As you drive past the splendid tomb reserved for Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca in Santiago de los Caballeros, Sinaloa, (pictured) you might have the fortune of spotting a gunman standing high above the paved road. It's here that four kids were killed by the military in March 2008. It's here that law and order effectively end in the Sierra Madre Occidental. It's here that most locals will tell you: It's time to turn around now. You won't spot the military here very often; you have a far better chance of running into a band of armed narcos. If you do spot the military, they'll likely be on edge – it's not their turf.
In my opinion, it's here that one can see the most evidence of federal government's support for El Chapo.
There are other signs: fewer arrests of Sinaloa cartel members than those of other cartels, a claim made by some experts (I disagree, personally, but it's hard to prove); the fact that three members of Chapo's family receive agricultural subsidies under the federal Procampo program (a fact that a major international donor had to take into serious consideration before approving the last batch of aid); the fact that Chapo remains free while almost every other top narco has been arrested in the drug war; the fact that Chapo has had at least a dozen informants outed from the Sinaloan military in the past three years; the fact that Chapo waltzed out of a federal prison nearly 10 years ago and still hasn't been caught; the fact that Chapo's war against nearly every rival in the country has apparently received an assist from the military's own crackdowns... and so on.
To me, Santiago de los Caballeros says the most about government complicity. It's not the graveyard (a very public tribute to the powerful narcos in the area, and a brazen middle finger to the government) or the gunmen, or the poppy and marijuana fields carefully hidden in the hills nearby.
It's the road. Two years ago, the road from Badiraguato to Santiago de los Caballeros was a dirt track. It took hours to navigate, like most of the roads in the sierra. But it's now been paved, and will be paved bit by bit until it reaches Chihuahua.
The federal government is paying for this road.
I wonder why.
The road, when complete, will open up the route between Badiraguato and Chihuahua. No longer will the Sinaloans have just one main road to transport their drugs to the US (along the coast of Sinaloa and up through Sonora), they will be able to zip right through to Chihuahua, which has a handful of highways and access points into the US. The growers in the Sierra won't even have to deliver their drugs first to a city; they'll be able to bring it straight to the new road, which is already in the foothills.
The government claims the road is part of a program to bring the people of the Sierra closer to Sinaloa's urban areas. But most people in the Sierra who want to get to, say, Culiacan, can already do so – it just takes a bit of time. This road won't help them much. No, I think this road is being built for trade purposes, and we all know what trade really drives Sinaloa.
It reminds me of a road paved back in the late 1990s in northeastern Burma. It was ostensibly paved (and wow, did it cut one's traveling time) to open up trade between China, Burma and Thailand. It was also heralded as a move forward for democracy.
But everyone knew the real reason it had been paved. The warlords had funded it so that drugs could be transported more quickly from Burma to users in China and dealers in Thailand. It quickly became known as "the Meth Road."
Maybe the new Sinaloa-Chihuahua thoroughfare should be called "Chapo's way."