Jesus Malverde, the so-called narco saint, who is revered 
as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Near 
downtown Culiacan, a shrine to Malverde draws lines of pilgrims.

The pervasive violence and death and a cast of colorful criminals 
provide good material for writers but also some peril, the authors said.

They told of a nouveau riche trafficker who would entertain visitors 
to his home in a huge, plushly furnished bedroom adorned with 
automatic weapons.

"I omit some stuff because it's so bizarre that it doesn't sound 
credible," Mr. Alfaro said

"These people want to be remembered, and want their stories told," he 
said of the drug traffickers. "But what happens if they don't like 
the book? They won't trash it. They'll whack you. That's why I prefer 
writing fiction." 
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