Thursday 26 October 2017

Fractured Sinaloa Cartel creates mountain ghost towns

The Sinaloa Cartel, believed to be one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world, is no longer at war with itself, but it is struggling to re-organize after internal strife and continued pressure from the Mexican government.
"El Vic" in custody

The result is that the security situation in rural Sinaloa has fallen apart. The circumstances are particularly grave in the municipality of Concordia, in the Sierra Madre Occidental, with mines closing and hundreds of people fleeing their villages due to threats from drug traffickers. Many of these villages are now completely vacant ghost towns.

This is happening as the Sinaloa Cartel struggles to recover from a breakdown that began while its leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was on the run, and that accelerated with his detention on January, 2016. By the time of his extradition to the United States, one year later, the leadership vacuum was complete.

The latest blow to the Cartel is the early-morning arrest on October 26 of Víctor Manuel Félix Beltrán ("El Vic") in the upscale Santa Fe neighborhood in Mexico City. El Vic is believed to be the financial man for El Chapo’s two sons, Jesús Alfredo Guzmán and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán, who are now the de facto leaders of the cartel. El Vic is also allegedly the brother-in-law of Jesús Alfredo Guzmán.

This is occurring after an apparent consolidation of power by the Guzmáns. They have made peace with El Chapo’s elderly partner, the semi-retired Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, and have successfully pushed aside El Chapo’s godson, Dámaso López Núñez (“Licenciado”), who has been captured and extradited. Dámaso López Núñez’s own son, Dámaso López Serrano, has since surrendered to US authorities.

But that hasn’t helped people in the villages within the municipality of Concordia. Situated about 600 meters up the western slopes Sierra Madre Occidental, these communities are close to the port and tourist town of Mazatlán, and are situated near a popular highway that traverses the Sierra from the highland city of Durango to the Pacific coast.

In the last three months, armed gunmen have displaced an estimated 755 families, moving out the civilian population to secure lands for drug cultivation. Towns such as  Chirimoyo, Santa Lucia, La Capilla, El Coco, La Guayanera – among others – are completely empty due to fear of the armed groups. The conflict is now spreading to the municipalities of El Rosario and San Ignacio.

Shockingly, the 16th century church in the town of Pánuco, itself along the old highway between Mazatlán and Durango, is now abandoned. This is not far from to the popular tourist destination of Copala.

The gang responsible for this, called "La Valvula", is clearly operating without any fear of repercussions from the Sinaloa Cartel, which has traditionally controlled organized crime – and the peace – in this part of rural Mexico. In fact, La Valvula has also reportedly been active in Badiraguato, north east of the state capital of Culiacán, displacing families in the home town of El Chapo himself.

La Valvula is different in that, unlike the Sinaloa Cartel – which employed locals and curried favor with rural authorities – this criminal gang not only sows and traffics drugs, but also steals machinery and extorts money from ranchers, farmers, sawmills, and mining companies.

The situation is so bad that four of Sinaloa’s 27 mines have closed due to the security situation. All of them are in the Concordia municipality. The mines were producing gold, silver, copper and zinc, but the owners have been reluctant to go public with their concerns due to fear of reprisals. Nonetheless, Manuel Félix Sicairos, a representative of Mexico’s Association of Mining Engineers and Geologists of Mexico, says that complaints have been made to the State Attorney General's Office.

Most of the displaced people have settled in the port of Mazatlán and the nearby town of Villa Union, where they have been receiving some community support on the form of food and shelter, with the children attending local schools.

(TE Wilson is a Canadian journalist and the author the Detective Sánchez series of crime novels.)

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