Thursday, September 15, 2011

Viva Mexico!

In honour of Mexican Independence Day, here's a recap of how I spent the celebrations two years ago, in Badiraguato, Sinaloa. (Excerpted from The Last Narco)

As the rain fell hard, the last of Badiraguato’s revellers could be heard, singing, yelling profanities, stumbling or driving drunkenly home after the Independence Day festivities. They had just enjoyed a peaceful celebration – no violence at all, no shootings – much to the delight of local government and residents.

Some local narcos, sporting gold chains, guns and fancy cowboy boots, had filed into the square at about 9 p.m. to listen to the live traditional banda tunes with the rest of Badiraguato, but they’d caused no trouble. Some were surely just wannabe narcos, too, dressing like those they aspire to become.

A group of mothers, lined up in a row along the side of the plaza, looked on as one young narco grabbed the hand of a beautiful brown-haired girl of about fourteen. She was decked out in stilettos, an open-backed top and a short skirt. Her long nails were neatly painted, specks of glitter on her cheek reflected in the lighting. He dragged her out in front of the band and they began to dance sloppily – like teenagers – as the brass banda group churned out another lively, upbeat tune.

Normally, the sight of an apparent drug trafficker and a dolled-up teen princess dancing to what can only be described as circus music would be sidesplitting. But in Badiraguato it’s the norm – the narcos love their banda, and they love their princesses.

There was an air of calm to Badiraguato that Independence Day, 15 September 2009. The previous year had been a troubled one; homicides had dominated the talk of the town. ‘Mochomo’ – a nickname meaning ‘fire ant’ given to Alfredo Beltran Leyva – and Chapo had been at war, and no one really knew who was in charge any more. But now, with a pact between the feuding kingpins, there was control again and the violence was declining.

Soldiers in the shadowy barracks at the far end of Badiraguato peered out over the walls to catch a glimpse of the festivities – they had not been invited but they would enjoy as much of the moment as they could. Some residents glared at the soldiers; all opted for silence while walking by. Only when they were out of the soldiers’ earshot did they resume their conversations.

The air of calm in Badiraguato felt precariously temporary. The Sierra of Sinaloa was not what it once was. For several years, the region had been what one resident called a ‘marked zone’. The military was ever-present, but so were the narcos. By and large, the military avoided conflict, but that didn't mean the narcos weren't duking it out among themselves.

Homicide had become so common in Sinaloa that it cost a mere $35 to have a rival murdered.

On 15 September 2009, Independence night in Badiraguato, some locals hoped to see Chapo there. A group of local narcos had conducted a thorough review of their operations to make sure the marijuana was growing and being delivered at the pace they had promised. When he arrived, Chapo would be pleased.

A helicopter circled overhead before the fireworks began. The next morning, the helicopter appeared again. The military was watching, waiting.

Chapo never came.

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