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Cartel, Culture, and City: The Context of Failed Policy

Juan Carlos Ayala Barrón

The events of October 17, 2019 which rocked the city of Culiacán were, perhaps, the most indelible framework in a year in which violence appeared to be knocking the government down. However, beyond changing the perceptions of the public with regard to national security and organized crime, a reaffirmation was made, therein, of what had been a part of the daily zeitgeist for decades already: the strength of criminal groups, the complicity of the local authorities, the corruption that existed between the two, the civil connections, the social support for the criminal groups involved in drug trafficking, and the configuration of a culture around drug trafficking which is now referred to as “narco-culture.”

Nonetheless, the events of that day were not isolated ones. They occurred in an historical, social, cultural, and economic context which has been built up in this region across the past several decades.

Beginning in the 1940s, the farming of mind-altering substances such as poppies and marijuana proliferated. This activity spread across a great part of the territory of the state of Sinaloa. Closed relationships of identity were built around it, primarily based in family units and communities, as the illegal nature of the activity itself required this.

By the 1970s, the trafficking of drugs had spread into most of the state, bringing with it the creation of certain cultural constructs based around the groups who performed this work; in other words, a very specific nucleus of identity was emerging, which appeared in various fields of Sinaloa’s culture, such as music, mannerisms, architecture (both of residences and cemeteries), along with a form of specific religious faith, as the figure of Malverde (the “generous bandit” of the early 20th century) had been adopted, beginning in the 1970s, as the patron saint of drug traffickers.

Massive, unusual homes were owned by drug traffickers, set apart from the rest of the population by their enormous size. A cemetery appeared in the Jardines del Humaya graveyard, to the south of the city, with graves built like grandiose mausoleums, including kitchenette, bathrooms, bedrooms, and air-conditioned living rooms, equipped with video surveillance systems.

Singers and musical groups emerged who dedicated their lyrics and music to the achievements and deaths of well-known figures in the world of drug trafficking in Sinaloa. Some examples of these include Chalino Sánchez, Los Tigres del Norte, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and more recently, Movimiento Alterado, which brings thirty musicians together just to sing songs to the Sinaloa Cartel.

What occurred in the world of criminal subculture was reproduced among the youth of Culiacán as well, as many of them had the same tastes, fashion, luxuries, and lifestyles, even if they were not involved in drug trafficking. Many of them also boasted about the drug traffickers’ style of violence.

As a result, a form of culture developed which was connected to drug trafficking and was very deeply-rooted among the youth, permeating all of the social spheres of our state.

As if this were not enough, for some time now an animosity toward federal forces has been observed, due to the fact that for decades now, the military has launched incursions in communities and has perpetrated countless abuses, plunders, arrests, and executions, which have established the military, in the collective memory, as an institution that violates human rights.

In order to explain, a bit, this discontent with our national security forces, we must recall that the military’s actions against drug trafficking throughout the 1970s and subsequently, were brutal in terms of the physical damages inflicted upon the residents of Sinaloa’s rural communities, bringing about discontent among the members of said communities, who were linked to each other not only by friendship, but by blood as well. They became communities that were on the defensive, but even so, they still continued to preserve their open and frank nature, although many of them modified forms and mechanisms aimed toward the production and trafficking of narcotics, with more discrete disruptive practices. In this way, the disrepute of the State as a regulatory institution progressed proportionally in relation to the strengthening of criminal groups in the state. This activity of the informal economy, as any source of work, produced a significant economic apportionment and a broad network of family and community complicity, supported by the social and cultural ties among the population.

In this context, it is not difficult to understand the gleeful admiration shown toward the posture of those gunmen who defended Ovidio Guzmán on October 17. Although the people of Culiacán were seized by panic for a few hours, social media then accumulated countless critiques of the federal government. The idea of a poorly-planned operation filled the minds of the people, one with deficient military personnel for an action of this nature, as it involved one of the leaders of the still-powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

The operation provoked an immediate reaction among hundreds of young gunmen who were associated with this group. While official figures referred to eight hundred of them, in reality there were many more. Evidence uploaded at the time of the events showed an uncertain number of additional young people who were waiting for orders to come in from the north or south of the state to the site of the events, or to block highways or access points—including the airport, if necessary.

For many people, the battle had been won, quite literally, as they came to see this operation as a clash between the military and “our people”—the Sinaloa Cartel’s people. In fact, the young people involved were residents of the marginal neighborhoods of the city, and of surrounding towns, whose families represented a community link shared by many of us.

It is thus no accident that, at least as concerns the young people involved with organized crime, they viewed the events of October 17 as a great blow struck against the system that had so broadly criminalized them, to the point of imprisoning their highest leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, with a life sentence. The phrase aimed at intimidating the system was spread in a matter of minutes: “Sinaloa will burn, Sonora and many other states will burn if you don’t let him go.” It was a challenge that brought immediate results: within four hours, they had managed to free the detained individual. The military and the federal government were quickly discredited.

These events suggest several points:

First. The context in which drug trafficking activity has taken place for years was shown: a narco-culture which provides for the contentment and complicity of a significant part of Sinaloan society, through drug trafficking and the profits derived therefrom. This also shows something that was obvious to many Sinaloans: if this phenomenon exists in a deeply rooted way, it is due to the fact that drug trafficking makes up a part of the daily life of our communities, and it comes to represent a great source of benefits and protection for many people, providing them with resources and benefits which the government should be providing to them. This is significant, as it should be stated that, almost in entirety, the young gunmen are of local, Sinaloan roots, which makes it possible to speak of a closeness between them and the population based on family, friendship, and community. On several occasions, they are protected and hidden from any pursuers. They are not turned in, for two main reasons: because people know them, or simply because they are known to be a part of the community that brings aid.

It is estimated that over 150,000 Sinaloans have some direct relationship with drug trafficking and with drug traffickers. For this reason, we can imagine the dimensions of the moral framework in which the phenomenon develops and how, based on this, it also structures its own identity, the characteristics and meanings of which leave their mark on the collective consciousness of Sinaloans.

Second. The leaders of drug trafficking in Sinaloa are assumed to be the great alternative authority in Sinaloa, with a strategy of control, expansion, and consolidation throughout nearly all the state’s territory, with lookout people, drug distributors, laboratories, fields of crops, control of jails, and communities where there is practically no military power capable of counteracting them.

Third. An operational capacity for deploying the armed forces of the Sinaloa Cartel, and the frequent use of networks, to quickly disseminate the strategies for defense and attack among its members.

Fourth. The Sinaloa Cartel’s armed response to the operation on October 17 represented an additional warning, in demonstrating their capacity of responding to any incursion into the state, be it by military forces or by any other cartel in the nation. The demonstration of their firepower given by the criminal organization of Sinaloa on that day, against the military, would serve to show any outside criminal group what they would be up against, in the event that they should attempt to seize control of this territory.

Fifth. The capacity and efficacy of digital media was demonstrated for disseminating video recordings and photographs, as well as messages and audio recordings that were posted on social media and circulated immediately, in real time, showing their power as a vehicle of information with a high social impact.

Following this framework of interconnected implications and complications surrounding the events of a day that rocked the nation, the cultural and ethical motivations of the same stand out on their own. There can be no effective strategy, when a significant sector of the population meets a great deal of their needs through illegal activity, when the companies of various areas obtain high income and, on occasion, live from it, and when a simulation exists of actions from the public sphere against lawbreakers.

The alarming wave of executions related to organized crime over the past decades demonstrates the loss of the ethics in the lives of many Sinaloans, but also the increasingly unstructured of the public sector, established in a history of social discontent, of longstanding corruption, and above all, of recurring extreme poverty that functions as fertile soil for illegal activity.

Drug trafficking has created its own devices to enter into various areas of life in Sinaloa, achieving supporters, incorporating itself into the regular economy through money laundering, creating mechanisms of identity, and also creating its own distinctive signs of identity, which have been then incorporated into the traditional, legitimate culture which it permeates. We are currently suffering from the risk, in our culture, of being unable to clearly delimit the boundaries of identity in the collective imagination, which include those that correspond to drug trafficking.


Juan Carlos Ayala Barrón is a Professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa. He has written extensively about narcotrafficking and regional culture.

This project is a joint effort between the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the Noria Mexico-Central America program, and Revista Espejo.

La versión en español se encuentra aquí

Click here for a PDF version of this project in English. Para el PDF en español da click aquí

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