Mexico's drug capital too numb to feel horror

June 25, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

CULIACAN, Mexico -- This city has been so battered by the violence of drug traffickers that most of its people don't feel pain anymore.

A month ago a man lay bleeding to death from a gunshot wound outside Dr. Alfonso Corona Sapien's office. He was in his early 20s, Dr. Corona said, and he was barely breathing. Many saw the body, but no one moved to help him.

He was only one of 175 people killed here so far this year.

"It's as if people are walking around in a daze," said the 37-year-old doctor, whose own sister was killed by drug traffickers in 1990. She was a human rights activist who was getting evidence against traffickers involved in a killing. "They hear about someone being killed and say, 'So what.' Then another person gets killed, 'So what.' People just go on with their lives.

"There has to be something to shake them up."

But it takes a lot to rattle the nerves of people in Culiacan. The city, about the size of Baltimore, is recognized as the "Little Medellin" of Mexico, the capital of this country's increasingly lucrative drug trafficking network. All the forces that make the trade flourish exist here: official corruption, big money, the sophistication of drug mobs and lack of public involvement.

"Drug trafficking has become like a monster with 1,000 heads," says Mercedes Murillo, a human rights activist who has raised two children in Culiacan. "If you cut off one head, there are still 999 others. It's out of control."

Drugs have been shipped from Culiacan, capital of the western state of Sinaloa, to the United States since just after the turn of the century. During World War I, Chinese immigrants, who had settled on farms in the Sierra Madre mountains that surround Culiacan, harvested poppies to produce morphine that made its way to the United States. As part of his sweeping land reforms in 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas expelled those of the Chinese who were living illegally in Mexico and distributed their land to peasants.

Mexican farmers continued the poppy trade with the United States and also began growing marijuana. The farmers developed sophisticated networks for illegally smuggling the drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border -- buying the cooperation of elected officials and police.

Experienced help

So when Colombia's cocaine traffickers needed a new route for shipping their goods into the United States after places like Miami became infested with law enforcement agents, they found experienced smugglers in Culiacan.

The city became the base of operations for Mexico's most ruthless drug barons -- including Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, considered the country's most important exporter of cocaine until he was jailed in 1989; and Rafael Caro Quintero, jailed in connection with the torture and slaying in 1985 of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operative, Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.

The city itself is attractive and modern. Businesses ranging from baby gyms to chocolate shops to beauty salons appear to prosper. Many of the town's government offices are new, and the parks and streets are clean. The Malecon -- the city's main riverside boulevard -- looks a little like South Miami Beach with hip restaurants, cafes and discos.

But beneath this facade lies the increasingly wild struggle for control of the drug trade as the stakes get higher and higher. Mexican traffickers aligned with the cocaine cartels from South America are paid as much as half the value of the cargo they ship through Mexico. Officials at the DEA estimate Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, one of the three most important in the country, earns close to $15 million per month.

Killing the innocent

There's fierce competition for that money. Drug mobs kill for it. And an increasing number of innocent people are dying in their clashes.

About 80 people were killed here in the first two months of the year, a total of 175 so far this year, according to law enforcement officials. On a single January night 12 people lay dead on the Malecon after a shoot-out between members of rival drug gangs. The dead included two boys selling corn on the street.

On May 24, all of Mexico was horrified when seven people were killed during a shoot-out among "narcos" at the crowded airport in Guadalajara. One of those killed in the cross-fire was Mexican Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo. The intended target of the attack was the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. He escaped unharmed, but he was arrested a few weeks ago as he crossed Mexico's southern border into Guatemala.

"There was a time when the drug dealers had a sort of code," says Ms. Murillo. "They would only hurt each other, not innocent people. But now they are so ruthless, they don't look to see

who's in the way before they start shooting."

Corruption figures in the traffickers' successes here as elsewhere in Mexico.

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