Mazatlan Stories and Tips


My home state, Sinaloa, has the biggest and most intense narcotics industry in North America. Never mind about the famous Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez "cartels": they are dependent upon Sinaloa financing, production, and control. Apart from most of them having come from Sinaloa in the first place. This primacy of Sinaloa in the drug world is so well-known that it has passed into the language and everyday speech. Heroin is thought of as "Chinese" in Mexico, even the brownish Mexican heroin is called Chocolate Chino, so Sinaloa gets referred to as "Chinaloa". The mere mention of Culiacan, the state Capital, can be a reference to drug processing. In the most recent election, the winning candidate angered (or amused) everyone around here by calling Sinaloa a cua de narcos, meaning "cradle of drug traffickers": and he made his accusation stick. I have spent years investigating this trade and writing about it (and have not yet been shot down, I'm happy to say) but more than the lurid stories of poppy farms, clandestine airstrips, high-level corruption, and bloody massacres, I find it interesting that the narcotics industry has spawned a culture of its own, a culture which reaches deep into public attitude, expression, and identity.

There are reasons why Mexicans would be more accepting of narcotics culture than the United States would be (although everyone saw American popular culture become marijuana-soaked in the sixties, flirt outrageously with cocaine usage in the eighties, and even have outbreaks of "heroin chic"). For one thing Mexican families are much less afraid that their kids will start doing hard drugs. Mexicans are much less involved in drug consumption than Americans. Also, in Sinaloa, marijuana has always been around: up in the mountains, grown and smoked by colorful characters. It has a sort of Old West flavor, a romance like that of rum-runners. NOBODY blames anybody for growing drugs and shipping them to the United States. Quite the contrary. Of course, the current drug cowboys have gone far past mota, and it was with the transhipping of South American cocaine that the game got obscenely rich and corrupt...and obscenely bloody deadly. One statistic that might interest you: Mazatlan, a city of around one quarter of a million, has over five hundred murders per year. Almost every day, and I mean that literally, there is a story of a drug-related murder in the paper. This is a frontier situation, and the frontier is between Mexico and the United States, between the civilized ideas of government and the gang anarchy that drug profits create here.

And like any frontier, like any focus of obscene power and wealth, the drug trade creates a glamour. There are stories to be told. And, most of all, there are songs to be sung. The biggest influence of El Narco on Mazatlan culture comes through music. When you walk into a record store in Mazatlan, you are surrounded by posters that show the recording artists dressed up in very fancy cowboy clothes and in poses that definitely refer to the drug industry. El As de la Sierra (a cowboy singer: As means "Ace", not what you might think) is shown holding an AK-47, standing with his musicians, similarly armed, around a light plane being loaded in a remote airstrip. We do not assume that he is going skydiving in his satin cowboy suit and endangered species boots. Another poster shows a singer driving a stage coach, holding an M-16. As I mention in my entry about Banda music, there is a close relationship between the music of Mazatlan and the narco industry. This can partly be traced to Banda's Norteño antecedents: particularly the tradition of the corrido, a song form much like ballads, in which the hero shoots it out with rustlers or police, wins cockfights and collects his winnings at knifepoint, steals away women with mucho casualties, and, in corridos as early as the Forties, fights the Mafia. One of the Tigres del Norte's early hits was "El Corrido de Un Soplón", in which a Mafia squealer gets his. Another famous corrido is "Pedro Navaja"--so amazingly similar to "Mack the Knife" that when I first heard Bobby Darin doing that song, I thought it was a clumsy Gringo knockoff of "Pedro Navaja". In the Nineties the songs "La Camioneta Gris". featuring a gray pickup with California plates that runs afoul of cops, Mafia, and narcos alike, was so popular it was actually made into a movie. So the tradition of songs that tell stories about crime, violence and smuggling has been around for a long time. In fact, I once read an English poem called "Lochinvar", that told about a lovesick suitor kidnapping his woman and heading for the hills, killing her kinfolk as he went. I was immediately reminded of dozens of corridos with similar theme.

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