Cartel influence hides in plain sight in western Sinaloa, cradle of Mexican drug trade

ALEXANDRA OLSON (Associated Press) |  June 4, 2011

CULIACAN, Mexico (AP) — The fruits of drug trafficking are on open display in this western state capital: Cartel members honor their dead with gaudy mausoleums at the main cemetery, black-market moneychangers work in the open, and store shelves are stuffed with products from businesses identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as being fronts for organized crime.

The state of Sinaloa, which shares a name with Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel, is known as the cradle of drug trafficking in this country, a designation that makes some ask why it has not been the focus of President Felipe Calderon’s 4-year-old nationwide war on the cartels.

Only a few hundred federal police can be found here, while thousands have been sent to other cartel strongholds, namely the neighboring state of Chihuahua and Calderon’s western home state of Michoacan.

For some, the lack of attention to Sinaloa undermines the credibility of Calderon’s strategy, especially after Sinaloa’s new governor, whose election was backed by Calderon’s party, hired a former state police chief as a top adviser to the force even though he had once been indicted on charges of having ties to the cartel.

The governor, Mario Lopez Valdez, has taken several steps against corruption and the drug traffickers’ mystique, but the choice of adviser, by a man who promised change and painted his opponent as the traffickers’ friend, came as a shock.

“THE INSULT,” a banner headline in the weekly Sinaloa newspaper Rio Doce said.

“It is obvious that in Sinaloa there is a pact,” said Congressman Manuel Clouthier of Sinaloa. Clouthier belongs to Calderon’s National Action Party, or PAN, but has angered the government with insinuations that authorities in his state are collaborating with drug traffickers while the federal government looks the other way.

“It has been a safe state for organized crime to live there and work there and develop with total tranquility,” he charges.

The Calderon government did not respond to requests for comment. In the past, it has vehemently denied neglecting Sinaloa or having any pact with the cartel.

As proof the government is pursuing all traffickers equally, officials point to the capture or death of several top Sinaloa cartel gangsters.

“We are making an effort to cover as much territory as we can,” Interior Minister Jose Francisco Blake Mora said after a recent meeting with the new governor.

Blake Mora said the federal and state government would consider federal reinforcements in key regions of Sinaloa. But he emphasized the state must first clean up its own security forces under a new federal initiative to help state governments pay for background checks.

Government security officials and experts have also argued that it is natural to focus their efforts on the most violent gangs. While homicides nearly doubled in Sinaloa last year to 2,251 in turf wars with the rival Zetas gang, the state has had fewer of the headline-grabbing massacres and mass beheadings committed in some other states.

“It could be that the strategy has been to focus on the weaker cartels and get rid of them first,” said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “I think it’s clear that their strategy has been to focus on the most violent.”

But the failure to eliminate Sinaloa as a haven for traffickers also highlights some weaknesses of Calderon’s strategy: While top capos have been arrested, the president has been less successful in going after money laundering or investigating the corrupt officials that protect cartels.

In a place like Sinaloa, “part of it is the perception that legal activity and illegal activity has become so blurred. There is pressure from the legitimate economic interests who don’t want their economic interests to be touched,” Olson said. “There is a broad sense that there is a lot of money laundering and visible activity related to drug trafficking that has not been fully addressed or combated.”

The power of the cartel permeates Sinaloa.

Leaders Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, both wanted by Mexico and the U.S., are thought to be hiding out in the mountains of Sinaloa or the neighboring state of Durango, protected by corrupt officials and loyal locals who live off the drug trade.

In 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department banned Americans from doing business with several Sinaloa-based companies it said were fronts for Zambada, including the prominent Santa Monica cattle and dairy firm. But the so-called Kingpin Act, which prohibits U.S. companies from doing business with known drug traffickers, has not prompted any efforts by Mexico to shut them down. Supermarkets are stacked with Santa Monica milk bottles.

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