Nogales, Sonora: Firmly under the control of the Sinaloa cartel
I walk across the border into Nogales, Mexico for the first time on Sunday. The streets are jammed with cars, the narrow sidewalks crowded with people. Every handrail and curb is smeared with greasy filth. A warm, putrid smell hangs in the air. A week of rain wouldn’t hurt this place a bit, I thought.
The pharmacies welcome all foot traffic into Mexico, along with men offering taxis and women selling sweets. No English anywhere, one white person passes in front of me among the hundreds of Mexicans.
The tourism district of Nogales is dilapidated. I can’t even find a postcard for sale. When I do, a pharmacist in a dirty white lab coat hands me a shoebox full of faded cards and steps back while I thumb through them. The cards look like vintage reproductions. She seems relieved when I find one and had her pesos.
Inside a small café, three waitresses cackling in a huddle cease conversation when I walk in. I ask if I can eat lunch here and one gestures sweepingly toward the empty tables. Two disappear into the back of the restaurant while the third watches me as I read the chalkboard menu. No English. I order two chile rellenos and a Coca Cola.
The café is quiet, empty. It’s a Sunday afternoon in the spring, the temperature is perfect, and there’s not an American tourist in sight. I should be enjoying lunch, but the way that waitress is watching me, and her disquieted expression, leave something to be desired.
Cancun this place is not. Nogales is a border town, and it sits firmly in the grip of the Sinaloa cartel. Which, in some ways, is a good thing.
In 2009 and 2010, when the Sinoloa cartel and the Beltran Leyva drug-trafficking group were fighting for the Nogales territory, daytime shootouts were frequent and the casualties numbered dozens per incident. Since then, the dust has settled some. The Sinoloa cartel ‘prevailed’ and now controls the area, trafficking millions of pounds of narcotics into the US ever year.
The US Border Patrol intercepted more drugs in the Nogales area, known as the Tucson Sector, than in any other region along the southwest border. Last year, BP confiscated more than 1 million pounds of marijuana alone in the Tucson Sector. By some estimates, US law enforcement confiscates only five to 10 percent of incoming narcotics.
Being a hub for drug trafficking can hurt the tourist industry. And in Nogales, half as many people are moving through the port of entry as were four years ago. The murder rate for Nogales is significantly less than that of Juarez or Tijuana, but, according to a recent study, more than ten percent of visitors to Nogales experienced “problems” when there.
American tourists don’t often disappear in Nogales, but those meddling in the affairs of the Sinaloa cartel sometimes end up dissolved in 55-gallon drums of lye. The cash crop of Mexico assigns little value to human life.
After my uncomfortable lunch, I walk farther from the tourism district. As I’m passing a restaurant called Maria’s, a small, mustachioed man promoting the restaurant falls in beside me. He’s all smiles, walks with me, asks me how I am today.
“What are you doing in Mexico, amigo?” he asks. “Why have you come to Mexico?”
“Never been,” I say. “Thought I’d have a look.”
He asks me to sit with him, and we walk back to his restaurant. I order a coca cola and we watch the throngs of people flow by. His name is Julio, he speaks good English and was deported from Arizona about a year ago. He wants to help me, wants some US money.
“I don’t need anything,” I say. “Just glad to get off my feet for a bit and sit here.”
“You need something, and I can get it for you. You need a girl? I can get you pretty Mexican girl. No? Then drugs. You want drugs? I am your man.”
He’s very friendly, says the Coca Cola is on him. We talk about the US, and he wishes he were back there, says Nogales is a filthy town and that he’ll be moving to the beach when he gets enough money. Julio speaks suggestively to all attractive women that walk by.
A car drives by with two flat tires on the near side. The streets are chaotic, everybody honking and yelling. I thank Julio for the drink and walk back to Arizona.
The next day Julio is not working. I’m standing in front of the restaurant where I met him when a man working a street-side grill next to the restaurant says, “You came back.”
He’s older than Julio, says in clear English that Julio is off today. I ask him when Julio works again. He says he’s not sure and asks me, “Was he supposed to get you something?”
“Nope, just thought I’d come say howdy to him.”
I sit down at a table near the man at the grill, and we talk about the US. His name is Lorenzo, and he was deported two months prior. He’d lived in the US for 40 years, mostly in Fresno, California where he worked construction jobs. I tell him I’m working at ranch south of Phoenix for a week and thought I’d come to Mexico for a visit. I’m on vacation, and I tell him I’ll come back tomorrow for lunch.
To cross into Mexico, you go through a turnstile and walk past a small traffic light with a green light that reads ‘Pase’ and a red light that reads ‘Alto.’ A guard stands beside the light waiting for the Alto sign. I never saw the light turn red.
Coming into the US is a different story.
From the border entrance, a single-file line snakes south back toward the pharmacies. The people denied entrance to the US walk back through the line with downcast expressions. Middle-aged women pushing strollers, men who look like laborers, a young woman dressed like she’s going to a job interview. These people will not be entering the US today.
The Customs and Border Protection agents check my passport and let me back onto to US soil. A CBP agent idly watches traffic inching toward the checkpoints into Mexico. I briefly interrupt him to tell him what I’m up to. I tell him whom I work for and that I’d like to talk to a Mexican cop about drug smuggling along the border. He says my best bet might be to ask the Mexican Consulate in Nogales, Arizona if they can help.
The consulate is one of the nicer, more modern buildings in Nogales, Arizona. But the people there are not glad to see me. When I tell the front desk secretary that I’m writing a story about border drugs she steps back from me and gives me a concerned look. She says that I’ll need to speak with the consulate himself and asks for my business card. I hand her my card, which is a thin piece of stainless steel dye-cut to break into a shiv. She’s clearly not impressed with the card.
The consulate comes out and is a well-dressed man with a gray mustache. He’s wearing a purple necktie and a light blue shirt. He hands me my business card and asks me to explain why I’ve come to Nogales. When I finish, he has a concerned look on his face.
“When have no interaction or association with Mexican law enforcement,” he says. “We don’t want any, either. We travel back and fourth across the border many times a day, and it is too dangerous for us to have any connection with law the police in Mexico.”
He basically tells me to go back to my home in Colorado, that’s it’s too dangerous for me to be asking such questions, and that I should forget the story about drugs on the border. The consulate cannot help me. I ask him if he has any personal friends in Mexico he could contact.
“You are not hearing me,” he says. “This is too dangerous for you and for us. I am afraid we cannot help you. Have a nice day.”
Well, I thought, so much for the consulate. In truth, I was ready to be done with Mexico. The place was dirty as hell. I didn’t like the stares and looks I drew on the street. There seemed a tension in the air. As a tourist, the place was uninviting. As a journalist, the place seemed like a high-risk environment.
Later that afternoon, I return to Mexico. Lorenzo is cleaning his grill, and I sit for lunch. He is glad to see me, seems to enjoy talking about the US. Time to talk about drugs and cops, I think.
Lorenzo says that Nogales is dangerous for white Americans only if they go into nightclubs or mix with the wrong crowd. Be careful after dark, he says, and don’t go too far from the well-armed police in the border district.
He says that the cops always respond quickly but often do little to enforce the law. When somebody calls the police, 30 or 40 officers will show up with lights and guns and trucks. Arrests are infrequent, and Lorenzo thinks the cops are scared to arrest people for fear of their own lives.
“They [the cartels] are killing people,” he says. “They don’t care. They have made this a bad place.”
Firearms are generally illegal in Mexico. There are only two gun shops in the whole country, yet many people own guns. On New Year’s Eve, Lorenzo says that for a full two minutes there’s a constant volley of gunfire into the night sky. Thousands of rounds of ammo shot, he says, and the cops do nothing. There’s just not much they can do, he says.
He also says there’s no reason for a white American to go to jail in Mexico.
If someone is caught with marijuana, he should expect to pay the cop about $300. For cocaine, it’ll cost about $500. For crystal methamphetamine, $1,000 will keep you out of a Mexican prison.
“So how much will a pound of marijuana cost me?” I ask.
“Is it easy to get? How long to get it?”
“You wait here, I’ll have it five minutes. Easy to get. All over down here. I can get it for you in Arizona, too, but it will cost more.”
“How much more?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I can find out, but it will take more time. It’s easier to get it here. I can get you good product here.”
A week ago, I was with law enforcement officers in Arizona when they intercepted 1,000 pounds of marijuana worth $500 in Phoenix. That same product is worth $2,500 in Hartford, Connecticut. I tell Lorenzo that I think $125 is a good price. He nods, raises his eyebrows. There’s money to be made.
Some people come to eat at the grill, and the conversation is paused. I drink my Coca Cola, try to inconspicuously take a few photos with my iPhone. The people leave, and we’re alone again.
“How bold are you?” That’s the question I’ve been waiting for.
“Depends,” I say. “What you got in mind?”
“If you walk three blocks down from the border gate,” he says and points in the direction he’s talking about, “you’ll see an old abandoned swing set near the fence. No one ever uses it. Right there, you are below the camera, they can’t see you, and you can throw it over.”
“Throw it over? I throw it over and then go get it, or I park my truck there, or…”
“I’ll throw it for you. You wait for me.”
Lorenzo says he gets off work in a few hours and can help then. He tells me to go find the swing set and come back when he’s finished working. I tell him I’ll check it out and will return at dark to buy him a beer.
At the tall iron border fence I walk in the direction Lorenzo suggested. I walk for a few blocks and see no swing set. I’m out of the tourist district, walking down typical Latin American streets. An old Ford station wagon with five young men in it slows down as it passes me. There is no swing set, the light is fading. Flood lights along the border fence will be turned on shortly. Forget the swing set, I tell myself, and I turn back for the US.
If Lorenzo wants to think he can operate ‘under’ the border cameras, I’ll let him. If he thinks he can throw a pound of marijuana or a kilo of cocaine over the fence and nobody will see him do it, I’ll let him think that. For me, I’d learned that drugs are prevalent along the border, that they’re a lot cheaper than in the US, and that you can get in the business for the price of a few Coca Colas. But cutting into the Sinaloa cartel’s profits was something I had little interest in.
To read a thorough investigation of the Sinaloa cartel that appeared in the New York Times, click HERE.