Sunday 21 February 2016

Heating up the plaza in Sinaloa

In the middle of the night on February 13, in the municipality of San Ignacio, Sinaloa, near the border with Durango, 13 people – eight men and five women – were gunned down. An additional three gunmen were killed in a shootout between armed groups on February 16 in Maloya, near Rosario, south of Mazatlán.
Shrine to Santa Muerte, near Sinaloa-Durango
border, southern Sinaloa.

Then, another five people were shot to death on February 21 in a bar in La Cruz de Elota, a town on the old Mazatlán - Culiacán highway – including a federal police officer, who died after he was transferred to a hospital in Mazatlán. The violence occurred during a concert at La Trova bar by the band Enigma Norteño. This may be a matter of “drunken idiots with guns”, and not cartel related, but it looks like people showed up for a fight.

Which is to say, things appear to be heating up in Sinaloa, particularly in the southern part of the state, which is no stranger to mass killings.

Back on Mother’s Day (May 10), 2002, 12 people were shot to death in San Jerónimo de Ajoya. The man behind this was allegedly Ramón Gallardo Campista “El Gato”, of the Arellano-Félix organization (Tijuana Cartel), which has now been severely fractured and weakened by the combined efforts of the Sinaloa Cartel and state security forces.

Since then, the violence has continued, displacing 200 families from 12 communities within the municipality of San Ignacio. In December, 2008, for example, as the drug war heated up, 13 male corpses were found alongside the Coyotitán-San Ignacio road (link warning: graphic imagery). This conflict was possibly the result of a Zetas incursion.

The police and Sinaloa cartel operatives fought hard to push Los Zetas back, and they appeared to have succeeded. What is worrying is that the number of mass murders has increased in the past two years.

The resurgence began in June, 2014, when 12 dead men were found in the back of a Silverado, this time on the Vado Hondo-San Ignacio road. The men, some of whom were dressed as paramilitaries, had been kidnapped en masse from El Guayabo. Another three bodies were found near Concordia.

The month before, nine males – some of them minors, and all residents of Ajoya – were kidnapped and brought to La Mesa Verde, where they were tortured and “interrogated”. Five were then taken to the mountainous border region with Durango, and shot. During the same week four other people were killed in the area.

Last August seven people were found shot to death in the mountainous areas of the San Ignacio municipality. And now we have the most recent massacre of 13 people, again in the San Ignacio municipality near Durango, as well as the three gunmen dead in El Rosario, plus whatever happened at the Enigma Norteño concert at La Trova bar, where the federal police officer and four others were murdered.

So…Is this the “El Chapo” effect?

When Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was captured in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, in February, 2014, there was some concern that violence in Sinaloa might increase. The theory was that, with the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel behind bars, the take-down could be interpreted as a sign of weakness by other cartels, particularly Los Zetas, or even upstarts within the Sinaloa organization, who might then try and muscle in on his turf.

There was some precedent for this. In the early days of the drug war, launched at the beginning of the Calderón Presidency (2006-2012), Los Zetas moved aggressively into south Sinaloa. The security situation began to deteriorate in Mazatlán. Violence increased, and Cruise ship traffic slowed to a trickle.

But then things stabilized. The cruise ships returned. And the arrest of Guzmán had no dramatic effect – at least not in Mazatlán.  As noted above, only a few months after Guzmán’s capture, in May-June 2014, there were two mass killings in the San Ignacio area. Clearly, some people were trying to move in on the “plaza”. Whether this was a response from the Sinaloa Cartel to an external threat, or an internecine conflict, is not clear.

Now, with the recent recapture of Guzmán this past January, similar concerns have been raised. Given the weakening of Los Zetas, a return to instability and violence seemed less likely. However, the recent murders in San Ignacio are following a similar pattern seen in mid-2014: Guzmán is captured, and a few months later there are mass killings in rural southern Sinaloa.

Mazatlán is seeing an increased presence of the “Marinos”, the Special Forces within the Mexican navy.  These are the people who captured Guzmán this January in Los Mochis, after helicopter gunships flushed him out of his mountain redoubt and sent terrified families on two-day hikes through the mountains to find refuge in Cosalá.
Highway 1 to Cosalá, near Vado Hondo

The presence of the Marinos remains high in southern Sinaloa, just as signs of instability within the “plaza” are emerging. It is now common to see the Marinos’ cream-colored vehicles in the streets, and navy transport helicopters moving up and down the coast, the light gray camouflage of the huge Russian Mil Mi-17’s distinguishing these choppers from the smaller, black and yellow helicopters used by the State Police.

(If one of these State Police helicopters is seen, it is usually the governor, Mario López Valdez, known as “Malova”, either out sightseeing with his family and cronies, or coming and going from the state capital, Culiacán, to his beach home at Emerald Bay, north of Mazatlán.)

It is important to note that, to some extent, a north/south divide exists in Sinaloa. The back country north of Cosalá, along the border with Sinaloa and Durango, is firmly in the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel and, as a result, there is very little instability, unless the military shows up. Further south is less of a Sinaloa Cartel stronghold; therefore, it is prone to internecine and even inter-familiar conflicts, as well as being more vulnerable to incursions from rival criminal organizations.
Police helicopter over Mazatlán

And where to from here? It all depends on whether the federal government is serious about a full-scale dismantling of the Sinaloa Cartel, or if they will rest on their laurels now that Guzmán is (again) behind bars. In all likelihood, they will allow Sinaloa to function as it has for decades, with municipal and state forces colluding with the cartel to conduct business and keep the peace. In the meantime, the federal police will stick to patrolling the highways, so that, at the very least, the main transportation routes will be kept secure, and road-side shake-downs will be kept to a minimum, with bribery optional.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)
Twitter: @TimothyEWilson

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