Life goes on in Culiacán

People here are mad. People here are scared. But what's striking to an outsider (especially one whose prior point of reference for quality of life in the city was the "Policiaca" section of the local newspapers) is that the humor, charm and pride of daily life in Culiacán persists. Every person we meet is friendlier than the last, and it is easy to imagine this being a joyful place to live, were it not for the violence.

Flying from Mexico City into Culiacán, the rugged Sierra Madre gives way to a sea of lush green agricultural flatland. Out the other window is the sea, at the point where the Gulf of California widens into the Pacific. On the ground, drivers have fixed cloth reindeer horns to the sides of their cars for the holidays. And by nightfall, red, white and green lights line the city thoroughfares. Outside the popular Los Antiguos Portales restaurant, adjacent to the city Cathedral, men sip beer and whisky, and women smoke extra-long cigarettes, as if all were right here. But it's easy to spot the nervous glances when a car takes the sharp turn around the plaza a little too fast.

As a city that has long been best-known for its drug trade, Culiacán was never exactly a tourist destination. The city drew mostly business travelers, while Mazatlán, about 70 miles to the south and on the water, attracted the international visitors. Still, like any large city, Culiacán has a conventions and visitors office (slogan: ¡Cosechamos sonrisas! We garner smiles!) that publishes maps and promotes cultural events. In fact, the city is known and respected for its art scene. The Instituto Sinaloense de Cultura sponsors concerts, exhibits and writers' forums, and the Autonomous University of Sinaloa ensures the community its share of academics.

In the evening, we catch an open-air Christmas concert by the Sinaloan symphonic orchestra. Above the stage, spelled out in red, is the sentence, "Deseamos al mundo paz y felicidad," "We wish the world peace and happiness."