Pubdate: Sun, 28 Feb 1999
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Examiner


NAVOLATO, Mexico -- Jorge Aguirre Meza was a thin man who walked with a
severe limp from a childhood bout with polio.

But he stood tall against drug smugglers and bandit gangs of this flatland
farming town of 75,000 people, and of his state of Sinaloa, which is now
suffering Mexico's most widespread case of savage drug-related violence.

And so on the night of Wednesday, Jan. 27, Jorge Aguirre Meza was riddled
with bullets in front of his home and his 9-year-old daughter by two masked
men with AK-47s, as he tried desperately to maneuver his Dodge Ram Charger
out of his cul-de-sac.

"Is there no place here for people who refuse to accept crime as a way of
life?" wrote the daily Noroeste in an editorial the next day.

Although he had been threatened many times before, Aguirre Meza, at 39, felt
safe from such an end as long as he stayed in the public eye. "Here, they
think more carefully about killing someone who has public support," said
Leonel Aguirre Meza, his younger brother.

Jorge Aguirre Meza was president of the Sinaloa Lawyers Federation, a
statewide lawyers union. Then he was a city councilman, a former candidate
for mayor of Navolato, about 12 miles west of Culiaca1/2n, Sinaloa's
capital. He was a high school teacher and had been a federal prosecutor. He
founded the Navolatan Citizens Council for Human Rights, and was a founding
member of the statewide Sinaloan Commission for the Defense of Human Rights.

But his activism, which at one time might have protected him, also most
likely got him killed.

Awash in executions

As rising levels of common street crime have swept across Mexico, Sinaloa
has been awash in executions not only of drug gang members but of prominent
citizens as well.

Sinaloa is a hot agricultural state stretching down the Pacific Coast. The
home of the Mazatlan tourist resort, the state is probably best known within
Mexico as the birthplace of drug smuggling. Since the 1960s, virtually every
major Mexican drug lord has been Sinaloan.

In the 1970s, a wave of drug-related violence prompted the government to
institute Operation Condor, using the military essentially to raid and
terrorize the hills for two years.

The most important traffickers left for Tijuana, Juarez, Guadalajara and
elsewhere. The great cartels of today -- the Juarez, Sinaloa and Tijuana
cartels -- were set up to control the trade and the violence.

Since then, Sinaloa tolerated the drug trade so long as narcos kept their
wars among themselves. Even today, both Sinaloan society and police use the
term "ajuste de cuentas" -- an adjusting of accounts -- to describe the
motive behind a drug land hit, and as an excuse to not investigate it.

But the cartel system has been disrupted in recent years, as some leaders
have died or gone to prison. Left behind is a detritus of increasingly
brutal gangs that no longer recognize the implicit social contract.

The state Secretary of Citizen Protection conservatively estimates that more
than 200 armed gangs are involved in drugs, as well as highway robbery,
murder for hire and kidnapping. Some have police protection. Some are former
police officers. A good many are simply unafraid of the police.
Noninvolvement no protection

At one time, noninvolvement in the drug trade was protection from its
violence. "This is what I find has disappeared," said Elmer Mendoza, a
Culiacan novelist. "We're all the same in their eyes now."

Through the 1990s, the Sinaloa murder toll has included 47 lawyers, 40 state
police officers and 12 university professors, while a long list of
well-known farmers, ranchers, merchants, professionals and social activists
have been kidnapped or killed, sometimes both.

Meanwhile, Sinaloa's homicides have tripled, rising steadily from about 215
in 1987 to average about 650 annually over the last few years. In January,
the state saw 51 murders, about a third of which appear to be
execution-style hits. A recent state study of 100 homicides found that only
eight had been solved.

Aguirre Meza's hometown of Navolato has been transformed by the violence. It
was once peaceful, with no more than a half-dozen murders a year. Residents
routinely walked the street at night.

But by the mid-1990s, the city had become a dumping ground for people
executed elsewhere; it was known as "The Cemetery." From 1993 through 1996,
some 80 execution victims were found bound, shot through the head, some
buried, some wrapped in blankets.

Everyone knew who was responsible: A band of killers run by a man who once
practiced law in the area, Jesus Rios Felix.

A warrant, then a threat

In 1992, a social activist named Servando Ramirez was murdered in Navolato.
Jorge Aguirre Meza was appointed special prosecutor to investigate. He
eventually swore out a murder warrant against Rios Felix.

Aguirre Meza was threatened with death, and in 1996 left to be a federal
prosecutor in Mexico City.

The gang had been a well-controlled bottom rung in the Sinaloa Cartel, run
by drug lords Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Hector "El Guero" Palma. But
first Guzman, and then, in 1996, Palma, went to prison.

The gang began freelancing. They formed a shadow government in Navolato. For
a while, they set up a roadblock and robbed motorists. Though they had
arrest warrants against them, they drove about armed and in flashy Chevrolet
Suburbans and Ford Cherokees.

A local doctor once collided with one of their Suburbans. Four men dragged
him from his car and beat him with their rifles in the middle of the street.
The police watched. Only when someone from the crowd yelled for them to do
something did they step in to calm the four thugs, who then drove off. The
doctor moved to Mazatlan.

Since then, the gang has divided. Other gangs have popped up, all
independent and without higher control. Now, at night, Navolato's streets
and plaza are empty.

In 1997, Aguirre Meza returned from Mexico to accept the job of Navolato's
chief of police, aware of the risks. Within six months, he imprisoned the
area's biggest drug smuggler, 25-year-old Victor Contreras, for firing a
high-powered rifle in a cemetery during a Day of the Dead celebration.

Last fall, Aguirre Meza ran for mayor. He lost, but won a city council seat,
which he'd occupied for less than a month when he died.

Calls for army intervention

Following his murder, several prominent Sinaloan businessmen and politicians
called for the army to step in again.

But it may be too late for such facile solutions. "More people are involved
(in the drug trade)," said Leonel Aguirre Meza. "Now in what institution --
any one you want to mention -- is there no narco influence? Plus, while you
have the authorities much more corrupted, you have the citizenry really

Complicating things is what observers say is a loss of civic values. "This
is the third generation that's living with drug smuggling," said Oscar Loza,
director of the Sinaloan Commission for the Defense of Human Rights, whose
two successors were both assassinated: Jesu1/2s Michel in 1988, and Norma
Corona in 1990. "There are families who see as completely normal that their
children marry into narco families. Before it was rejected and ostracized.
But little by little, people get used to it."

A "narco-culture" now exists in Sinaloa. The exploits of semiliterate
smugglers are told in ballads; narco-fashion -- a polished country-hick
look, including cowboy hat, boots, jeans, gold chains and silk shirt -- has
been the rage for a while.

Drug trafficking is one of the few routes to economic and social advancement
open to the working classes, and the drug trafficker has become Sinaloa's
hero figure. "The people who exercise other values -- respect for life, for
work, for the individual -- like Jorge, become of secondary importance,"
said Elmer Mendoza.

And, like much of Mexico, Sinaloa is simply unprepared to fight back.
Decades of paternalistic, centralized government in Mexico City have
crippled municipal governments and police, institutions that might form a
bulwark against drug trafficking.

Navolato police, for example, have a total of 13 working patrol cars, none
of them bulletproof, and 111 pistols -- all for 210 officers, most of whom
have only finished junior high school. Officers are rationed eight bullets a
day. The police chief is an engineer whose last job was teaching high
school. Pursuing the killers

No one yet knows who killed Jorge Aguirre, or why. His friends and
associates say they will pressure the government until they know. The
administration of new Gov. Juan Milla1/2n has vowed to solve the case. But
the number of unsolved murders in Sinaloa over the last five years is
depressingly long.

On Feb. 4, several hundred people marched through Culiaca1/2n, under the
banner "Sinaloa For Peace."

Among them was Abraham Hernandez, once an agricultural consultant, whose
life is now different due to the violence. Hernandez's son and two nephews
were kidnapped from a party in Culiacan in 1996 and are presumed dead.
Hernandez and his relatives have staged more than 20 marches to keep
pressure on authorities to solve the disappearance. Hernandez himself has
used up his personal savings and sold his business to devote full-time to
the case.

During his travails, he met Aguirre Meza. "He was a citizen who wanted to
defend society. Doing that, he ran up against certain interests and that
caused his death," Hernandez said. "We can't allow that. It's not right that
people who defend their rights, or society's rights, have to die."

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