Pubdate: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  (213) 237-4712
Author: Sam Quinones
Note: Sam Quinones, a Freelance Journalist, Was an Alicia Patterson Fellow
for 1998


NAVOLATO, MEXICO - Jorge Aguirre Meza was a determinedly public man.

His fate highlights the price Mexico, in general, and Sinaloa, in
particular, is paying to fight the drug war and win Congress' approval that
it is holding up its end of the bargain.

Aguirre Meza ran for mayor and lost, but he won a council seat in Navolato,
a farming community in the state of Sinaloa. He was president of the
Sinaloa Lawyers Federation. He had been a federal prosecutor and Navolato's
chief of police in 1997. He started the Navolatan Citizens Council for
Human Rights and was a founding member of the Sinaloan Commission for the
Defense of Human Rights.

In recent years, he had sworn out a murder warrant against the leader of a
band of killersforhire and, as chief of police, had arrested a major drug
trafficker. Still, he didn't feel he had to leave town. Narcos were always
reluctant to assassinate someone who enjoyed social support and kept a high
civic profile.

But things have changed.

On the night of Jan. 27, Aguirre Meza was parking his Ram Charger at the
end of his culdesac. Two men wearing masks and carrying AK47s suddenly
appeared beside his truck. Frantically, he tried to maneuver out of the
deadend. But his attackers gunned him down.

The slaying of Aguirre Meza was the latest outrage in a state grown numb to
murderous acts during a virtual Colombianstyle social decomposition. For
the last five years, Sinaloa has been besieged by warfare and executions
among competing drug gangs, an outbreak of violence that increasingly
targets prominent citizens like Aguirre Meza, who once were considered

Sinaloa is home to the Mazatlan tourist resort. It is also the birthplace
of Mexican drug smuggling. Around the turn of the century, Chinese
immigrants arrived in the Mexican state with the opium poppy. Marijuana
grows well in the Sinaloan mountains.

Smuggling drugs to the United States has been part of the local economy for
decades and increasingly important since the 1960s.

Virtually every major Mexican drug lord is from Sinaloa.

When narco violence got out of hand in the 1970s, the state government
launched Operation Condor, which used the military to chase drug runners
out of the hills in the '70s and early '80s. As a result, the state's most
important traffickers left for Tijuana, Juarez, Guadalajara and elsewhere.
As the great cartels of today formed to control the narcotics trade,
Sinaloa settled into a tacit arrangement with its narcos: Keep your wars
among yourselves and you can do your business.

In recent years, however, the cartel system has been upset. The chiefs of
the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Hector "El Guero" Palma
are in prison. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, "The Lord of the Skies," died after
plastic surgery in 1997. The breed of trafficker replacing these drug lords
seems more callous, less willing to accept any kind of control and
criminally ambitious beyond drug running. Today, more than 200 wellarmed
gangs are based in Sinaloa, according to police officials. They seem
accountable to no one and ply a variety of other criminal enterprises such
as highway robbery, murderforhire and kidnapping. Fullblown shootouts in
the hills of Sinaloa are, if not routine, frequent.

Thus, the tacit agreement that governed relations between lawabiding
Sinaloans and narco gangs is no longer in force.

Sinaloans thought they could coexist with the drug trade. Now they find
they cannot, and anyone is a potential victim of violence. For example, a
plastic surgeon who operated on the mother of a gangster, who believed the
operation caused her subsequent death, survived one attempt on his life,
but not a second. But he is one of a mounting tally. Over the last few
years, 47 lawyers, 40 state police officers and 12 university professors
have been murdered by gangsters connected to drug trafficking. Prominent
farmers, ranchers, merchants, professionals and social activists have been
kidnapped or killed. Aguirre Meza is the third of five founders of the
Sinaloan Commission for the Defense of Human Rights to be assassinated in
the last decade.

Only a handful of the killings have been solved. Murders, meanwhile, have
tripled, rising from 215 in 1987, to an average of 650 a year over the last
few years. Many of them were executionstyle hits, with the victim bound,
shot in the back of the head and buried in a shallow grave.

The Sinaloans' relative helplessness in dealing with the state's drug gangs
is rooted in Mexico's old style of governance. For most of this century,
the country has lived with a bloated, centralized national government in
Mexico City. Its job, as the government saw it, was to do everything for
the people. Because the central government was reluctant to share power
with any institution that might one day challenge it, few state or local
institutions with the muscle and vigor to act as a bulwark against the drug
trade developed.

Mexico's business elite, for example, has virtually no experience in civic
causes. Indeed, the government actively discouraged such participation for
years and, until recently, the most a businessman could aspire to, if he
was socially minded, was to be president of the local Red Cross for a year.
The idea that any businessman would, say, help raise money to buy computers
for police cars was simply unimaginable. That was the government's job.

City governments and police have been especially enfeebled by decades of
centralism. Most municipal governments in Mexico are arthritic, with
neither the money nor the civilservice expertise to pave streets, let alone
fight the menace that the bandit gangs in Sinaloa represent. Until last
year, municipal governments in Mexico received only 4% of the country's tax
revenues, with states getting 16%. The federal government got the rest.
This method of distributing revenue has pauperized local police
departments. The Navolato police department, for example, has 13 working
patrol cars and 111 pistols for 210 officers, who each are rationed eight
bullets a day. The police chief's last job was teaching engineering at a
local high school. State and federal police have more resources and are
better trained, but they are also geometrically more corrupt.

It should thus be no surprise that Sinaloa's drug gangs operate without
much fear of getting caught by the authorities. About the only institution
capable of taking on the traffickers is the army, to which President
Ernesto Zedillo is increasingly turning to combat crime. Since Aguirre
Meza's murder, businessmen and politicians have called for the military to
intervene again in Sinaloa.

Yet, this is not the 1970s. Narco influence has insinuated itself deeply
into Sinaloa and far beyond its hills. Moreover, a true "narcoculture" has
sprung up in Sinaloa and in most of northwest Mexico. With local police and
government either inept, powerless or corrupt, the narcotraficante has
emerged as a social hero. This is especially true for the working class,
for whom drug smuggling offers a rare chance at economic advancement.
Accordingly, some vicious, semiliterate narcos have become legends,
regarded as swashbuckling risk takers who defy authorities to get rich
selling the gringo the vice he covets. Their fashions are imitated. Their
exploits incorporated into ballads. In Sinaloa, even middleclass college
students know the stories of how certain narcos lived and died better than
they know the works of major Mexican writers.

For now, Sinaloans would likely settle for the army reminding the narco
gangs just whom they can murder with impunity and whom they can't, in
effect restoring a bit of the old order to their society's relationship
with the narco. Actual eradication of the drug trade isn't on the agenda.

The longerterm solution is slackened demand for drugs in the United States
and the development of modern Mexico institutions, which is already
underway. Until then, Sinaloa will likely have to endure a good measure
more of its current nightmare, unless the real power, the drug cartels, can
bring the bandit gangs under control.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake