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."