Monday, September 19, 2011

¡Semana Culiacana!

[Ed. Note: In Sept 2011, we went on a reporting trip to Culiacán, Sinaloa, with a team from National Geographic - the reporter Mariana Van Zeller and a producer who happened to be our uncle. We had nothing to do with the story, but went along at our own expense because we felt we owed it to our uncle to bear witness to his beheading at the hands of cartel hitmen. Fortunately (depending on our mood), that didn't happen, and instead we had a lot of fun and eventually wrote up some silly blog posts.  These have proven weirdly popular and, since they appeared over a period of half a year,  difficult to find.  So we've consolidated them all below.  You can see the finished documentary here.]

[Ed. Note #2: This posting is in no way affiliated with any other media entity which may or may not employ us, and all opinions and salty language are ours and ours alone.] 


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Sept 19, 2011

For years now we've been complaining about the way the media depicts Mexico as some sort of salsa-scented killing field, though our argument usually breaks down to, "yeah, there's some crazy shit, but there are a lot of safe parts, too, like where we live." So last week, having finally gotten some down time around here, we decided to spend the week in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa and home to the eponymous drug cartel, and where the murder rate is 87 times higher than Querétaro's, to see some of that crazy shit for ourselves. Needless to say, if we've lived to write about it here, it can't really have been that crazy, can it?

Via GeoMexico

We went there with an American TV channel we won't name - partly out of discretion, since we weren't officially part of the crew [all commentary and opinions expressed herein are solely those of Burro Hall Enterprises, S.A. and its affiliates, and in no way represent, etc, etc...], and partly because we, uh, "forgot" to give them back their laminated press pass, which might as well be made of solid freakin' gold. Seriously, we could walk into Gov. Calzada's house with this thing and make out with his daughter, and no one would dare ask any questions. Writing about this stuff while we were there seemed like a bad idea (we're not complete idiots), so all this week we'll be bringing you the posts we would have writing for you last week.

We'll start off with a non-Culiacán digression: there seems to be a new rule in all Mexican airports that the plastic trays in which you place your laptop, keys, phones, change, etc., are now kept outside of the security area. So what happens now is that you show your boarding pass, then walk over to the pile of trays, and then, because you only have two hands and are already carrying two bags, tuck a couple of trays under your arm and head to security, only to be told, no, Señor, you must fill the trays here. Which you do, and then have to struggle with a tray in each hand and your backpack over your shoulder, while kicking your suitcase ahead of you, into the security area, which is nice and roomy because all those trays have been moved outside. We know it's not a big thing, and we're only reinforcing the notion that gringos will bitch about absolutely everything, but it just makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Okay. Thanks for listening.

Anyway, Culiacán is a short two-hour flight from Mexico City, near (but not on) the Sea of Cortez, and it is without a doubt the most humid place we've ever been. Usually, when people talk about the perils of living in Sinaloa, we'd assumed they were talking about the violence, but they could just as easily have been referring to the weather. On our second day there, we soaked through our belt. We were not aware this was physically possible. And the overwhelming amount of moisture in the air makes it impossible for anything - like, say, gringo perspiration - to evaporate. By the time we left, our laundry bag reeked of ammonia. We're surprised they even let us carry it onto the airplane.

This is just the first of several Culiacán-related posts this week, so we'll leave you with this first glimpse of Culiacán Airport. Despite being large enough to land a 747, the tarmac looks like a Cessna dealership. Row after row of two-seat, single-engine, radar-evading prop planes. We wonder what on Earth they could be used for.









SUSHINALOA
Sept 19, 2011

The temperature in Culiacán was consistently in the high 90s, and when you factored in the extreme humidity, you get a heat index (sort of the opposite of wind chill factor) reading of about 115°F, which is clearly in the meteorological danger zone. And so under those conditions, your first thought if you're a Sinaloense is, "Man, I'd love me some sushi!" And once you've committed yourself to that, why not eat it outdoors, on the side of a four-lane highway?


This picture was taken early in the morning, so you'll just have to take our word for it that we saw it open on other occasions. Because, honestly, we just couldn't make up something that depraved.


THE SHINING
Sept 20, 2011

If you're a municipal police comandante in Culiacán, just getting a shoeshine involves a serious expenditure of man-hours and other resources.


The reverse angle:


Our local reporter explained that the comandante probably earns about 7,000 pesos ($600) a month. That struck us a kind of low for a job that requires an entourage of six heavily-armed deputies to get a shoeshine at 8AM on a Thursday. 

"Well yeah, that's why they all do some other work on the side, if you know what I mean." 

Sure. But wasn't one of the perks of working for the gangs[*] a certain level of protection against getting iced while having your boots shined?

"Yes, but only from that gang. Not from the gangs that you're not working for."

We're speaking generally. We assume the comandante pictured here is an absolute paragon of virtue.


REGIONAL ASPECTS
Sept 20, 2011

One thing everyone should know about the staff of Burro Hall is that we're tremendous cowards in just about every way imaginable, but especially physically. So it was somewhat unnerving before heading to Culiacán to have so many Mexicans (admittedly, Mexicans who live in cozy, safe, Querétaro) try to talk us out of it. A couple of days before we left, we received from the tv channel we were going with a copy of their Medivac airlift information, kidnap procedures, and something called a Global Rescue card, which we were supposed to cut out and keep in our wallets, where they would magically make all trouble disappear.


We called the producer of the shoot and, trying not to seem at all concerned, casually asked what sort of security arrangements had been made. (Aside from being a pack of pasty-faced gringos, we would be carrying tens of thousands of dollars in equipment.) 

"It's all cool - we're hooking up with a couple of local print reporters there."

Really? What, were there no snitches available to show us around? Just a couple of days earlier, Mexico had surpassed Iraq as the most dangerous place for journalists on Earth (though none from Culiacán had been slaughtered in at least, um, two weeks). The company's idea of security was to take a couple of these walking targets and put them in our car. 

We flew into Sinaloa with the Mexican sound engineer, who explained to us that if we were to get shot, it would most likely be by accident, from a stray bullet. This was something less that comforting since, from what we had heard, there were quite a few of those. Ultimately, he said, the narcos don't target Americans "because you are the paying customers." We hadn't actually bought any drugs here in Mexico, and all our US suppliers are 100% American, but that apparently didn't matter. We were covered, the beneficiaries of our countrymen's insatiable hunger for intoxicants! It was like the best mileage-rewards program in the history of the world.

But wait...what about Americans with tv cameras asking questions about the narcos?

"Oh, yes, well, I suppose there's that."

We'll probably just ruin the end of the story right now and say that everything turned out to be fine, the people couldn't have been nicer and, as far as we were aware, no one shot at us. That's not to say there weren't a few menacing moments. If you work in tv long enough, you get used to people coming up to you on the street and asking what you're doing, and Culiacán was no different. But where most people mean it like, "So, you're making some kind of tv show?" people in Culiacán tended to ask it without smiling: "What are you doing?" The upcoming Independence day festivities gave us a handy excuse, but no one was buying it. "Yes, Independence Day... but what are you doing in Culiacán?" Points for self-awareness, at least. It fell again to the Mexican sound guy to construct the bulletproof response: "We are doing aspects of what is happening regionally in Mexico." We asked him is this was any less nonsensical in Spanish, and he assured us it was not. Most people found the answer satisfying.


CROSS TO BEAR
Sept 21, 2011

On the evening of May 9, 2008, three trucks loaded with fifteen gunmen drove into the parking lot City Club supermarket in Culiacán and went all Sonny-at-the-tollbooth on Édgar Guzmán López, ("apparently to the surprise of his security detail," as La Jornada magnificently put it), killing him and two companions, injuring a fourth person and shooting up about 20 vehicles.  Édgar was the son of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, so killing him was a bad idea for all the obvious reasons (his two companions were both second-generation narcos as well).  "They made a mother cry," Chapo is said to have told Édgar's mother.  "I will make many mothers cry."  Chapo went on to make good on that promise.

But Chapo is not without his sentimental streak, and he directed his underlings to erect a small, understated monument to Édgar marking the spot where he died - well, small and understated unless you consider it's in the middle of a supermarket parking lot, in which case it might be considered sort of gaudy and obtrusive.  We drove past it at least three times in the middle of the week, and never saw a car parked within 100 feet of it.  Would you want to be the poor fucker who accidentally backs into it?  We also never saw the Bridgestone AutoCenter open.  We assume it's been closed since May 10, 2008.  If you've got a problem with your brakes, this seems like the worst conceivable place to try to steer your piece of shit Nissan Tsuru.  


But so being a tv crew, we got out and started to shoot pictures in the middle of the empty parking lot.  Suddenly, a young man appeared (literally out of nowhere - it was like he'd dropped from the sky) and said we could shoot it, but not touch it.

Um... okay.  And not that it's any of our business of course, but who might you be?

"I guard the monument."

He doesn't work for the developer or the supermarket or the Bridgestone AutoCenter.  He's one of three guys, each working an eight-hour shift, whose entire job is to stare at a granite cross in the middle of a supermarket parking lot 24 hours a day, seven days a week, weekends, holidays and drive-by shootings included, and make sure nobody -nobody - fucking touches it.  (He's also the softy of the group, telling us that the other guys wouldn't have let us film, but he's cool with it as long as we don't touch; we predict he'll be boiled in acid by the end of the year.)  We immediately thought of about 50 questions we wanted to ask -Do you get bathroom breaks..? - but decided it best to shut up, finish our work and leave.  Which we did by hugging the van to the perimeter of the parking lot and giving the monument as wide a berth as possible.


DON'T SHOOT THE ACCORDION PLAYER
Sept 22, 2011

On the afternoon of the Grito, we visited the home of a guy in Culiacán who writes narcocorridos - basically, gangsta rap for accordion, extolling the virtues of whichever hardass commissioned the tune. He charges $1,000 per corrido, and judging by the very modest house he still lives in with his family, he's probably written less than a dozen over the years. The family has a small grocery store in the front of their house, and as we pulled up a municipal cop was leaning against the counter, chatting amiably with the guy's dad. We went in and set up in the service patio, surrounded by drying laundry, and listened to his Corrido del Chapo Guzmán and a few others.


We're groping for a delicate way to put this, but... the brother was really not very good. His voice was okay, and the lyrics were of the usual "His pistol is loaded/ And so are his balls / And he'll drink from the skulls of his enemies..." variety. [Note to Simon Cowell: we just made up that lyric on the spot.] But his accordion skills were on par with this kid's. To be clear, though, this just makes us dig the guy even more. In an art form where a bad review can mean blood on your dashboard, it takes some serious cojones to not bother to practice your instrument.


After a few songs he cut the performance short because he had to get ready to play at an Independence Day party that night. As we didn't have any evening plans, we asked if we could come with him. He just laughed. The host of the party (he said) was Ismael Zambada-Garcia, aka El Mayo, one of the biggest drug lords in Mexico. Assuming that was true, we suppose it's kind of interesting that one of the most wanted men in Mexico (with a $5 million price on his head from the FBI) is still living in Culiacán (or at any rate, a short ride from this guy's house) and is comfortable enough to throw an Independence Day party, with security lax enough that the entertainment is comfortable telling an American tv crew what his plans are. 

We said our goodbyes out in the street as he climbed into the car that would take him to El Mayo's place. The police officer out front had wandered off by then.


DAY OF THE DEAD
Sept 23, 2011

One of the first places we went in Culiacán was the Jardines del Humaya Cemetery, where the casualties of the drug war go to live large after they're dead. You can tell you're getting close when you pass the flower shop named after Jesús Malverde, the so-called patron saint of narcotraffickers. Open 24 hours, because you never know when you might have to hastily bury a body.


One of the first things you notice at Humaya are the weatherproof plastic banners flying over some of the more modest graves. It seems to be that if someone can't really afford to really bling out their tombstone, their family will erect a brightly-colored photographic tribute. Since these wind up on the cheaper graves and the cheaper graves are all lumped together, the effect is sort of like the world's most depressing MySpace page.


Wandering around the graves for a while, we started to wonder if Humaya was restricted to men between the ages of 18 and 39, but in fact they just make up an insanely disproportionate share of the city's dead.


"When I die, bury me under an image of my Jeep Grand Cherokee with the 23-inch rims!"

The kid on the right may be dead, but he's throwin' gang signs in Heaven.

One thing they should probably teach wanna-be hard guys on their first day of Narco Orientation is: If you think there is even a remote chance you're going to die in a hail of bullets someday, make sure your family has at least one really good picture of you.

Wrong:

Right:
The super-awesome part of this one is that, if you look at the dates on the cross (1907-1989), it's pretty clear this isn't even this guy's grave.  He just moved in.  Because that's the way this shit goes down. You got a problem with that, old man? I didn't think so.

We realize it's not just a kid's cartoon, but the SpongeBob mausoleum is still probably going to seem regrettable after a few years.

But the reason to visit Humaya (if you're a pack of gringo journalists, anyway), is to gawk at the so-called narco-mausoleums, clustered together in the closest thing the dead have to a gated community. Most of these places are bigger than our first apartment.


Some are bigger than our current abode.

The person who lives here is dead.

These places tend to have some combination of the following: airconditioning, bulletproof glass, purified water, satellite tv, parking, kitchenettes and other things you wouldn't imagine a dead guy needing. (We assume most of these amenities are for visitors rather than the dead, but if we were ever to be buried in Culiacán, we'd at the very least insist on airconditioning, and possibly a dehumidifier. Eternity is a long time.)

AC units.

Most lack a name on the outside, but contain little (or not so little) shrines to the occupants.



This one was decorated for Independence Day.


But while most of the Mexican economy has slowed over the past couple years, burying Sinaloan men in their 20s and 30s is a booming business. Luckily there's a lot of empty land on the back end for it to grow into.





DOPE AND DEAD PRESIDENTS
Sept 28, 2011

[""Semana Culiacana" continues this week...]

If you're entering Culiacán from the mountainous outskirts, there's a toll plaza with a sign that says "We Only Accept Mexican Currency." This seems odd at first, since the US border is about 500 miles away, and there's hardly a lot of cruise ship tourists wandering in. But out in the mountains there's a considerable amount of, um, "alternative agriculture" taking place, and that's a cash business. And because the Mexican drug cartels are financed almost entirely by American citizens, that cash tends to be crisp, unmarked, non-sequential $100 bills - which is, ironically, worthless around these parts. So there's a steady stream of "farmers" riding into town with a fat wad of Benjamins in their pockets, looking to turn them into pesos. And apparently, they often forget to bring change for the tollbooth.

The Calderón administration has implemented a bunch of new rules aimed at curbing money laundering, so the farmers can't exactly come rolling into their local bank and deposit the money. So a thriving underground money-changing network has sprung up. And by "underground," we mean "right out in the open" - located along the length of Benito Juárez Ave.


Every few feet there's a woman on a stool, under a beach-sized umbrella, with a male goon standing next to her for protection. The cars drive up, the dollars come out, pesos go in, and the car drives off, without any of the yucky paperwork a legitimate enterprise might require. Every now and then the cops pretend to do their job and raid the place, but that basically amounts to what the Mafia calls "taxation."

We of course wanted to film all this, but it didn't seem especially wise, given the number of people involved. We manged to talk our way onto a neighbor's roof (as we said, these press passes: solid goddamn gold) to get some wide shots, which of course resulted in us being spotted. Within a few minutes a very friendly, extremely well-endowed young lady came over, goon in tow, and very politely asked us what we were doing. We gave the usual spiel about "regional aspects," which she swallowed. She really couldn't have been nicer. We asked gently if she thought anyone would mind if we came to Juárez Ave with the camera, and she said they probably wouldn't want to have their pictures taken because "mostly what we're doing is laundering narcotrafficking money." We told her that was a pretty good reason.

Later on, just for laughs, we rolled down the street shooting out the window of the moving van. Turns out our amiga was right: no one was excited to have their pictures taken.






THE OTHER JESUS 
Oct 5, 2011

(Semana Culiacana enters its third week, a testament to that Mexican efficiency we're always talking about...)Culiacán is home to the shrine to Jesús Malverde, a legendary, possibly fictional, Robin-Hoodesque bandito who is basically the secular saint of the narco business. (You can read more about him here. No, sorry... here.)



Anyway, Malevrde is not really a saint, per se, but a lot of people here pray to him and ask him for stuff. Inside the shrine is another, smaller shrine, like a Russian nesting doll or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where people go to kneel and... well, whatever they're saying is between them and St. Jesús.


"Don't check my bags, if you please, Mr. Customs Man..."

Those who can't make it in person can send a surrogate to leave a candle or a photo or a scrap of paper like at the Wailing Wall.  JM works in mysterious ways.




But the Malverde shrine isn't all about saying please, it's about saying thank you as well.  The walls are covered with appreciative testimonials to the Big Guy's miracle-workings.


"Thanks for getting me out of jail!" - Francisco Javiar Loaiza

Querétaro in da house!

The caretakers of the shrine insist it has nothing to do with drug trafficking, and that's probably true in a lot of cases - Malverde's sort of the saint-of-last-resort for a lot of people who have been failed by the celestial elite. But there are more than a few offerings there like this one, which seems to be begging for, or celebrating, a bountiful harvest.


At least they don't do fireworks at sunrise.


BOOM BOOM, OUT GO THE LIGHTS
Oct 12, 2011

Yikes! Semana Culiacana is running way behind schedule. Sorry about that. Anyway, having done several posts about how safe (if a bit creepy) the town was, we should probably point out that there were 18 murders the week we were there. (Querétaro, which is about the same size, had zero.) But of course these things never seem to happen when you're standing around with a tv camera, so the closest we got was the aftermath of a hit about two miles from where we were staying. Here's the riveting narrative:

Dude was driving down the street. Pickup truck was driving the other way. As they passed each other, pickup truck emptied a clip in the dude's head. Dude's dead.

Nice grouping!

Readers seeking snuff-porn (you know who you are) will have to go elsewhere. (Okay, fine - here. Sheesh.) We arrived on the scene a little less than an hour after the shooting, by which point the body was gone, the car was hitched to a tow truck, the broken glass had been swept up and the cops' primary concern was getting traffic flowing again.



Anything resembling a "forensic investigation" had either been completed and cleaned up with out a trace in less than an hour, or never happened in the first place. Amazingly, four weeks later, there don't appear to have been any breaks in the case.


SHOOT TO THRILL
Oct 14, 2011

No trip to Culiacán is complete without a tour through the army's cache of confiscated weapons. This takes up the better part of a large warehouse in the zona militar. A lot of it looks like captured booty from Pancho Villa's day.


But that's because the keep the good stuff locked up in a caged area off to the side.


We have big fancy guns in the US, of course (where do you think most of these came from?) But it's the smaller, more personal pieces that are the most interesting. Chances are, if the person across from you pulls out a gold-embossed pistol, you're going to die in the next few minutes.


And if they pull out a piece engraved with iconic quotations from "Scarface," you're definitely about to die. And probably have the video posted on YouTube.


Finally it's Burro Hall Xmas Gift Suggestion time! For the assassin who has everything, why not a solid-gold silencer? Order now, while supplies last.

"Silencer is golden."





Mar 19, 2012

After a six-month hiatus, Semana Culiacana, our endless report on our trip to Culiacán, Sinaloa, continues this week. You can catch up on the earlier installments hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here - but the five-peso summary is that we accompanied a friend and his film crew as they were making a documentary about the drug trade. Yes, we realize this sounds like a bad idea. We all vacation in our own way.

Towards the end of the trip we spent a couple of days with the military unit assigned to fight the narco war in Chapo Guzman’s backyard. The general - whose name [*], though you could easily find it, we will omit because there’s probably a junior officer assigned to Google his name once a day, and we have enough headaches – was a wonderful host, and threw us an absolutely decadent welcoming lunch, attended by his senior staff and his delightfully sassy wife.

At one point during lunch, the correspondent started talking about shoot she just did in a legal brothel in Nevada, where she picked up the rather counterintuitive piece of information that, in the considered opinion of the brothel staff, Chinese men had the biggest penises. Mrs. General, who had just returned with her husband from an official visit to China, squealed with laughter. “Oh my God, why didn’t anyone tell me that when I was there!” clearly implying that the general’s enormous gun was an overcompensation for something.

Say hello to my li'l frien'...


In the entire history of the war on drugs, no group of men have ever looked as uncomfortable as the General’s staff as they tried to decide whether they could laugh or not. We’ve seen show trials where the defendants were more relaxed.

Speaking of shows, it was time to hit the road. We were heading up to the mountains to watch the general and his troops destroy a confiscated marijuana farm – an operation which we have not the slightest doubt was staged entirely for our benefit. Nevertheless, the danger felt real. We’d be traveling a road where, weeks earlier, 11 police officers had been killed in an ambush. When we brought this up in a trying-not-to-reveal-what-massive-fucking-cowards-we-are kind of way, we were assured that, basically, the cops were fuck-ups, and that we’d be traveling with soldiers who knew how to do shit. To say we were rolling heavy would be a massive understatement; we counted about 55 armed and armored troops in our convoy, plus a helicopter escort. An equal number of troops would be waiting for us in the mountains. Anyone that would ambush this would probably then march on Mexico City.



We rode near the back of the convoy, in the general’s armored SUV. Tucked into the pocket of the back seat was a Spanish copy of Malcolm Beith’s biography of Chapo, The Last Narco. “I need to understand my enemy,” he said. It’s no knock on Beith’s excellent book when we say that we’d sort of imagined the head of the Zona Militar in Sinaloa would have other sources of intelligence besides a commercial biography by a gringo journalist.

As we bounced along the streets of Culiacán – stopping, rather surprisingly, at all traffic lights, the driver pointed out how, as soon as we would pass, young men sitting along the side of the road would all reach for their cellphones. “Halcones,” he said. Hawks – lookouts, who were calling their friends in the mountains to let them know what was coming their way. This probably would have worried us, but we were too busy wondering if the safety was engaged on the AR-15 that was pointing right at our knee. Those roads sure were bumpy.



* Note: Since our visit, the general has been transferred - which is perfectly normal and had nothing to do with us.



Mar 20, 2012

(Semana Culiacana continues...)

Once we were out of the city, we pulled into a tiny little hamlet, the name of which we never saw, and the troops secured a stretch of the highway so that the escort chopper could land and pick up our cameraman.  We’re pretty sure this violated a number of Army regulations, but these are the perks of traveling with the general. 



Eventually, we had to abandon the SUV because it wouldn’t make it up the dirt paths, and we piled into the back of an open troop carrier.  As confidence-inducing as a heavily armed escort is - and trust us, there's something about 100 armed-to-the-teeth Mexican soldiers that's plenty fucking confidence-inducing (at least as long as you're in their commanding officer's car) -  it's rather unsettling to realize you're the only ones without a helmet, a gun or body armor.





After a half hour of this, we came to a clearing, the copter touched down, and we disembarked to make the rest of the journey on foot.  We trudged about a half a mile down a well-trodden path (we think we mentioned this in an earlier installment, but this was the most humid place we have ever been, by like a factor of ten, and we've been to some truly malarial hellholes before), until - there it was.   An acre of dope...


Mar 20, 2012

So o this was pretty much the most dope we'd ever seen in one place.  It was at least an acre.  We'd have to check our notes [This American Life-esque full disclosure: we didn't take notes] but we think the General said that his men had confiscated something like 25,000 similar fields in the past couple of years.  This is why marijuana is no longer available anywhere in the US or Mexico.  And we were assured that the quantity was matched by the quality - this was the primo shit, sure to bring in $5000 a pound on the street.  Some back-of-the-envelope calculations were done, and we were told we were looking at a couple of million bucks worth of product, all of which was about to go up in smoke.



The troops then lined up and began pulling up the stalks one at a time, advancing through the field like a pack of Merida Initiative-funded locusts. Now, with all due respect to our hosts, who [spoiler alert!] admirably and successfully prevented us from being beheaded: we know $5000-a-pound weed.  $5000-a-pound weed is a friend of ours.  Mi general, this is no $5000-a-pound weed. 

"They're pulling it up with one-hand!" said our friend, whose expertise in these matters is rivaled only by Tommy Chong's.  "With the kind of roots laid down by the first-rate shit, you should need two hands - and you'll still get a hernia."  He literally looked down his nose at the growing pile of dope, now the size of a VW Bus.  "This is skunk weed."

Still, it was like half a ton of skunk weed and it was about to be burned all at once in the mountains of Sinaloa so that it wouldn't be burned in tiny increments in rec rooms in America. Which seems like a pretty ridiculous way to spend a morning, but it's something you don't get to see every day.



And before you make the obvious joke, no, a ton of fresh dope being set afire doesn't get everyone within a five mile radius stoned. It just creates a cloud of acrid black smoke that does nothing to alleviate the fact that you're in a humid, mosquito-infested jungle clearing. 



But then, when the burn is fully underway, the troops take a moment to pose for a souvenir photo in front of the bonfire. It's really quite sweet. 



One hundred highly-trained Mexican Army troops, a dozen vehicles, air support, and the presence of at least three officers ranked Colonel or higher, ripping up and burning an acre of skunk weed.  The reverberations were felt 500 miles away, in Southern California, as high school kids looking to score a dimebag were forced to text, "GOT N E WEED?" two or three times rather than just once. 

And that, dear reader, is how the War on Drugs was won. The following morning, just after sunrise, drugs signed a treaty of unconditional surrender aboard the USS Carl Vinson, stationed off the coast of San Diego.


Mar 21, 2012

Semana Culiacana concluded with the Grito de Independencia, which, because we had the press pass equivalent of the Wonka Golden Ticket, we got to watch from the balcony of Culiacán City Hall.  All the local news luminaries were there, as was Miss Sinaloa, and a couple hundred of the city's richest, best-connected people.  (Presumably there's an entire class of rich, well-connected people in Culiacán who don't attend these gatherings for fear of being gunned down by yet another group of rich, well-connected people, but that's another story.)

Also in attendance, of course, was the governor, Mario "MaLoVa" López Valdez.  We know nothing about the man or his politics - presumably, like all his predecessors, he became the top official in Sinaloa by running on a "tough on crime" platform - but we can state unequivocally that he possesses the largest, squarest head of any politician, nay, any human being, we have ever seen.  Seriously.  It's not just square - it's cubical.  Perfectly cubical.  Scientists in Geneva have published peer-reviewed papers about it. 

We also know that he placed the final shrimp on the the World's Largest Shrimp Cocktail last year.  In other words, the man's a champion.

He also travels everywhere with his frumpy, age-appropriate wife walking several steps behind, and his smokin' hot teenage daughter, Sofía, on his arm.  A couple of years ago, when her dad was a senator, Sofía was widely considered a favorite to win the Miss Sinaloa title.  The day after MaLoVa was named the PRI candidate for governor, Sofía abruptly withdrew from the contest so she could "devote more time to her studies."  We assume the real reason involved a sex tape with [Ed note: joke deleted on the emphatic-to-the-point-of-panic advice of counsel.]

Malova, Jr. 

So anyway, the grito hour approaches, the the night turns into one of those elaborate and over-formal ceremonies that Mexico does better than anyone.  The military band strikes up, and the governor and the evening's honored dignitaries line up and wait to process from the back of the balcony to the front.  Standing next to the governor, and therefore in the position of greatest honor, is our dope-burning general, looking superbly elegant in his formal, overstarched uniform. 



Scanning the crowd, he notices us standing off to the side and then - we swear - comes over and shakes our hand and makes a silly joke about us joining him in line.  This doesn't sound like much but, trust us, breaking rank 90 seconds before the Grito de Independcia to joke around with some unkempt, grossly perspiring gringos is simply not done.  But this is a guy who, a day earlier, unleashed on an abandoned field of skunk weed a team of trained killers eight times the size of the one that took out bin Laden; he could give a fuck about your fucking ceremony. 

The band has got their instruments up to their lips now, waiting for their cue.  The electricity in the crowd is slowly amping up. The anonymous earpiece-wearing functionaries who make the Grito happen are moving into position.  And governor López, who has banished his own wife in favor of his daughter because she attracts more media attention, is thinking, whoever we are - and to be sure, he knows everyone in this crowd, and the names of all their children, but has no idea who we are - whoever we are, we must be really fucking important if the General just did that.  So with the seconds ticking away until the Grito, the governor decides, fuck it, and he, too, breaks rank and comes over to shake our hands.   



With the important task of welcoming the emissaries from Burro Hall out of the way, and confident that he has secured our vote, or our patronage, or our promise not to behead his children (really, who knows what he was thinking?) he turned on his heels, marched to the edge of the balcony and cried, ¡Viva Mexico!  ¡Viva Mexico!  ¡Viva Mexico! We couldn't have agreed more.




In the extraordinarily unlikely event that you haven't had enough of Semana Culiacana, we're told the - how to put this? - more journalistic version will be airing (in the US) tonight at 8:00PM and again at 11:00PM, on the National Geographic channel.



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