A crime scene in Sonora, Mexico

Contralinea magazine reviews testimony from protected witnesses about working as hitmen for the Sinaloa Cartel, painting a picture of life in the tightly-disciplined Mexican drug trafficking organization.

The testimony is taken from an Attorney General’s Office 2011 case file on a Sinaloa Cartel hitman boss in the northwestern state of Sonora, seen by Contralinea. The protected witnesses quoted in the file include an alias “Victoria,” who states that he joined an enforcer gang for the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gente Nueva, in November 2009. The group was charged with ejecting members of rival groups the Zetas and the Beltran Leyva Organization from several “plazas” in Sonora state, including the cities of Nogales, Santa Ana and Hermosillo. “The instruction was to kill them all,” Victoria is quoted as saying.

Victoria states that it was strategically vital for the Sinaloa Cartel to control the drug and arms trafficking trades in this territory, adding that the group received arms shipments from the US Border Patrol in Nogales. He describes going to the city to pick up 30 WASR-10 rifles -- a cheap knock-off of the AK-47 known colloquially in Mexico as “cuernos de chivo,” or “goat’s horn,” due to its curved magazine. The Sinaloa Cartel cell in Sonora also had an operative based in Tucson, Arizona, responsible for securing weapons for the organization, according to the report.

Such weapons were used in the Sinaloa Cartel’s assault on its rivals. Victoria describes several gun battles in late 2009 and the first half of 2010, usually involving giant convoys of vehicles ranging from 20 to 80 trucks, each one carrying five or six cartel operatives. These battles lasted anywhere between two hours and three days, and kept small rural towns like Saric, Sonora, in a virtual state of siege, in which residents could not even venture outside to buy food for fear of being shot. During one confrontation, the Sinaloans painted their vehicle convoy with "X"s in order to distinguish them from the rival group.

According to the article, Victoria was paid $6,000 a month to work for the cartel, and earned an additional $50 for every aerial shipment of cocaine that arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico, from the Sinaloa Cartel’s contacts in Colombia and Costa Rica.

The report also sheds light on some of the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug trafficking activities in northern Mexico. Another protected witness, alias “Zenya,” describes the coordination of marijuana smugglers known as “burreros.” Burreros worked in groups of 12, and each member was paid $1,000 to smuggle marijuana from Nogales into the US. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The Contralinea report paints a picture of the Sinaloa Cartel as a business franchise as organized as McDonald's, with each player assigned a specific role. Responsibilities range from protecting marijuana shipments to buying off the local authorities and handling key logistics, such as making sure that the hitmen receive their salaries on time.

Some of Victoria's most striking assertions are that the cartel bought their weapons in Arizona, and relied on corrupt US Border Patrol agents to traffic weapons for them. The allegations of corruption within the Border Patrol are nothing new -- two agents went to trial this year for participating in a human smuggling scheme. Arizona, a state with one of the most lax gun laws in the United States, is also a well-documented source of weapons for Mexican criminal organizations, who use middlemen, or "straw buyers," to purchase the guns on their behalf, which are then smuggled back to Mexico

The Contralinea report also sheds light on one of the main causes of friction within drug trafficking organizations: operatives that go rogue. Another protected witness quoted in the article, alias “Lucero,” describes tensions that arose within the Beltran Leyva Organization in mid-2009 after one operative, Jose Vazquez Villagrana, alias “Jabali” or “Java,” starting charging other criminal organizations, like the Familia Michoacana, for every kilo of drugs trafficked through his territory in Sonora, without the permission of his bosses. The Beltran Leyva leadership threatened to kill Jabali, who then switched sides and began working for the Sinaloa Cartel. Such incidents -- in which internal operatives keep drug shipments or trafficking revenue for themselves, without the consent of their higher-ups -- are a common cause of deadly friction within drug trafficking organizations from Mexico to Colombia.

The report also illustrates the Sinaloa Cartel's reliance on corrupt local authorities to carry out successful operations. At one point Victoria describes the duties of another cartel operative, who was responsible for paying off the municipal police, state police, transport police, and federal police who conduct helicopter patrols, in order to ensure the safe travel of marijuana shipments through Sonora. It is also made clear that these co-opted authorities frequently become casualties in the cartel wars. Victoria describes one incident in which he was ordered to dig up the bodies of two municipal police officers, killed for their allegiance to the Beltran Leyva Organization. The bodies were reburied somewhere in Sonora "between two cactus and a mezquite."

Investigations

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

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges...

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...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

  Drugs Extortion Criminal Cash Flows Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy. Unlike their paramilitary and drug cartel predecessors, the BACRIM maintain a diversified...

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...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network. The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense...

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.

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...

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

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...