No Man's Land: The Mystery of Mexico's Drug Wars

I n a recent address to the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton framed the biggest problem currently facing Mexico in terms of another notorious narco-guerrilla meltdown: “It’s looking more and more like Colombia looked twenty years ago,” she said, “where the narco-traffickers control certain parts of the country.”

Hearing this, the Mexican government archly pointed out that the top US foreign policy official seemed not to know what she was talking about—and they gave proof: Today’s Mexico has no large slice of its territory controlled by a political insurgent force, the way Colombia crucially did in its era of travail. Mexico doesn’t even have a viable proclaimed guerrilla force aiming to topple the government. Instead, Mexico has labyrinthine drug gangs murderously fighting it out against each other—while they extort, intimidate, massacre, and conduct firefights with the government. Indeed, Clinton’s statement was groping to characterize a modern mystery land, one for which she was advocating new US assistance.

But the fog only deepened when President Felipe Calderón replied to Clinton—going so far beyond the facts at hand that Univision, the premier Spanish-language TV network in the United States, posted an amazed analysis accusing Calderón of “defamation” in an “unheard-of manner,” with “impudence” appearing in “his hatred.” So who was such defamation aimed at? Why, at “authorities in the United States,” Univision said. In a wide-ranging interview, Calderón moved quickly from the Mexico-as-Colombia issue to the elephant that now resides in the Mexican living room: the August 21–22 massacre of seventy-two helpless immigrants from Central and South America, evidently by a Mexican drug gang, the aftermath of which has been characterized by Mexican government stonewalling. When asked how all this could happen on his watch, Calderón didn’t hesitate. The massacre was the fault, he said, of the United States.

Many layers of smoke veil Mexico’s modern agony, and some of it derives from officials on both sides. The challenge is to see what’s beneath the smoke. What’s the truth on the ground? If you could peer directly into Mexico’s shrouded conflict areas, what would you see? That’s what I asked myself in the investigation that follows.

“Y ou must not go out there,” said the fellow at the gas pump, urging me not to follow a lonely turnoff into empty-looking desert. At the other end of the road lay a mountain stronghold, where low peaks made purple smudges on the distant horizon. “There is no law there,” he warned. “ They are the law.”

By “they,” he meant an irregular army of drug traffickers, who had created a no-man’s-land in a grim little slice of Mexico. The warning was given in Spanish but came only about ten miles south of the Arizona border, in an area where it’s now wise to ask about the road ahead.

Mexico’s low-intensity “narco-war” has cast a daunting shadow over many of its backcountry areas, some of them wedged disconcertingly against the 2,000-mile-long border with the United States. The border’s southern side is dotted with mysterious conflict zones, emitting rumors of burned houses, fleeing residents, and shadowy pseudo-armies of drug traffickers clashing by night. The conflict zone before me was more than a thousand miles west of a quite different one, over on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, where the news media have fixated their spotlight. There, green farm country just south of Texas contrasts dramatically with the baked Sonoran Desert opposite Arizona, and yet “incalculable savagery” (to quote President Calderón) was still able to flare, in the massacre of seventy-two immigrants. That enormity, occurring in eastern Mexico, would shift attention away from many other spots. But the big question still remains: What’s the real nature of these no-go zones on our southwestern horizon?

Facing me was a desert wilderness roughly defined by two seldom-traveled municipios , a bit like combined city-county units. The municipios of Sáric and Tubutama are tucked well away from main highways in a citadel of arid, rocky slopes—but there are twenty-seven crucial miles of border with Arizona. From that border strip, the conflict area trickles south in a long, jagged splinter, covering a thousand square miles of Mexico. On the US side, the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge walls off the line (though not to drug mules in Nikes or to the people-smugglers known as coyotes). Phoenix news crews think it’s big stuff to go into the Arizona mountains north of the strip and find a single cartel drug spotter. But just south, on the Mexican side, the rockslides and flash floods hide a desert stronghold and a drug army said to have some three hundred recruits. Of the forty-three hundred regular residents censused in Sáric-Tubutama in 2005, many have fled. But since then, others—in flak vests and
jogging shoes accessorizing their fake military uniforms—have arrived. The nerve center of this operation is a place you never hear about in sound bites: an outlaw’s roost called Cerro Prieto—“Dark Hill.”

To gringo ears it can all sound surreal—Dark Hill and its shadowy ghost battalion, plus a list of fighting factions that could tongue-tie any translator: the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, El Gilo, the Zetas, El Chapo and his Sinaloa Cartel, the New Federation . . . This one little postage stamp of desert soil sounds like a package tour of “Narco-Mexico.”

Dark Hill is generally considered too dangerous for outside observers to approach. But after two major drug battles in the area in July, an exhausted calm settled in, enforced by Mexican Army patrols in pale desert camo. The first battle, on July 1, left a ghastly field of twenty-one dead. The second, on July 29, was cloaked in rumors. What was all this? What is this shape-shifting land just across the border?

R amón Mesa Castañeda is a good enough starting point for the story of Dark Hill. He preceded me there by a month. I never met him, but his dubious spirit hovered in the heat from the moment I arrived. Wearing a fuzzy buzz cut and the requisite black paramilitary togs, he was a modern narco-warrior, all of fifteen years old. Over on the other side of the country, the greener side by the Gulf of Mexico, south of Texas, three of the cartel gunmen arrested in the August massacre were reportedly aged fourteen, seventeen, and eighteen.

On July 1, Ramón Mesa arrived by night in Dark Hill’s no-man’s-land via an impressive convoy of combat vehicles: thirty or so pickups, SUVs, and oddly peaceful-looking passenger cars—some or all of them stolen—forming a phalanx of headlights that nobody dared stop. Mesa’s fellow riders were older but not by much. One was seventeen; most were in their twenties. At least one wizened vet, wearing a pencil-thin moustache, was in his thirties. Such is the typical age spread for an expedition like this: a not-so-clandestine grupo de limpieza , a “cleanup squad” sent by one drug cartel to quash another.

Evidently (even the obvious has to be qualified in these murky battles) Ramón Mesa’s midnight caravan was sent by a heavy hitter—the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s largest drug-trafficking organization, and by some estimates the largest in the world. The Mexican coastal and mountain state of Sinaloa, very far south of the Dark Hill desert, is ground zero for drug-trafficking clans. It’s framed by farms of pot and poppies. There, a rival of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, reportedly runs two large militia camps in the mountains, each with about three hundred men. The Sinaloa Cartel’s own force there, orbiting the same general area, is said to number four hundred, in fifty-man squads. Taken as a sketch of paramilitary power bases in the country—Sinaloa far south, Dark Hill far north, and the forbidden zone of the now-infamous August massacre far east, flanking Texas—these ungoverned areas throw Mexico’s dilemma into stark relief.

Interestingly, no Mexican police or army troops spotted the cleanup caravan that brought Ramón Mesa, though it frightened various small towns en route. The forty-five hundred Mexican Army troops deployed across the country in the drug war have struck some heavy blows against the cartels, and the troops are often more professional than some outsiders might imagine, but mysteries still abide. The Mexican Army has always displayed an unpredictable slowness in the no-win task of shooting at its own citizens, as seen outside the drug war in responses to mob outbreaks and civil disorders. And local police—working for the municipios—are generally looked on by residents as being little better than rent-a-cops for the cartels.

The Sinaloa Cartel has billions of dollars to grease such wheels, and six other main cartels are also on the Mexican stage, all of them syndicates or alliances in bewildering flux. Folklore conflates the Sinaloa Cartel into the image of its alleged CEO, Joaquín Guzmán, an elusive fugitive known everywhere as El Chapo, or Shorty. Elevated in absentia to the Forbes billionaire list, Chapo is the star player in countless conspiracy theories, which claim he has a kind of Hitler-Stalin Pact with the government. Even some prestigious voices have speculated (or imagined) that the Mexican government got an offer from Chapo it couldn’t refuse—allegedly to go halfsies in wiping out the smaller bands of murderers so that Chapo’s syndicate, the largest, could enjoy a godfather’s peace.

But whatever the real conspiracies (or lack thereof), the Dark Hill no-man’s-land put a fly in El Chapo’s ointment. The group of three hundred drug warriors reportedly staffing the Sáric-Tubutama stronghold are renegades—a kind of Hole in the Wall Gang, but with tenuous life support from El Chapo’s enemies. The players pumping supplies into Dark Hill allegedly include not only the Beltrán Leyva Cartel but another horde based in eastern Mexico, the notorious Zetas (accused of the August immigrant massacre, though a pattern of false-flag atrocities in the narco-war raises questions even there).

A t Dark Hill—far from eastern Mexico, but still accessible to roving Zeta operatives from the east—the local drug army is said to be like many across Mexico: mostly local boys, drawn from desert obscurity, either by enticement or brutal coercion. Either way, their narrow sliver of no-man’s-land is flanked on both sides by broad desert smuggling corridors controlled by El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel. Dark Hill has blocked monolithic control of the gateway to Arizona, the “golden door” of the Sonoran Desert. Heading the renegade effort is a local crime boss called El Gilo, who wedged himself into the crags and soaked up backing from El Chapo’s enemies.

Hence, Chapo’s cleanup convoy. The plan was apparently to hit Dark Hill with a blitzkrieg and smash it for good. The vehicles bristled with automatic assault rifles and grenades, strewn casually among cup holders and childproof locks. The Sinaloa Cartel seemed understandably confident. They had increased such blitz tactics since February as part of a nationwide push. Forming alliances, they struck not only in Sonora but, still more formidably, on the other side of Mexico, hitting the Zetas on their home ground in the east. The Mexican government contends that Zeta defeats there—by both troops and enemy cartels—may help explain the August immigrant massacre as a symptom of desperation. The Zetas are under a full-court press from El Chapo, his eastern allies, and the government all at once, fueling allegations that the attacks have been coordinated, and scarcely damping the conspiracy theories.

It leaves the story of Dark Hill—big Chapo vs. underdog Gilo—in something of a moral vacuum. As one army of traffickers slugs it out with another, who are the good guys? Propaganda has loudly sought to answer, adding psychological warfare to the tale: “People, don’t be afraid of us,” Chapo and company urged in a Big Brother–like announcement on February 28, when convoy strikes were convulsing eastern Mexico. “Leave us to our work, so we can clean up this trash” (the “trash” being the Zetas and their allies).

This public relations campaign goes back to at least 2007, but it gathered force in 2010 as the Sinaloa Cartel sought to cast itself as “the good cartel.” The message claims that it doesn’t kidnap or extort protection money like its smaller, more desperate rivals. The Chapo faction, formed into a “New Federation” of crime networks, says publicly that it wants to stick to good, clean smuggling (that is, sticking it only to the United States). At the Arizona border, one of their mysteriously unfurled banners (in the town of Agua Prieta) chided their rivals piously: “Leave innocent people in peace.”

The sweetness and light is undercut by grim facts. In 2009, the Mexican state of Chihuahua—in Mexico’s “middle route” of drug smuggling between the Gulf Coast and the Sonoran Desert—was shaken by seemingly senseless massacres. Unidentified gunmen burst into public places and seemed to mow down everyone in sight, shooting random targets. Police hurried to announce that this was the diabolical work of the Juárez Cartel, another of El Chapo’s enemies. But then a month later, evidence began to cascade forth. The massacres were then said to have been committed by death squads specially prepared by the “good guy” gang, the Sinaloa Cartel.

Even then, no explanations were forthcoming as to the motive. Why promiscuously kill random civilians? Was it a plan to falsely implicate rivals like the Zetas and paint them as even bigger murderers than they were? Or was it simple terrorism, meant to traumatize the public generally—and perhaps soften them up for the good-guy message?

Or was something even bigger loose in Mexico—a mass psychopathic bloodlust like a burgeoning plague, killing for no reason but the joy?

The coldness of the 2009 Chihuahua massacres—and others that were originally mysterious but have since been traced to the Sinaloa Cartel—give a double dose of eeriness to the good-guy campaign, as if a good cop/bad cop act were putting the screws to a frightened nation. With both the brutality of the Zetas and the brutality of the Sinaloa Cartel to face, the Mexican government walks a harrowing line. On July 29, as if to disprove conspiracy theories about alleged collusion with the “good cartel,” government troops stormed the home of Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, known as the Sinaloa Cartel’s third-highest leader, killing him in a shootout that ensued. Many such government moves against Sinaloa Cartel personnel have seemed to refute the conspiracy theories—but then many other events, like the events at Dark Hill, resurrect grave questions.

On Monday night, June 28, records show a Mexican army checkpoint operating at Tubutama, controlling the only road leading into the Dark Hill stronghold. But by Wednesday night, when the Sinaloa Cartel convoy passed through, the checkpoint seems to have evaporated. The convoy was aiming at an enemy that was also the government’s enemy. It met few obstacles.

U p close, the community of Dark Hill floats out of desert mountains like a dreamy oasis, softened by bougainvillea blooms and rustling banana fronds, as sun-whitened buildings perch in desert emptiness. Backing this dreamscape is a stark black butte, a stone shaft of tableland that gives the locale its name. An entry lane creeps past a derelict suspension bridge, a tribute to desert flash floods like something out of Romancing the Stone .

The oasis, however, has been convulsed since late 2009 as the gang boss El Gilo carved out his turf. Gathering a strike force at his nearby ranch, he launched a reign of terror. Ordinary residents were bullied, robbed, extorted, burned out of their homes, and sometimes murdered as Gilo fought rivals in the adjoining smuggling corridors, or government forces if they ventured near. Bodies turned up on the highways. At the same time, belligerents hurled obscenities back and forth on the new fast lane, the Internet. El Gilo’s alleged backing, coming from the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and the Zetas, did not soften his image. It all meant war with El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel.

As the wee hours ticked by on Thursday, July 1, the convoy carrying fifteen-year-old Ramón Mesa was doubly hard to miss. Its vehicles were actually labeled, like B-52s with nose-cone calendar girls: prior to going into battle, the convoy riders had taken white shoe polish and painted large white “X” marks on their windshields and windows—a special Sinaloa Cartel rite. On one level, the labeling simply kept the vehicles from mistakenly shooting at each other in the confusion of their blitzkrieg on the enemy camp. But there was also the “good cartel”’s publicity push. “Our personnel are completely identified. We have decided to label our trucks,” boasted a February announcement by the New Federation that the Sinaloa Cartel cobbled together. The frightened masses could now see which side they were supposed to be rooting for.

Thus arose the phrase “X-Squad” ( Comando Equis ). Evidently the first appearance of an X-Squad was in November 2009, in Sinaloa. By February, the X-marked convoys had been folded into the nationwide “New Federation” theme, as the Sinaloa Cartel joined other groups to form a mega-cartel, all the better to fight against the Zetas, the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, and the Juárez Cartel. The government, warring against them all, made a third leg in a complicated triangle.

“There’s a squad of commandos called ‘X,’” lilts a Mexican song on YouTube, eulogizing the Sinaloa Cartel attack convoys. “They’re cruising their turf, settling scores, getting even. / They’re in caravans of stolen cars. Even the license plates are hooded.” The lyricists know how to capture the frightening uncertainty: “Maybe they’re terrorists, like the Taliban—or the Sicilian mafia. / Who knows? Maybe they’re of the old type, maybe the new. / But they’re armed with pure suicide . . . ”

And ex-military personnel serving the drug cartels know about psychological warfare. El Chapo’s announcement of a New Federation, putting all the supposedly good cartels on one side and the forces of the devil on the other, sounds like Gandalf saving Middle Earth. New Federation street banners—“Clean Up Mexico!”—might be quaintly translated as: “Mass murder is the only way out.” Hauntingly, the insurrectional undertone lacks only the phrase “enemies of the people.” In the Gulf Coast port of Tampico, street banners and mass e-mails show how a Sinaloa Cartel ally, the Gulf Cartel, has franchised the message: “The Gulf Cartel is an organization dedicated only to the drug business. We would never do damage to the families of Tamaulipas or other [Mexican] states. . . . We will never involve ourselves with people who are living a normal life and who work honorably to support their family. . . . The orders are clear and concise: eliminate the members of the Zetas who betrayed us and are molesting the people, and all who have connections with them.”

That last phrase—“and all who have connections with them”—makes no apologies for the totalitarian echo.

The Zetas, meanwhile, are just as indiscriminate. It was apparently they who left messages attached to tortured corpses on July 25 and August 1 in border towns facing Texas, promising to kill all family members of enemies—for the sin of “letting themselves be used.” To drive home the point, the messengers slaughtered pets and put them atop slaughtered humans: two dogs in the town of Piedras Negras, in Nuevo Laredo a cat. And if the Zetas mowed down the seventy-two immigrants, as it appears they did, their coldness far exceeds anything yet publicly known in the drug war.

This would seem to make the Sinaloa Cartel sales pitch easy—except for some snags. The stream of seemingly impossible revelations from Mexico has included yet another massacre scandal, from the Mexican city of Torreón, far south of the border, where drugs are channeled north. On January 31 of last year, Torreón endured the first in a string of massacres looking much like Chihuahua in 2009, though Torreón’s climax, last summer, was more spectacular. On YouTube (a regular tool of the drug cartels), a horrific video was uploaded on July 22. It took Mexico by storm. A corrupt cop, bruised and swollen from obvious torture, was paraded before the camera by enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel, apparently Zetas. Naming names, the torture victim (who was then finished off by his tormentors) blurted out that the Torreón massacres had in fact been committed by the Sinaloa Cartel. And if this sounds like a worthless forced confession, there was another shoe to drop. The massacre killers of Torreón, said the agonized YouTube informant, not only worked for the Sinaloa Cartel but were based on untouchable ground, inside a nearby government prison, where the killers were inmates, happily let out at night to conduct their massacres using prison weapons and vehicles. With startling speed, Mexican federal authorities then swooped down on the prison and busted the warden and others. The government grimly announced that the “work-release massacre killers” were real. Ballistics tests on prison weapons were said to confirm it. The unanswered questions grew epidemic.

But this was all in the future on July 1, as a fifteen-year-old cartel cowboy rode toward reckoning at Dark Hill.

B eyond Tubutama, the convoy neared its target. Obviously, the Sinaloa Cartel commandos were counting on complete surprise—as other X-Squads had. The line of vehicles rushed heedlessly along a mountain road walled by deep cliffs, perfect for an ambush. There was no place for the convoy vehicles even to turn around, no road shoulder to maneuver on—bad news indeed when it turned out that the intended surprise had somehow been blown.

The long train of headlights entered an S-curve in the cliffs—and El Gilo’s local force from Dark Hill was waiting. Automatic-weapons fire poured down from the cliff tops—like something out of a war movie, according to a local resident. The X-marked Sinaloa Cartel vehicles—a red Ford truck, a black SUV, a plain gray family hatchback, and many others—were caught like fish in a barrel.

For a short while, just after dawn, reporters from nearby towns managed to scramble into the area, taking photos. Then government squads arrived, confiscated what film they could, and quarantined the battle area from public view. There were some brief announcements from the government, then silence. But some photos did get out, speaking loudly. Bodies were strewn around bullet-riddled vehicles, some with the doors wide open. Some riders apparently dived under their cars but were cut to pieces anyway. Some of the vehicles were left running, trembling patiently when found. A few of the wounded made it into the mesquite brush.

The dead were officially said to number twenty-one. No one much questioned this: whatever the real number, the point was made. All of the dead were apparently from the Sinaloa Cartel convoy, none from the other side. The Dark Hill ambushers had apparently left the scene without a scratch. The photos of the bodies also show uniforms—either army camouflage or police-squad black. Not to be outdone, the victorious force from Dark Hill was also said to wear uniforms—darker than regular army uniforms, unique to the outlaw’s roost.

It was a stunning victory, and a stunning setback for the Sinaloa Cartel and its push to be the arbiter of nationwide smuggling turf. The setback was apparently temporary, though: On July 29 another Sinaloa Cartel convoy came in just north of Dark Hill, used smarter tactics, and turned the tables—even if only symbolically. A couple of Dark Hill vehicles were burned. Three or four of its recruits were killed—perhaps more, the rumors go. At any rate, the double whammy of July 1 and July 29 brought in the Mexican Army in strength, and, as at other battle zones in Mexico, the army reclaimed the ground.

The photos from the big blowout on July 1 include one of a convoy passenger who somehow escaped the wall of gunfire from the cliffs. Perhaps he was blessed by a nearby image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which somebody, a long time ago, had managed to paint onto the smooth rock face of the highway cut, precisely at the ambush spot. The survivor was fifteen-year-old Ramón Mesa. The police found him, snapped him into handcuffs, and trucked him off to a cell, hundreds of miles away at the state capital. And then, as often occurs in this shadowy war, no further news emerged.

T he Dark Hill stronghold, only about twelve miles from the US border, now takes us back to the question: Do such areas, seeming to be tacitly ceded to outlaw rule, show that Mexico is a failed state? Just outside the zone, as near as twenty miles away, many Mexicans seem to see it this way, complaining that their government has abandoned the no-man’s-zone to the criminals. And for a while they had a point. In the first half of 2010, gang squads around Dark Hill and Tubutama were carjacking, roadblocking, burning, and killing with dismal regularity. But my trip showed that after the two big firefights on July 1 and July 29, government control was reasserted. The army checkpoint in the heart of the zone seemed to be working again. Patrols went far out in the desert, regularly. State Police outposts were set up to frame the area on three sides. At least for a moment, outlaw rule was put into remission.

The agony of Mexico is captured by no easy metaphor like “another Colombia”—let alone “another Somalia.” The signs of disintegration are dire, but alarmed observers often distort the picture.

“Don’t go into Cerro Prieto,” I was repeatedly told just outside its reach—but then another phrase was typically appended: “If you go in there, they will stop you and ask what your business is.” I thought I was misunderstanding this at first. What else would the drug monsters do?

“That’s all,” my local advisers said solemnly, unmoved by the absurdity of their words. “They’ll stop you and ask what you’re doing there, then they’ll let you go on.”

Sure enough, as my car moved under the remains of the suspension bridge at the black butte framing Cerro Prieto, a vehicle roared up. On its dashboard a police flasher strobed sternly, red-blue-red-blue. A smoked window rolled down, revealing a neatly clipped goatee between a red civilian tee shirt and a duckbill cap. “We are municipal police,” the voice announced, referring to silhouettes behind him, obscured by tinted windows in the pickup’s double cab. He fit the description of a local officer who people said tended to business for the Dark Hill renegades and their cartel backers, an allegedly corrupt cop known as Zorro.

Just as predicted, my business was being checked out. The fellow with the goatee examined my press card at length. Then he simply handed it back, saying, almost brightly: “Well, yes, very good. I think you should look around.” I was practically being welcomed into the notorious hellhole.

The sun-bleached streets of Dark Hill were as deserted as a tomb. A lone pedestrian walked toward me—a youth in the peculiar dark olive fatigues I had been told about—the Dark Hill uniform—but with his shirttail out and topped with what looked like a beret. I braced for a harsh interrogation. I hazarded a wave. He waved back—and kept walking.

With the army so close by, the bulk of the renegades were said to be hiding in the hills. “They come out and get together for their misdeeds [ fechorías ],” shrugged a soldier, “then they melt back to their homes.” “You mean like a militia?” I asked quizzically. “Yes!” he said, pleased by the comparison. “Exactly right, like a militia.”

He seemed not to ponder what this kind of image might suggest for Mexico’s future.

Dark Hill slept under rustling fan palms and the occasional dish antenna. Most of the populace was gone. Throughout the small settlements in this zone, the reactions to my presence became predictable: a vague smile, along with the assertion that the fighting, of course, had been in some other town, so of course one knew nothing.

Half a million people in Mexico are said to be involved in the trafficking underworld. In one estimate, the armed portion of this segment numbers one hundred thousand. This is a tiny fraction of the nation’s overall population of 111 million, but it has the guns. The storm clouds clear and shift, awaiting the next storm.

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