The rugged landscape of the Sierra Madre Occidental

An investigation by Mexican newspaper Rio Doce provides a rare look at the difficult life of marijuana farmers in the rugged mountains of Sinaloa.

After some initial difficulty, Miguel Angel Vega, a writer for the Sinaloa-based paper, was able to gain access to the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains located in the heart of the Golden Triangle, Mexico’s key drug producing region. The region, which spans three of Mexico’s 32 states, is known as the epicenter of marijuana and poppy production in the country. As Vega writes, the region’s rough terrain combined with the inherent danger of the job breeds hardy locals:

To live in the Sierra is to live in a constant state of neglect, where one is always “at the mercy of God." If you don't hunt a hare, deer or wild boar, there is hardly any meat to be had, unless you bring something with you from Culiacan. But besides the food, you also have to pay for electricity, oil, clothing, shoes and school supplies for the children; even though one can plant beans, squash and tomatoes, having money is essential to living there.

And yet there is no work to be had, no industry to create jobs, so it is difficult to stay afloat. And that is why locals continue to grow marijuana: despite encroaching signs of civilization like paved roads and electricity, it is the only product they can be sure will sell.

Upon arriving to the area with a guide, Vega sees that nearly all of the locals he met carried weapons, most often a “cuerno de chivo,” Mexican slang for an AK-47. According to locals, a gun is a necessary part of living in the Sierra, serving as protection from wild animals as well as one’s personal enemies. Much like settler communities in the days of the Wild West, bitter and sometimes violent rivalries are common between families in the isolated region, and can date back generations.

Despite their differences, Vega finds that locals share a detailed understanding of the intricacies of marijuana cultivation:

As with any other crop, marijuana requires a lot of care and dedication. From August to September, farmers undertake what is known as the "desmachadero” process, which consists of identifying the male marijuana plants in a plot and cutting them down to prevent pollination of the female marijuana plants. If this is not completed, the crop is ruined.

“If you leave the male plants, they produce these little balls, and these little balls release a dust that gets into the buds [of the female plant]. If that happens, instead of harvesting marijuana buds you harvest seed, and that's where the crop is ruined,” explains “Pancho,” a farmer that has a plot of more than 50 square meters.

Like him, every local tends to his own little plot, from a 14 year-old boy to a 70 year-old man. They help each other, and if one of them falls behind in their “desmachadero,” the rest of the campesinos get together to lend a hand.

If the “desmachadero” process is carried out successfully, and locals are lucky enough not to have their crop eradicated by soldiers in the meantime, the marijuana is ready to harvest about a month later, in mid-October.

The locals, Vega learns, are only allowed to sell their harvested plants to one buyer, referred to simply as “el señor.” They can make up to 800 Mexican pesos per kilo for high quality marijuana, and as little as 200 pesos per kilo if it has seeds. His curiosity piqued, Vega asks a campesino if this “señor” could be the Señor, Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman:

The campesino hesitates slightly before answering, looking around. Finally he explains that while the entire Sierra does in fact belong to Chapo, he is not the one who manages purchases. However the buyers surely knows Chapo, and probably sells all the product on to Chapo Guzman. This man is the one who picks up the grass, and only he knows where he takes it. We just plant it, and if we lose it or if the army destroys it, then there is no money.

As InSight Crime has noted, however, the Sinaloa Cartel's grip on the Sierra is not unchallenged. In recent months the rival Beltran Leyva Organization has been encroaching into the region in an attempt to increase their access to poppy and marijuana production. Human rights organizations say that the resulting violence has displaced as many as 25,000 rural Sinaloans.

The full article, in its original Spanish, is available at the Rio Doce website.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...