When I was there, the situation had stabilized somewhat -- the Beltrán-Leyvas had been mostly defeated, and the Zetas had been pushed to Sinaloa's smaller cities -- but it was still, by any sane standards, insane. On my second night in town, 12 bodies belonging to an amateurish crew of pistoleros were found around town. Later, a police captain and his brother were gunned down a few blocks from the central square.
I spent a week with the editors of Ríodoce, a Culiacán weekly that may be the best newspaper in Mexico right now. Certainly, it's among the bravest. While most news organizations have backed away from covering drug-trafficking and government corruption because so many journalists have been killed, Ríodoce goes after those stories with relish. It has made a favorite subject of Chapo. It would prefer to focus on politicians on the take, editor Ismael Bojórquez told me, but readers get disappointed when they don't see everyone's favorite bandito on the cover.
Bojórquez is as sapient as they come, and no conspiracy-theorizing pundit. His sources in government and the criminal underworld are extensive. He is also very prudent, a necessity when as many people want you dead as want him dead. Yet he takes it as a given that the ATF intentionally supplies the Sinaloa cartel with guns. U.S. agencies have long been in bed with the Sinaloans, he explained to me, and this scheme to move massive numbers of weapons into the country is more of the same. He noted that it coincides directly with the cartel wars of the late 2000s. Project Gunrunner and later Fast and Furious were, Bojórquez is sure, a way for America to arm Chapo, with whom it's in business. To him, this connection is as clear as day.
Bojórquez is not alone -- most Mexican journalists I speak with, and many average Mexicans, take Washington's collusion with the Sinaloa cartel for granted.
This interpretation of events owes partly to Chapo's reputation. A folk hero of mythic proportions, the man's very name has incantatory powers in Mexico. When it's uttered around Culiacán, it's usually in a whisper. Or people refer merely to "Him." Everyone knows who is meant. Mexicans tend to have very little faith in their government's abilities, aside from its ability to be corrupted -- and Chapo's competence in this regard is so obvious as to not need mentioning. Many Mexicans assume he essentially runs the country, and it's easy to see why. Since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2007, a steady procession of high-raking government, military, and police officials has been revealed to be working for Chapo or his deputy, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.
The interpretation owes partly to a contempt for and fear of American power and arrogance that go back to the 19th century. An editorial in La Prensa last year cast Fast and Furious as the latest attempt at Manifest Destiny. The reasoning may have been off, but the sentiment was understandable: Americans do, after all, smoke, snort, swallow, and shoot up the great majority of drugs produced or moved through Mexico, and Americans export almost all the guns used in the murders there, with or without the help of the ATF.
Then there's the long collusion between the U.S. government and drug-trafficking organizations, as Mexican students of history are quick to point out. Aside from the CIA's machinations in neighboring Central America, they refer to the U.S. Army's reliance on Sinaloan poppy-growers during World War II to keep up morphine supplies. More recently, the New York Times detailed the DEA's program for laundering and moving money for Mexican traffickers in order to trace where it goes (like Fast and Furious, but with bills, not guns). In a case going on in Chicago, El Mayo's son, Jesús Zambada Niebla, who was extradited to the United States in 2010, has claimed that he is immune to prosecution because he was working with the DEA. Court documents show that he did in fact take a meeting with agents, who claim no agreement was reached. The documents also show that, for years, the DEA has relied on a Mexican lawyer high up in Chapo's organization for information. Last year, the Mexican Senate called on former Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora -- who was seen as ineffective and was replaced after losing the confidence of U.S. officials, the Los Angeles Times reported -- to answer questions about what he knew of Fast and Furious. (Despite briefing notes subpoeaned by Issa that suggest Bush-era U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey kept his Mexican counterpart abreast of ATF operations, Medina-Mora has repeatedly denied knowing about the operation.)*