Journey to the heart of Sinaloa
When you fly into Culiacán, it's hard not to notice the many small private planes parked on the runway. Maybe there are no more little planes than you see elsewhere - but you know you're landing in the heart of Mexico's narco territory, and you wonder how many of the planes are used to smuggle drugs.
We came to Sinaloa to see the other side of Mexico - to see what it's like to work in business or grow legal crops such as corn or tomatoes. Crops like these that are the bedrock of a multi-billion dollar industry in Sinaloa.
But the first site we visited was Humaya Gardens, an ornate cemetery where many fallen drug lords are buried in ornate graves. Colorful cupolas pop up across the cemetery. Balloons and large posters of the dead flap in the wind at new grave sites. Some of the mausoleums have air conditioning and satellite TV. It's unclear if it's for the dead to enjoy in the afterlife or for their loved ones to use to pass the time on regular visits. For all the expense of individual tombs, the cemetery is a bit scruffy with overgrown bushes, untended roads and broken curbs.
Some parts of Culiacán feel calm and prosperous, where US fast food chains, malls and Starbucks shops dot the landscape.
A riverside park is full of carefree kids playing into the night. The adults groove listening to bands playing cover songs by Shakira and other Latin artists. It can feel far removed from Mexico's drug violence, which after more than five years and more than 50,000 deaths is carrying on unabated. Last year, only one state had a higher murder rate than Sinaloa.
Once we drove out to the countryside to visit corn farms, there were reminders of the power and threat of criminals.
We heard from farmers that they are often pressured to sell their land to traffickers. Standing on the edge of one corn farm, a grower told an anecdote about a "neighbour" who told him, "You should sell some of your land at a good price, so that your widow won't have to take a lower price when you're gone."
Farmers said it's a constant negotiation with these "forces" to keep their land and keep earning an honest living.
Later we drove out to Altata, a beach town about an hour from Culiacán. Murky bay water laps the shore. Dozens of little seaside shacks get crowded on weekends with locals looking to escape the heat of Culiacán.
Local fishermen sell clams and crabs just plucked out of the water. Kids jump from a long pier into the shallow sea and splash around with their friends and family. Teens and twenty-somethings walk back and forth along the sandy road until they settle on a place to eat and grab some beers by the water.
Their day is often interrupted by police patrols like the ones we saw – a few pick-up trucks full of heavily armed cops wearing balaclavas. Some young beachgoers told us the police put them on edge and made it harder for them to have a good time at the seaside. "It changes the mood," they all told us. And one said it isn't rare to be shaken down in Sinaloa for a bribe.
After a few days in iconic Sinaloa, you can see the state's potential. There are strong agricultural exports, and a long coastline could be the backbone of a healthy tourist industry.
But like the rest of the country, many in Sinaloa told us they feel squeezed between drug gangs who threaten them and authorities who are unable, or unwilling, to stand up for them. Yet people carry on as they do everywhere.
On our last night in Sinaloa, we had dinner with a prosperous corn farmer and his wife. Afterwards, they drove us around the neighbourhood where they've built a nice two-storey house and raised their kids.
In the same neighborhood, he pointed out a half-dozen homes where he said narcos lived – some within a stone's throw of the governor's mansion.
Noticing our anxiety, his wife said, “We watch news about Iraq and wonder how people live there. I guess some would say the same about Sinaloa.” Then she laughed. We all did.
But the crew and I were eager to get back to the hotel and fly back to the relative safety of Mexico City as soon as we could.
As we prepared to go home, news broke that two federal policemen were killed in a shootout just inside the Mexico City airport.