What this bust shows is that the larger Mexican cartels, which for a long time ignored heroin as a revenue generator, have in the last few years figured out the new market that exists in the U.S., created by the overprescribing of narcotic pain pills nationwide, and shifted priorities.
Through the 1990s and into the last decade, these cartels didn’t dabble too much in heroin. Other drugs were more popular and profitable. Plus, in Mexico heroin is viewed as about as scuzzy a thing as it in the United States.
That’s changed in the last few years. Mexican cartels, which already dominated on the western side of the U.S., have recognized the widespread opiate addiction among Americans and moved to take control of the markets on the eastern half of the U.S. that once were served mostly by Colombian heroin traffickers back to the 1980s — the same way Mexican cartels wrested the cocaine market from the Colombians in the 1990s.
Pills to heroin to Mexican drug cartels in areas that never had much of any – all in the space of 15+ years.
Soto was the tuba player for many years for Banda El Recodo, the holy mother of all bandas in Sinaloa.
He grew into something of the Michael Jordan of the tuba, in that he was a great player, but also made his persona into something younger tuba players wanted to follow and emulate.
He was, in other words, the first star tuba player – something that Mexican tuba playing didn’t have before him.
Soto spent 20 years with Recodo. He retired due to his illness in 2012 and his place was taken by another great and influential tuba player, Alfredo Herrejon.
During his years with Recodo, though, Soto raised the bell on his tuba so that the audience could see his face, thus plucking tuba players forever from the obscurity and ignominy they endured with the bell covering their face down to their nose.
I want to say he was among the first to engrave his tubas with florid designs – but others please correct me if I’m wrong.
Soto also had a signature tuba mouthpiece – the Jokoki – made by Pablo Garibaldi of Garibaldi Music in Paramount, CA.
I made this video recently when I was in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where I walked the grounds of Jardines del Humaya, the cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of legendary drug traffickers.
It looks like a mini-Beverly Hills. Some of the tombs have air conditioning, barbecue grills, sound systems, even bulletproof glass. A few are the size of a house or two near where I live.
Immigrant village cemetery, Michoacan
One had a long banner to a fallen, presumably murdered, brother, swearing to him, “There’s no truce.” (No hay tregua.)
I’ve seen much smaller versions of this in immigrant villages. One thing immigrants do with their dollars is build larger burial places. They do away with the iron crosses of their poverty and build themselves sepulchers with a statue of Jesus or the Virgin, maybe an open bible in stone.
But these are modest in comparison to the Jardines del Humaya.
Strange, excessive, lurid. I felt as if dropped into some foreign kingdom. These are the new Pharoahs.
I made this video with the help of my anonymous guide. I hope you like it. Feel free to subscribe to my Youtube channel – True Tales Video.
I’m just back from Mexico where I spent a few days in the town of Escuinapa.
Escuinapa is in Sinaloa – a state with a heavy burden caused by the drug war and the fearsome cartel that bears the state’s name.
Here’s a video I made with an alternative view of the area. (I’m loving working video for another kind of storytelling, though clearly I’m still a technical babe in arms. Feel free to subscribe to my video channel, True Tales Video.)
I spoke there at a tourism conclave.
It was great to return to Mexico these last few days. I hope to go back a lot more now that I’m no longer with the LA Times.
I was also in Mazatlan, also in Sinaloa, and a couple hours away. Mazatlan is my favorite Mexican resort town, largely because along with spectacular beaches, there’s actually a city with real life going on. Its Old Town is one of the nicest in all of Mexico, and it’s hard to beat the pulmonias (golf cart taxis) as a mode of transportation.
More from there later.
But I was very happy to help present the new book by my friend, Arturo Santamaria, the sociologist who introduced me to the topic of beauty queens in Mazatlan.
De Carnaval, Reinas y Narc0 is about how beauty queens, beauty contests and drug trafficking all work together in Mazatlan and in Sinaloa.
As a reporter, I don’t believe too much in coincidences, especially when it comes to Mexican politics.
So, let’s say that the arrest this morning of drug megalord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, coming just as Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is featured on the cover of Time Magazine, with the headline, Saving Mexico is, well … let’s say, it’s interesting.
The man flaunted his impunity and could, presumably, have been arrested many times — say, during his well-known marriage to a young girl in the mountains of Durango several years ago.
Guzman’s no dummy and he probably should have been ducking when he heard of the Time cover, which is rare territory for a Mexican president. Instead Guzman was at a condo complex in Mazatlan, my favorite Mexican resort town, as it prepares for its nationally famous Carnival, which tens of thousands of people attend. He was captured without a shot fired by the Mexican Navy, which is quickly becoming the country’s leading law enforcement agency, having also taken down Arturo Beltran Leyva, among others.
Pena Nieto has been roundly criticized for the way he’s waging the drug war. So Guzman’s arrest allows him to seriously recover his image, just as this cover hits the stands.
In the past, each Mexican president was supposed to get one kingpin to take down. Carlos Salinas had Joaquin Hernandez, aka La Quina, the oil union boss. Ernesto Zedillo had Juan Garcia Abrego, of the Gulf Cartel, though he tacked on Salinas’s brother, Raul, for good measure.
Vicente Fox broke with tradition and had Osiel Cardenas Guillen and the top Arellano Felix brothers. Felipe Calderon, who spent his sexenio mired in this awful war, took down numerous, including Los Zeta’s Heriberto Lazcano.
We’ll see how many more EPN has in him. After all, the Sinaloa Cartel still has Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada — who is Guzman’s partner and co-equal atop the organization.
Cynicism aside, though, the arrest of the man Forbes once listed as one of the world’s wealthiest men is only to be applauded. It’s very much like the moment when Obama took out Osama bin-Laden.
Mostly, his arrest goes some distance to showing that the old idea of criminals protected by the regime is passing, however slowly, from Mexican political culture. Next up — a few governors, perhaps?
In fact, it opens the question of what comes next. More violence? Very possible, as groups regroup and fight for territories that were once settled issues. After all, this war really dates to the moment Osiel Cardenas Guillen was captured in 2003 and Chapo figured that was a good time to go after Gulf Cartel territory that he thought was vulnerable — incorrectly as it turned out.
Chapo’s story is an amazing one, as is the story of all the Sinaloan narcos. He, and most of the rest, grew from the Sinaloan mountains and, especially, the county of Badiraguato, hillbilly kids who rose to control the drug flow through the key points — known as plazas — along some 1400 miles of the 1900-miles border between Mexico and the United States. Sinaloans formed no fewer than three major drug cartels — and they feuded mightily through the years.
I’ve always thought it was one of the remarkable tales in the history of organized crime anywhere.
Some may say that Guzman will only be replaced by another. That’s possible.
Still, I’ve become a believer in the idea of taking out mafia kingpins.
They’re usually kingpins for a reason. They have remarkable organizational talents, great at logistics, and usually combine all that with a psychopathic taste for blood. Managing to smuggle tons of drugs across a well-guarded border using criminals and gang members is a real talent that I suspect few people truly possess. They’re not easily replaced.
I once interviewed a trafficker from Tijuana’s Arellano-Felix cartel. He said the beginning of the end for that now-fractured group came with the arrest of Ismael and Gilberto Higuera, who ran Tijuana and Mexicali for the brothers. The Higueras were experts at logistics, organization, and murder, he told me. The AF brothers relied on these guys and when they were gone, the organization fell apart. Soon Ramon Arellano Felix was dead and Benjamin was in prison, where he remains today.
So, we’ll see.
We’ll see, too, whether this has any effect on the flow of drugs into the United States from Mexico, though I suspect not so much.
Meanwhile, the corrido factories ought to be working overtime as we speak.
In fact, Guzman’s power and the barbarism of the drug war he unleashed when he made that fateful move across Mexico to the Gulf states, changed forever the nature of the traditional corrido. It was once a brave genre of music, extolling lonely, heroic men, outgunned and doomed, who nobly faced off against power. Now the corrido is about praising the virtues of colossally rich, well-armed and bloodthirsty men whose power is beyond question. Ads, basically.
Chapo Guzman was a major subject of corridos (ballads) and he appeared to have an army of youtube.com producers churning out videos lauding his achievements.
Here are a few Guzman corridos from the past:
Photos: Most Wanted poster; Time Magazine cover, Wikipedia map of Sinaloa Plaza bosses.
In 1990, Francisco Arellano Felix was owner of Frankie Oh’s – a crass discoteque built with a Flintstones prehistoric decor of large stucco boulders along Mazatlan’s beachfront drive. He was known to be anxious to enter the city’s high society. He was a friend of the great Mexican middle-weight, Julio Cesar Chavez.
That February, Rocio del Carmen Lizarraga was selected Queen of Carnival, one of the most high-profile positions in Mazatlan. She was 17, a fresh-faced high school student from a middle-class family.
A few months later, a small article appeared in the newspaper reporting that Rocio del Carmen had disappeared. Not only that, but that possibly she had been stolen by Francisco Arellano Felix. The newspaper said that her family was distraught, feared for her safety and hired private detectives to search for her.
Mazatlan spun with rumors. But though the reigning Queen of Carnival had apparently been stolen by a member of one of the state’s most notorious drug-running families, newspapers published only occasional short stories below the fold.
There were reports the couple was in Guadalajara, that they had married in a church. (Turned out that the bishop in the area refused to marry them, and they had to resort to a minor priest to perform the service.)
Finally, Rocio del Carmen’s mother, Oliva Lizarraga, told reporters she had spoken with Arellano Felix, who had not let her speak with her daughter, since “she was showering.”
The mother said her daughter, and her now-jilted fiancee, Oscar Coppel, from one of Mazatlan’s wealthiest families, were “victims of destiny” and that “God was the only one who can put things in their place.”
It was all very surreal.
Finally, the episode concluded when Rocio del Carmen took out a large newspaper ad with a short letter that is both thoroughly bizarre and a beautiful exposition of Mexican fatalism.
She was in Mazatlan, she wrote. She thanked people for their support, but added, “I don’t want to be asked by anyone because it would be embarrassing to have to say whether I left of my own will or was taken by force.
“I don’t want to judge the father of my children and he who gave me his last name, since he’s never mistreated me. I accept with resignation the path that destiny has prepared for me, and if God has put me on this road, I have to continue.”
She signed the ad, “Your friend, Rocio del Carmen Lizarraga de Arellano.”
And with that the episode ended, as quietly as it began.
About the worst that came down were pronouncements from Mazatlan’s high society. Arellano Felix “will never be accepted by the Mazatlan society that he wanted to enter,” Ernesto Coppel, owner of one of the city’s largest hotels, father of a Senorita Sinaloa and uncle of Rocio del Carmen’s ex-fiancee, said at the time.
Today, the AF cartel is nothing like what it once was. One other AF brother, the feared Ramon, was killed in 2002. Three others are in US prisons. And so the death of this Arellano Felix is more about history than anything else.
Buchon is a style of dress and speech — attitudes as well — that is from the bottom of the Sinaloan drug world.
It usually involves slang, very drawled speech — which is how folks from the mountains of Sinaloa speak. It also involves guns, demeaning talk about women, glorification of the bloodthirstiest narcos, money, military garb, tricked-out trucks, and, interestingly, the veneration of Buchanan whiskey — bastardized as “Buchanas.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere before.
Buchon is a big deal in the state of Sinaloa, where Mexican drug smuggling began — as the story makes clear.
It’s also a big deal here in L.A., where Sinaloan style has dominated Mexican culture for two decades — since the life and death of narco-balladeer legend Chalino Sanchez.
Los Buchones de Culiacan are a band that plays here regularly, and in Sinaloa. (Can’t play in the state of Tamaulipas as their image is so associated with the Sinaloa Cartel, which is at war with the Zetas, whose stronghold in near the Gulf of Mexico.)
People in the southeast cities of LA County sometimes try to speak like hill Sinaloans even though they’re from states with very different cultures, such as Jalisco or Zacatecas.
As Carlos Monsivais was once reputed to have said: if you provide jobs to people, you become a hero. Or you get all the girls…..
Perhaps the most influential musical figure to emerge out of Los Angeles in a generation was Chalino Sanchez, who was found shot to death 20 years ago today outside Culiacan, the capital city of his native state of Sinaloa, Mexico.
An unlettered immigrant who spoke no English, he virtually singlehandedly created the narcocorrido genre of music, with songs he composed himself that act today as an oral history of the lawless ranchos — villages — of Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua and other northwest Mexican states, where impunity and drug trafficking were rife.
On May 15, 1992, he’d given a show in Culiacan and gone out afterwards with friends. A group of men dressed as policemen stopped the caravan of cars and took Chalino. His body was found in a field the next day with two bullets in his head.
Sanchez was already an underground star in LA by then. His death confirmed his street cred and he became a phenomenon. He is today a legend and well known to kids who weren’t even born when he was alive.
Chalino also did the impossible by making tubas, accordions and clarinets hip and cool instruments, so much so that young Latino kids would blast tuba- and accordion-based polkas from their trucks as they drove down the streets of towns in southeast LA County. Still do.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of LA-born kids followed him, becoming narcocorrido singers and sounding and looking just like the master.
I’ve always felt, though, that they imitated the wrong part of Chalino — his dress, his raw style of singing. Instead, the point of Chalino’s life, I’ve always thought, was to follow your own vision, your own way of doing things. People would tell him to shut up, that he couldn’t sing. “I don’t sing; I bark,” he said, fully aware of his own musical shortcomings. But he kept on, trusting his own experience and ability. he wrote corridos from the people he met in LA; recorded them in small studios, then sold the cassettes of these songs at Mexican bakeries, butcher shops and at swap meets.
DIY — that’s how great things are accomplished.
The narcocorrido scene he fathered in LA was one of the great DIY musical movements to come out of LA. First was punk, in Hollywood. Then gangster rap out of Compton. Then narcocorridos out of Huntington Park, Paramount, and other southeast LA County cities.