Pubdate: Sun, 28 Feb 1999
Source: San Francisco Examiner
Section: Page, A-18
1999 San Francisco Examiner
Author: Sam Quinones


200 Gangs Terrorize The State; Some Enjoy Poke Protection

NAVOIATO, 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 Culiacan,
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 Juhrez, 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

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.

Non-involvement;  no protection

At one time, non-involvement in the drug trade was protection from its
violence. "This is what I find has disappeared," said Elmer Mendoza, a
Culiacin 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, Jesfis 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

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 Chapoll GuzmiLn 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 afraid.

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

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 Millan 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 Culiacan, under the
banner "Sinaloa For Peace."

Among them was Abraham Hernfindez, once an agricultural consultant,
whose life is now different due to the violence. Hernfindez'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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