In Sinaloa, not only is the government perceived to be corrupt, the cartel leaders are perceived by some sections of the society – especially in marginalised groups – as powerful heroes. This was especially evident during the protests in Sinaloa against the re-apprehension of its foremost drug lord, El Chapo in 2014.
Even religion has not been spared. The Malverde saint is known to be the patron saint of drug traffickers. He has his own temple in Culiacan where outlaws are known to venerate him.
In 2012, a group of people who met during the demonstrations to protest against the election of Enrique Pena Nieto as the next president of Mexico decided to get together to discuss ways to take their discontent beyond protesting. A group of citizens with experiences in different civic causes then formed a collective to channel their political frustrations into constructive actions for their communities in Sinaloa. The collective was later named ‘Recuper-Arte’.
They realised that the immediate and ominous in presence of organized crime in the local culture and overall climate of insecurity and violence in the state was a priority requiring urgent attention. Therefore, the group decided to focus their collective efforts on children through art and informal education. They planned to re-appropriate public spaces through artistic interventions and organising cultural and educational programmes for children.
In December 2012, the group started working on abandoned police stations around some of Culiacan’s most troubled urban vicinities. The security posts were set up around the city more than a decade ago to increase police presence in the neighbourhoods. The posts were abandoned quite soon, when that security strategy failed to control the violence. The vacant buildings became, in most cases, a meeting place for drug addicts and/ or criminals.
Recuper-Arte began by organising cleaning brigades to make these spaces accessible to the local communities. They brightened the walls with murals and inaugurated the spaces with a festival followed by a series of weekly workshops. These activities have been generally well received in the concerned communities. The neighbours have willingly taken over the maintenance of these spaces, and children use the facilities during the weekends.
Abductions in Sinaloa are so frequent that they have come to be known as ‘levantones’ in the local colloquial language. There are indications that most cases have been concentrated in the capital of Culiacan and Ahome, a municipality in the north of Sinaloa where local media and human rights organisations have documented the participation of local police in the kidnappings of missing people. This small municipality served as a haven for ‘El Chapo’ when he was last captured in 2016. Ahome is also where the search group known as Las Buscadoras operates.
Las Buscadoras (the searchers) is comprised mostly of mothers of missing people. It began in 2014 with Mirna Medina, a retired schoolteacher whose twenty-one year old son Roberto Juarez was abducted from the gas station where he worked. Medina went to le a police report but didn’t receive any help and decided to find her son through other means.
She began by seeking other women whose children were missing and had suffered the same police negligence as her. The group soon started to grow as the mothers used social media networks to circulate photos of their missing relatives, and more mothers with similar stories reached out to them. In two months, the group gathered more than thirty women. Together, they started collecting digging tools to begin searching in clandestine burials.
On one hot summer day, the group boarded Medina ́s old car and went to dig at a location following a tip by an anonymous caller. They did not find anything that day, but a few days later they started to uncover human remains disposed along the corn growing elds in Ahome. The news of their work spread, bringing more people to Las Buscadoras who seek their help even before filing a police report.
As the number of bodies discovered by Las Buscadoras increased, the local and state officials could not ignore Medina’s demands for support. They have been providing forensic services, digging machines and sniffer dogs to aid their weekly searches. The authorities have also given the group an office space, which enabled them to increase their caseload.
Las Buscadoras found 49 bodies between 2014 and June 2016. They currently have more than 200 missing people on their search list. Medina says that the police are involved in 90 per cent of the cases. However, she has repeatedly emphasised that Las Buscadoras is not in conflict with the criminals or the authorities. ‘We are not looking for those who committed the crimes, we just want to nd our children.’
‘They hit us in the heart,’ read the title of the editorial in the newspaper Riodoce on 15 May 2017, after one of its founders was assassinated outside the offices in broad daylight. Javier Valdez co-founded the weekly publication Riodoce in 2002 with a small group of investigative journalists from Sinaloa to cover the big stories of corruption and drug trafficking from one of the most lethal places for the media in the world.
Riodoce soon became a game-changer in the field of Mexican journalism. When most newspapers in Mexico stopped investigating and reporting on organized crime, Riodoce gained a reputation for its fierce coverage of the Sinaloa DTO and its links with local governments.
Despite the high level of risk, Riodoce’s founders were aware that articles related to drug trafficking meant an immediate increase in sales. The paper sought to move beyond the sensational coverage of drug trafficking and offer an alternative to the conventional body-counting accounts that dominate the coverage of drug related violence.
Javier Valdez focused mainly on the voices of the victims. In his column ‘Malayerba’ (literal translation is bad herb, alluding to marijuana), Valdez captured the most tragic stories in a beautiful, almost fictionalized and poetic way. He was the author of six books and his unique prose had won him national and international acclaim.
‘...We always knew this could happen, Javier knew it, we all at Riodoce knew it. We have been reporting with fear all these years,’ said the post-mortem editorial. Despite the risks, Riodoce managed to provide readers with a critical report on organized crime, while minimising danger to their collaborators.
In 2009, Riodoce’s offices in Sinaloa were attacked with a grenade, resulting only in minor property damage. However, due to limited financial capacity, the paper was unable to enforce any formalised security protocols. The authorities, too, didn’t offer adequate protection. For 14 years, Riodoce survived – and even thrived – despite the threats and harassment from criminals and corrupt government officials.
The resilience processes of Riodoce were being documented for this report at the time of Valdez murder. His death is a painful reminder of the state of emergency of journalism in Mexico where nine journalists have already been killed this year.
‘Carros buchones’ or narco cars in the local slang refer to the large vehicles, such as SUVs, with tainted windows playing loud music and racing each other dangerously through the streets of Culiacan. The locals tend to associate these cars with criminal activity as they represent the all-too-common violent exchanges of bullets between rival gangs in public.
In May 2008, a rival cartel killed one of El Chapo Guzman’s sons in the parking lot of a shopping centre in Culiacan. Fear and paranoia overcame the population as the threat of relentless violence loomed in the city. This was also at the height of Calderon’s militarised anti-narcotic strategy, but the presence of numerous military checkpoints and vehicles on the city streets did not attenuate the tension.
In that environment began its activities Ciclos Urbanos (Urban Cycles), a civil association aiming to promote the use of bicycles in the city. Carlos Rojo, a former professor at the Autonomous State University who is now heading the Municipal Urban Institute was one of the founders. ‘Instead of protesting what we did not like’, Rojo explained, ‘we wanted to approach the issues of our community from the aspect of mobility and accessibility to public space’.
Their main programme was Ciclo-noches, which consisted of organized weekly night rides through the city’s main streets. It became so popular on social media that at one point, they had 1400 participants for one ride. This, according to Rojo, was when their group reached a ‘critical mass’. The large numbers of cyclists that turned up to cycle through the city when it was experiencing a spike in violence, demonstrated the civilian society’s collective intention to reclaim their streets peacefully.
Ciclo-noches lasted three years but many personal and collective relationships sustained. Cyclists regrouped according to age or common interests and continued organising collective rides through Culiacan. Currently, one of the most active bicycle collectives is Mujeres en Bici (translated as women on bicycles), dedicated to empowering women to use bicycles as their main mode of transportation.
Founder, Sarah Elizabeth Verdugo was a regular in the Ciclo-noches programme. However, the newly formed cycling associations, she realised, were mostly formed by men. This inspired her to start a collective focused on encouraging more women to use their bicycles.
Mujeres en Bici, Ciclos Urbanos and other cycling collectives in Culiacan have recently come together as a lobby group known as Prociudad. It was formed in 2016 as a civilian response to the reorganisation of traffc in the city ́s downtown – a controversial measure of the local government to improve car mobility. The group also includes academics, business owners, students and citizens from all walks of life who have been pressuring authorities to be part of the urban planning decisions.
Bosque A Salvo
In 2010, a group of small and medium business owners from Culiacan formed an organisation to protect the biodiversity of Sinaloa. The organisation was called Bosque A Salvo and was offcially registered as ‘(an) institution of private assistance’, a modality for charity-based foundations. The organisation works in the forest ecosystems of Sinaloa’s southern highlands, which hosts a large variety of endangered flora and fauna such as wild fruit trees, jaguars and a number of rare birds.
Due to its climate and remote location, the area has traditionally been used to grow illicit crops such as marijuana, and continued to grow it even as it became less profitable. ‘It is like a tradition’, explained Rosendo Castro, founder and operational director of Bosque A Salvo.
A few years ago, violence intensified, as new synthetic drug laboratories appeared in the area, increasing patrols and raids from federal forces. The laboratories eventually relocated out of this region, which decreased the violence but left a lot of young men unemployed, thus increasing migration to the nearby cities. Since most of the men work or live outside the rural communities, Bosque A Salvo’s programmes target mostly women and children.
The initial aim of the organisation was to raise awareness among the locals about the impact of wildlife trafficking and deforestation through scientific projects for the conservation of natural ecosystems and by supporting other regional conservation projects.
However, the members of Bosque A Salvo soon realised that the locals would not stop cutting trees and hunting wild animals as their survival depended on those resources. Therefore, the organisation began to incorporate alternative livelihoods programmes into its agenda, including the development of an ecotourism project.
These communities live close to an archaeological zone, which is managed by the federal government and open to tourism. Smaller archaeological sites are scattered around the area wherein locals have found artefacts from indigenous cultures. Bosque A Salvo assisted in developing a community-owned museum of all these objects. Itbeing managed and maintained by the women of the community, while the local children o er tours.
Bosque A Salvo sponsors study trips and workshops for the all-women community museum managers. It also funds science camps in the capital city of Culiacan for the communities’ children and offers scholarships to local children who want to continue their studies. Furthermore, the organisation has successfully cooperated with the main higher education institutions of the state, thus promoting research on the communities’ natural and social resources.