Saturday 23 June 2018

Sinaloa struggles for stability in the post El Chapo era

La politica es la politica has posted 32 articles - one for each state in Mexico, including Mexico City - in advance of the July 1, 2018, presidential election. For links to all 32 articles, scroll to the bottom of this post.

The state of Sinaloa is located in northwest Mexico. It has a long coastline on the Pacific coast and on the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). Its border to the east is with Durango and Chihuahua, along the Sierra Madre Occidental. Sinaloa’s population is about three million, and includes the capital Culiacán and the port and tourist city of Mazatlán.

Sinaloa is also well-known as the home of the Sinaloa Cartel (also known as the Pacific Cartel), and its erstwhile leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who is now in US custody. The cartel is emerging from a period of instability. El Chapo’s two sons 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 was captured by police on May 2, 2017.

The result is that, despite some setbacks, the Sinaloa Cartel is thriving and still considered one the largest criminal organizations in the world, though there is ongoing conflict – both with federal government forces and with other criminal organizations. Nonetheless, The Sinaloa Cartel has lost some control over street-level criminal activity in Culiacan and Mazatlán, as well as in some villages in the countryside.

The Sinaloa cartel appears to be taking the fight to the remnants of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel and its henchmen Los Mazatlecos. This is most evident directly south of Sinaloa in Nayarit, where the “plaza” (territory) is also being contested by Sinaloa’s main rival, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).

Sinaloa’s state governments, whether from the National Action Party (PAN) or the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), have been accused of giving the Sinaloa Cartel favourable treatment. Similar suspicions have applied on the federal level to the National Action Party (PAN) presidency of Felipe Calderón (2016-2012), who initiated the militarization of the drug war, and to the early days of the  PRI government of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). 

The rationale for this theory is that the Sinaloa Cartel was a stabilizing force, focusing almost exclusively on drug trafficking, whereas Los Zetas and the CJNG were ultraviolent and actively engaged in human trafficking, extortion, and petroleum theft. However, now that Los Zetas are less of a threat, federal forces appear to be giving more attention to the Sinaloa Cartel.
The poll for federal senate candidates

Historically, the political landscape in Sinaloa has been dominated by the PAN and the PRI. The current PRI governor, Quirino Ordaz Coppel, is from Mazatlán, where he owns the Océano Palace and Luna Palace hotels. Of the three federal senators from Sinaloa, two are from the PRI, and one is from the right of center PAN.

Corruption in Sinaloa has functioned differently than in other states, due to the entrenched influence of the Sinaloa Cartel. Unlike elsewhere in Mexico, the influence of drug cartels on the state government is less a cause for outrage than accepted as a fact of life. Given the corruption and incompetence of the police, both at the state and the municipal level, the Sinaloa Cartel was often credited with maintaining street-level law and order. This involved everything from strict controls on extortion rackets, to an overall policing of delinquency and protection of tourist zones. Part of the rationale for maintaining tourism is that Mazatlán's hotel industry is a vital resource for money laundering.

As a result, accusations that the former PAN governor Mario López Valdez (known as “Malova”), has had close connections with the Sinaloa Cartel, or that other politicians have engaged in the all-too-common practice of washing drug money through hotels, has been met with resignation. In Sinaloa, these types of accusations are never investigated.

Which is one reason why being a journalist in Sinaloa is one of either two things: deadly boring, or plain deadly. The newspapers in Sinaloa have for years functioned under the watchful eye of the Sinaloa Cartel, and are skilled at self-censorship, usually reporting on crime without providing any context or analysis.

Something went terribly wrong, however, when the well-known Sinaloa journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was murdered in Culiacán on May 15, 2017. Valdez, a 2011 recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award, was one of the founders of the weekly Ríodoce, as well as being a local correspondent for the national paper La Jornada.

His death was shocking, as he was a seasoned reporter who had successfully navigated the pitfalls of reporting in Sinaloa for many years. He was known as much for his empathetic portrayal of the victims of crime, and of cartel culture, as for his independent journalism. Valdéz was also skilled at judicious self-censorship. He was not on a suicide mission.

However, before his death Valdez conducted a telephone interview with Dámaso “El Licenciado”  López Nuñez, the leader of the Dámasos gang – the splinter cell that was then fighting for control of the Sinaloa Cartel against El Chapo’s sons. The interview was published in Ríodoce in February, 2017. It’s believed that the interview, or perhaps another report, drove the Dámasos gang to kill Valdez.

At this point the gang is not much of a threat to El Chapo’s sons, given that López Nuñez is now in custody in Mexico awaiting extradition to the US. As well, his son Dámaso “El Mini Lic” López Serrano is in jail in California.

There has been some progress on the case. The alleged killer, a 26-year-old named Heriberto “El Koala” Picos Barraza, was arrested in Tijuana, Baja California, on April 19 of this year. Another suspect, Juan Francisco Picos Barrueto, “El Quillo,” has also been arraigned as an accomplice. A third suspect, Luis Idelfonso Sánchez Romero, also known as "Diablo," was murdered in Sonora in September, 2017.

The Valdez case should also be considered in the overall context of press freedom in Sinaloa. The state has always been a dangerous place to be a reporter: from the late 19th century until the beginning of the modern drug war in December, 2006, an estimated 19 journalists have been killed, with the worst decade being the 1980s, when 9 journalists were murdered. By comparison, in the 12 years since the beginning of the drug war ten journalists have been killed.

Thing may improve now that the intense conflict within the Sinaloa Cartel appears to have been resolved, but with the leadership fractured and at war, some control was lost on the ground, and that remains true to this day. For example, pipeline theft has now become commonplace. In Sinaloa this year the state oil company Pemex is finding on average three new illegal pipeline taps on its pipelines per day.

This is more likely the work of local gangs than the Sinaloa Cartel, and has resulted in a significant increase in violence in Culiacán and the town of Mocorito, about 120 kilometers to the north, including shootouts, kidnappings, and arson. Authorities have asked the populace not to buy stolen fuel, but, as is so often the case in Mexico, many average citizens and even businesses appear to be disconnected from the consequences of supporting criminal and corrupt practices.
AMLO campaigning in Culiacán

There is some good news in Sinaloa. The tourism sector has been unaffected by the violence, and in late March Governor Ordaz Coppel announced a new 120-bed hospital in Culiacán. As well, the all-important agricultural sector is doing well, despite issues with machinery theft, and there’s a good chance that approval will come this year to export sorghum to China.

On the political front, there are three federal senate seats open in Sinaloa for the July 1 election. Based on the most recent poll for one slate of candidates, Ruben Mocha Roya of the Morena and Workers Party coalition leads with 45%, followed by Hector Melesio Cuén Ojeada of the PAN-PRD alliance with 35%, and Mario Zamora Gastelum of the PRI-led coalition with New Alliance and the Greens with 20%.

The polling for the Sinaloa senate seat is remarkably similar to the national support for the three major candidates. As a result, it’s likely that in Sinaloa the presidential vote will follow a similar pattern, with Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) from Morena receiving a strong plurality, followed Ricardo Anaya of the PAN-PRD, with the PRI’s José Antonio Meade bringing up the rear.

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