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Story Publication logo December 29, 2008

Mexico's Sinaloa: The Birthplace of The Drug Cartel System

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In the last several years, at least one dozen Mexican norteño musicians have been murdered in a wave...

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$205 million drug money seized by the Mexican Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico city — largest single drug cash seizure in history. Image by Drug Enforcement Administration. Mexico, 2007.

Even before the latest iteration of this drug war kicked off in December 2006 (when President Felipe Calderon launched his offensive against the cartels), Sinaloa state had the reputation of being a violent place. It was home to bandits and smugglers who took refuge in the Sierra Madre mountain range on the state's eastern border.

One writer told us that men here used to settle disputes by locking one arm to each other and, with a knife held in their other hand, dueling to the death. Another man we interview attributes Sinaloans' reputed propensity for violence to a diet of too much meat and seafood, too much testosterone.

It's a reputation that many here have nurtured. For some, the fact that Sinaloa is the birthplace of the Mexican drug cartel system only adds to the state's romantic allure. For decades, the narco-traffickers nurtured a sort of Robin Hood reputation around Mexico—violent and power-hungry, yes, but generous with their earnings. Culiacán—from its high-end car dealerships, to its lavish estates, ­to its well-dressed young men and women—was built and still runs on drug money that came down from the Sierras. If this isn't a point of pride for all Sinaloans, it has certainly over the years enhanced the state's cachet in the country and made clear that Sinaloans are to be respected—sentiments that all here seem to relish.

But as the Mexican drug war enters its third year, things may be changing. Residents' feelings about the drug trade are a little more complicated now, to say the least. Pinned down by the government and undergoing seismic shifts in their leadership structure, the narco-traffickers have changed the rules. Wives, children and civilians are no longer off-limits, and people here know it.

Many we spoke with still follow the exploits of the cartels (or more precisely, its elusive leaders, men with nicknames like "El Mochomo," "El Teo" and "El Chapo") with the sort of gusto one might reserve for players on the national football team. But more and more, it seems, people are genuinely scared. Rumors will circulate that there will be gunmen at X or Y part of the city later in the evening, and just like that, the streets are deserted. Norteño groups who gather in plazas around the city to solicit gigs decline to play "narcocorridos," the drug ballads that once defined the Sinaloan sound. One never knows who might be listening, or what songs are offensive to whom. Disrespect can mean death under the new rules, and it's just not worth it.

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