Drugs

The City of Crosses: Inside Culiacan, the Home of El Chapo's Sinaloa Cartel

Culiacan, the stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, is an open museum dedicated to the imagery of its gangsters.

by Nathaniel Janowitz
15 April 2016, 12:00am


Jose Benjamin


This article originally appeared in the Mexican edition of VICE, April/May.

"They leave crosses in the streets because they believe the spirit stays in the place where they've died, not in the graves their bodies are buried in," said Dr. Tomás Guevara Martínez, Coordinator of the Laboratory for the Psychosocial Study of Violence at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. "It's become a tradition in Culiacan, and especially for those involved in drug trafficking."

Culiacan is the stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who was arrested for the third time on 8th of January, 2016. They are the most stable drug trafficking organisation of the last 20 years. While other groups saw their leaders fall — dead or incarcerated — the Sinaloa cartel maintained an organisational structure more or less consistent for decades. Because of this, and after two escapes from high security prisons, El Chapo continues to be an iconic figure of the "narcocultura" — the culture of the Narco.

The city is, in a certain way, an open museum dedicated to the imagery of its gangsters. Street stands sell hats embroidered with the face of El Chapo, devotional rosaries to the narco-saint Malverde, and pendants shaped like AK-47's. Trucks with spinning rims and flashy sports cars cruise the city bumping narcocorridos — a subgenre of traditional northern Mexican accordion-laden folk ballads that revel in the exploits of famous narcos and their lifestyle. Mansions sit on either side of poorly paved roads surrounded by high barbed wire-laced walls and security cameras.

But amidst all this, the crosses are the most visible symbol of the influence of the Narco in Culiacan, a type of street cenotaph that mark the spots where thousands have been slain. According to the Mexican Interior Ministry, over 26 thousand Sinaloans were murdered in the last decade.

These crosses linger silently throughout Culiacan, a reminder of the alarming homicide rate that the locals have become accustomed too. They've formed part of the urban landscape and have become a common site of Culiacan's geography. For many, it's a scar on the inhabitants collective memory, and an exercise of remembering the dead from a city that resists forgetting their fallen.

There are the crosses that every local knows: the son of El Chapo, for example, who died during the war against the Beltran Leyva brothers and their cartel, when both gangs disputed control of the city in the late 2000s. Another unmistakable monument is that of Chalino Sanchez, also known as "The King of the Narcocorrido".

The majority of the crosses stand to remember the anonymous dead: crosses of iron, cement, or wood, without names or dates to commemorate, they stay the forgotten, deteriorating below the dry Sinaloan sun. Abandoned between the sidewalks, in small silent streets and hidden behind the weeds, in ditches – one of the preferred places of the cartel for their executions.

Many have come to know Culiacan as the City of Crosses. But the city government considers this unsavoury to outsiders. The mayor has pushed through numerous programs to remove the crosses and replace them with marble plaques; however, new cenotaphs, adorned with stories, balloons, and stuffed animals, continue to appear each day.

"They did it because there were too many, it made Culiacan look like an unsafe, violent city. It still is, but now tourists can't see them everywhere," said Juan Carlos Ayala Barrón, a professor of Narcocultura in the Humanities Department at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. "Over the years they've removed a ton of crosses, but there's some they can't, like the son of El Chapo for obvious reasons."


Hector Israel Laveaga Salazar

Many crosses are accompanied by large plastic signs with photos of the deceased and messages of love and remembrance. Hector Israel Laveaga Salazar died at the age of 19 on November 3, 2007 under unknown circumstances.


Jose Luis Valenzuela Zamudio

The body of Jose Luis Valenzuela Zamudio, aged 33, was found executed in the trunk of an abandoned Grey Chevrolet Saturn on the outskirts of Culiacan on highway 15, known to locals as La Costerita. His hands were bound behind his back with a plastic zip tie. His life is believed to have ended on June 30, 2013.


A nameless cross marking the death of a 36 year old

Next to Culiacan's beautiful botanic gardens sits this nameless cross marking the death of a 36-year-old, whose body was found on 21st of December, 2008. Two women operating a tortilla street stand nearby explained that a lady had been eating in a nearby taqueria and was killed as she left.

When asked what happened one shrugged, positioned her fingers as if cocking a trigger, and made several blasting motions, before tending a waiting customer.

This murder occurred in the midst of a bloody turf war within the Sinaloa Cartel that paralysed the state capital in 2008 and 2009. Sinaloa cartel associates and lifelong friends of El Chapo, the Beltran Leyva brothers, turned on Guzmán when the youngest of the four brothers was arrested by Mexican authorities in early 2008.


The Son of El Chapo

Allegedly, the three remaining Beltran Leyva brothers believed that Chapo Guzmán had turned on them and ratted out their brother to the authorities. As a response they ordered the killing of El Chapo's son, Edgar Guzmán Salazar.

On the 8th of May, Édgar Guzmán Salazar, aged 22, stepped out of his car with a friend when an estimated 15 to 40 gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenade-launchers emerged. In the parking lot, they left more than 500 bullet shells.

The cross sits ominously in front of a Bridgestone Autocenter. It is surrounded by lights that keep it brightly lit at night, and according to Professor Juan Carlos Ayala, it's watched 24 hours a day to make sure it's not defaced.


Beltran Soto

At 2:50 pm on 20th of June, 2008, 41-year-old Jesús Antonio Beltran Soto was driving down busy Gabriel Leyva Solano Boulevard in his brown Chevrolet Silverado when a Volkswagen Jetta collided with his vehicle in front of a volunteer fire station at the intersection with Juan Aldama street. Three armed gunmen — two holding AK-47s, one a .38 Super pistol — stepped out of the car and hit Beltran with over 70 bullets.


Chalino Sánchez

On the highway leading to the city of Los Mochis, a perched angel marks the spot where the body of Rosalino "Chalino" Sánchez's was found. He was 32 years old. His eyes were blindfolded, his wrists had rope marks, and there were two bullet holes in the back of his head.

Many credit Sanchez with the popularisation of narcocorrido music, singing tales of gangster infamy. On night, Chalino drove away from a Culiacan club he had just performed in with two of his brothers, a cousin and a group of young women. They were pulled over by armed men in Chevrolet Suburbans, who displayed state police identification cards. According to witnesses, Chalino pleaded with the men to leave the others behind and only take him. His body was discovered on 16th of May, 1992.


Norma Corona

One of the city's most famous crosses belongs to prominent human rights activist, Norma Corona Sapién, 38, the president of the independent Human Rights Commission of Sinaloa. She was gunned down outside of her car in downtown Culiacan on 21st of May, 1990.

Although four were arrested for the crime, it is alleged that the hit was ordered by Héctor Luis Palma Salazar AKA El Güero Palma, the former partner of El Chapo Guzmán, after Corona had uncovered information connecting him to the murders of three Venezuelans and a Mexican lawyer. The murder of Corona, which shocked the nation, was widely believed to have prompted President Carlos Salinas in 1990 to appoint a National Human Rights Commission in Mexico City to investigate the worst cases of human rights abuse in Mexico.


Hijo Del Narco

Edgar Perez Cuén, 15, died outside the University of Sinaloa when he crashed his car into a palm tree planted in the elevated median. The quote on his tombstone refers to him as "the son of a heavy", implying he was the son of an important drug-trafficker.


Malverde

A nameless cross sits across the street from the Capilla de Malverde, a place of worship dedicated to Jesús Malverde, often referred to as the Narco-Saint. Malverde was a Robin Hood-type figure who, after his death, has become celebrated by not only the poor and disenfranchised, but also those involved in drug-trafficking and other illegal activities.

According to a man selling busts of Malverde outside the shrine, a family was arriving to pay homage to the generous bandit, when another car pulled up and a firefight ensued. The daughter of the family was killed in the crossfire where her cross now lays.


Primavera 1

Off La Costerita is a long dirt road known as the Primavera, or the Spring. In the thick brush that adorns both sides of the quiet road are cross after cross in what has long been a favourite location for executions and the dumping of bodies by cartel hitmen. On this ageing cross the initials FRC have been scratched, possibly in an attempt to remove them.


Primavera 2

Two crosses in the Primavera commemorate two apparently unrelated deaths separated by over two years. Martín Oswaldo Chávez Chávez, 31, was found on the 14th of April, 2011, wrapped in an orange sheet in the grass off the side of the road with bullet shells next to his body.

26 months later, 18-year-old Jesus David Morales Medina was found in the same place. Little is known about the teenager, who was nicknamed the Chalinillo.


Primavera 3

Jalz is etched in a simple white scrawl leaving little to remember this man, who according to someone who knew him, had been in jail for robbery. After he got out, he got on the wrong side of someone connected to the cartel. His body was found murdered alone in the grass.


Three Crosses

In one stretch along La Costerita three cenotaphs lay closely together. Little is known about each; Tiburcio "Tiburón or Shark" Cazares Angulo, 46, died May 30th, 1993; a women known as Verito died at the age of 28; the third is unmarked.


Jose Benjamin

José Benjamín Hernandez, 18 years old, died November 2009. Nothing else is known.


Amado Beltran

Amado Romero Beltran, 30 years old, was leaving his house with his sister to buy groceries when he was gunned down with a 9mm pistol on March 20th, 2007.


Adolfo Leyva

Jaime Adolfo Leyva Elenes, 19, died on November 24th, 2004, in front of an OXXO convenience store.


ForoPark

An unmarked cross is situated directly in front of a luxurious apartment complex next to the city's popular Foro Park. Flowers surround a balloon with images of dice, playing cards, and poker chips.


StreetByForo

A hundred meters down the same street, another unmarked cross is decorated with an empty beer bottle. It is common for loved ones to visit their crosses and drink, leaving behind half-full bottles for the spirits of the deceased.


Ponky

Ponky, real name unknown, died in 2007 at the age of 19.


Junkyard

Panchita Vega Chaidez died on the 2nd of January, 2005, in front of the junkyard.


NearChapo

In a street next to the Bridgestone parking lot where the son of El Chapo Guzmán's cross is surrounded with large lights lays this simple cross marked with only the initials O.R.V..


SchillerYGaillelo

Marked with only J.J.P.M. '7' on the corner of Schiller and Gaillelo, in a neighborhood where every street is named after famous thinkers.


Omar Castillo

Joel Omar Castillo Puerta, 18, died in August, 2013, in a car crash. It is unclear to authorities how his car was forced off the road.


Night

An unknown cenotaph is decorated with flowers, day and night.


Night Balloon

An unknown cross with the initials R.CH.T marks where someone apparently died on their 20th birthday on May 21st, 2004. The cross had been knocked off its perch while a helium balloon floated. The next morning, I returned and someone had already fixed the fallen cross, leaving it standing in its normal position, with the balloon still floating.

Nathaniel Janowitz is the VICE News Mexico City bureau staff reporter.

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz