~ This article was originally published by SinEmbargo on January 13, 2016 ~
Juan José Ríos is a small city with a complicated geography: one part belongs to the municipality of Ahome—the same municipality as the city of Los Mochis [where El Chapo was captured—and the other part falls in the municipality of Guasave. On the map of the drug war, being born on one side or the other of that line becomes a permanent birthmark. It is seventeen kilometers away from where the most famous narcotrafficker in the world was captured. But in this land of rebellious swamps that has never been designated a municipality, forgotten by the two city administrations within whose boundaries it falls, neither researchers, observers, or residents believe that their reality is going to change. El Chapo deployed part of his army here, and his enemies did as well. And the result is that in “Ché Ríos”, as locals call it, death continues unchanged. It is a microcosm of the dispute over Sinaloan narcotrafficking plazas, from which it is possible to understand El Chapo’s operational power and also his words in the interview with Sean Penn. Here there are no job opportunities of any kind and the bodies that appear in the dirt streets every morning had not yet seen their thirtieth birthdays. This is the measure of the country’s violence, and it seems as though nothing can change it.
Juan José Ríos, Sinaloa. January 13 (SinEmbargo) – Three days ago, scarcely 17 kilometers from here, the celebrity Sinaloan drug trafficker El Chapo Guzmán was captured for the third time. International and national news outlets arrived by the hundreds. While they waited their turn to enter the drain pipe through which Joaquín Guzmán tried to escape, a tour organized by the Ministry of the Marines (Semar), the tension continued unabated in Juan José Ríos, like the announcement of death foretold.
It has been a hundred hours since El Chapo was recaptured in Los Mochis. And in Juan José Ríos there has been no break in the patrols by the municipal police and the army. Local official Juan Ernesto Cota Leyva has just acknowledged to this outlet that there is a detachment of Marines in the city offices, though their presence has not been observed by residents.
Located next to Mexico’s highway 15, neither rural nor urban, belonging to two different municipalities, financially neglected by both, the population of Juan José Ríos has experienced a string of events that have the tint of tragedy: the threat to authorities, the 8:00 PM curfew imposed by locals, the dangerous trajectory of bullets, and finally, death. The death of hundreds of young people, not yet 30 years old, who have fallen in these dirty streets over the last decade.
In the local government offices, a man agrees to provide the records and it becomes clear: every week last year, someone died in these dusty streets. The papers describe something else as well: first they are kidnapped, then they are tortured to the point of death; the macabre mechanism called “levantón”, a “taking.” And there are the gun battles. “Shootouts that make you jump,” the man affirms. Then there are the dozens of disappearances.
Juan José Ríos was the setting for the prelude to Chapo’s arrest. On the morning of January 5, two bodies appeared on Highway 15, at the intersection of San Francisco Street, at a place where a sign ironically reads “Welcome to the Agricultural Heart of Mexico.” One was 15 years old and the other (“with the appearance of a southerner” according to the Ahome municipal police) remains unidentified. They had been “taken” by armed men on 11th Street. Next to their bodies were more than 30 shell casings from AR-15 rifles.
“The area is hot,” was how state governor Mario López Valdez described Juan José Ríos during a tour of El Fuerte, a few hours before the capture of El Chapo.
Peace has never broken out here. “Ché” Ríos—as residents tend to call this place that was named after the general who organized the Cananea mine strike [in 1906], a liberal revolutionary and writer who composed a poem to all the fallen of all the wars—continues as always, as a piece of earth where the armies of Guzmán Loera and the Beltrán Leyva brothers have faced off. It is why locals tell visitors not to come. And it is what is found in the announcements of the Attorney General’s Office (PGR).
The words of a bus driver who covers the route along Highway 15 every morning form a faithful chronicle of the dispute. “You shouldn’t be out there if you don’t have business. Everyone knows it. It’s ugly. You should understand. There’s no doubt about how bad it is,” he insists, speaking in a way that feels like a code. Later his memories go to 2008, when a colleague of his was killed on the same route. He appeared behind the wheel, with the car at an angle.
After the capture of Alfredo “El Mochomo” Beltrán Leyva on January 21, 2008, and the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva the following year during an operation in Cuernavaca, Morelos, the Beltrán Leyva organization was weakened. Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, “Chapito Isidro” took control of the remnants. According to information from the DEA, Meza Flores faced off with the forces of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, specifically Orso Iván Gastélum, “El Cholo” Iván, who was arrested alongside El Chapo. Documents from the DEA indicate that he would be the successor to Guzmán Loera in the trafficking of heroin and methamphetamines to the United States.
And Juan José Ríos is the microcosm of that battle.
Ernesto Gómez López is a researcher in the northern region of Sinaloa and a radio host who chronicles events in the valley. He has walked the muddy streets of “Ché Ríos” thousands of times. This is how he describes the place, as it grows dark and people begin to hide in their houses: “This is the dividing line between the groups of the two chapos, Guzmán and Isidro. It is a morgue, a dumping ground of bodies. It is neither here nor there. It is very far from Guasave and very close to Ahome. It is the national dispute encapsulated in a small territory in Sinaloa. That is Juan José Ríos.”
If in his interview with Sean Penn, Joaquín Guzmán Loera claimed that he entered the drug trade for lack of other opportunities, this is a place that would have fit right in with the movie he planned.
As happened to him in La Tuna, Badiraguato, here there is no way to live that is not agriculture. And many times, payments for corn harvests are months behind. Or crops and machinery is stolen. The only bank branch, a Banorte, was shuttered in July, 2015. The complaints of the farmers did not matter. A representative of the bank in Los Mochis explained that it was an order from the Mexico City corporate offices owing to the “crisis in the region.” A crisis that surrounds the 5,000 children who are part of the population. And the 25,000 residents of the city’s approximately 1,000 hectares must survive amid the resounding tragedy at the junction of poverty and narcotrafficking.
“For all of its characteristics, Juan José Ríos is an appetizing slice of territory for criminals. It is the anchor point of the international highway and Los Mochis. Geographically, it is close to the prosperous city of Los Mochis. Criminal groups are fully aware of the location of that city, and the consumption and distribution of drugs there. Here, it all comes together. The war is as much about local consumption as control over the plaza,” explains Jorge Luis Montiel, a political science researcher at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa (UAS) here.
Montiel was a preparatory school teacher here for decades. And he has seen the change in some of his students. “Kids who became men in matters that cannot be mentioned,” he comments, the sentence dragged out with the tone of a lament. “I keep respectfully quiet,” he concludes.
In Juan José Ríos you can take courses up to a professional level in career tracks such as agronomy and business administration, but the average education does not go beyond the sixth grade, according to statistics from the Public Education and Culture Ministry in Sinaloa.
And with the arrest of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, how will things change here?
Marco Antonio Borboa Trasviña is a sociologist and instructor at the University of the West in Guasave. He shared his perspective:
“The only thing I can see is that everything will stay the same. Because when they capture a single person it does not stop the wave of violence caused by the dispute over plazas. That is true with El Chapo. The bosses keep control from wherever they are locked up. And if not, there are people ready to supplant them. Juan José Ríos is an example of how the arrest of a person does not impact local realities.”
The years have been cursed. In 2010, the cemetery near El Estero—a creek with a quiet trickle in winter that jumps its banks during hurricanes—served as the site of a massacre. Four men, two women, and a child were executed with large caliber weapons as they traveled in an older red Jeep Cherokee and a 1999 Grand Prix.
But 2011 was no better. Each dawn produced scenes of terror like that found in one neighborhood where three men were found bound and dead after being kidnapped, or in June when an armed group collected a debt during a funeral procession, leaving one dead. Again with high-power rifles. By February there were already 10 people taken. Death continued unabated. 2012: 25 murders. 2013: six people executed in a black Jeep on April 21, and another six on May 5. 2014: a resident is shot in the streets while walking. 2015: A child—near adolescence—is found in a field.
A local says: “The territories are marked. San Francisco Street divides the place, between Guasave and Ahome, and that is the border. The ones over there are pochos (referring to the term for sons of Mexicans in the U.S.).” He says this while on the Guasave side of town.
The Devil’s Navel
From the gazebo in the plaza, a spectacular sunset stretches over a very green valley. The freshness of the river reaches even here. Residents tell how during the rainy season, there is a stench. It is believable because the sewer system dates to the sixties and cannot handle more water. Last August, Juan José Ríos became a “sad Venice” because rains left the city flooded. Perhaps February is a month for laughter. From the 21st to the 24th the local fair is held. Sinaloan music, horses, and beer. “And also drugs,” concludes researcher Jorge Montiel. Later he notes that the day after the fair, “when all the trash is picked up, and there is a lot, everything starts over. The same or worse.”
Here there is a hope. A strong one. Perhaps the only one. That this place that receives not even 1% of the resources of the two municipalities to which it belongs, could become itself a municipality. Older residents, some more than 60 years old, have formed the Citizens Commission in Favor of Municipalization. Their initiative has reached the state congress twice; now there is a complaint before the state electoral court to move the measure along. The diagnosis that the initiative offers is the circle of shame of Ché. Here life begins without opportunities and ends the same way.
“The region is not characterized by its ‘attractiveness’ for large scale investment, which has impeded industrialization from becoming the transformative axis of the economy, and the only investment activity is from locals, whose financial capacities are limited and oriented mostly toward commerce and local services,” the document reads.
Jorge Luis Montiel, the UAS researcher, says that the cycle could someday end if the city obtains the status of a municipality. That would allow it to obtain its own resources from the federal government. He notes: “It would be a big step. It would mean that this might no longer be the navel of the Devil.”
Linaloe Flores is a reporter and editor for SinEmbargo. This article was originally published under the title “La Marina pasea reporteros, y Ché Ríos se desangra” and is available at: http://www.sinembargo.mx/13-01-2016/1596829
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute