Mexico paving new future
At Devil's Backbone
By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
PALMITO, Mexico —
Mexican legend says when the Archangel Michael threw Satan out of Heaven, his broken spine formed a jagged ridge that winds across Mexico's Sierra Madre: the Devil's Backbone.
The mountainous terrain that surrounds this serpentine road has another story: one of bloodshed and poverty.
Farms in the thickly forested area here are a major source of marijuana and opium cultivation and the cartels that control the drug trade use gruesome violence to settle scores.
The people who live here have few choices for work given that no highways and the commerce they bring have penetrated the Sierra Madre.
But the Devil's Backbone is undergoing surgery.
The Mexican government has launched a massive road construction project to straighten and modernize the road, an engineering feat that will require 63 tunnels and 32 bridges, including the world's second-highest road bridge.
The new highway will provide easy access to and from the Pacific Coast, its ports and tourist destinations, cutting the drive time from 8 hours to 2½ hours.
Mexican authorities say the faster ride will open up industrial cities to the region, maybe even persuade carmakers and other companies that pay good wages to supplant the drug trade.
"The more jobs we can bring to these areas, the more we'll reduce crime — I'm a true believer in that," said Nicolás Velíz, a tunneling supervisor.
Velíz and others hope the new road will also make it easier for police to access the lawless mountains and establish order, rebutting claims that the road will become a drug superhighway.
"I think it's going to bring more security," says Ernesto Gómez Chacón, the town administrator in nearby Pueblo Nuevo.
Completion set for 2012
The old Devil's Backbone road is the only crossing through the Western Sierra Madre mountains for 500 miles and it runs through some of the most remote parts of Sinaloa and Durango states.
When the three-year project is done in 2012 it will create a 45-mile stretch of modern road between the Pacific Coast city of Mazatlan and the interior city of Durango.
About 11 miles will be underground and its total 95 bridges and tunnels dwarfs the seven tunnels stretching 4½ miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, known as America's "Tunnel Highway."
"This is going to be a marvel, something really world class," said construction manager Miguel Angel Ramírez, as he stood at the edge of the 1,280-foot-high Baluarte Gorge, which lies along the route.
Later this year crews will start on a span across the gorge, creating a bridge so high that the Empire State Building could fit under it.
The first road along the Devil's Backbone opened in the 1940s.
The terrain was so rugged that construction crews had to bring in supplies by mule train.
"Now we're trying to do in three years what it took them 15 years to do," said Ernesto González, a construction supervisor on the new road.
Construction of the Mazatlan-Durango highway began in 2005, but work on the toughest stretch through the Sierra Madre began only last year.
Most of the tunnels are already being dug, including the 1.6-mile Sinaloense Tunnel, the longest on the route.
Workers are also excavating a tunnel parallel to the Sinaloense to be used as an escape route in case of emergencies.
The most challenging part of the highway is the Baluarte Bridge on the border of Sinaloa and Durango states, González said.
With its roadway 1,280 feet above the Baluarte River, it will be the world's second-highest highway bridge after the 1,550-foot-high Sidhue River Bridge in China, according to HighestBridges.com, which ranks such structures.
Drug gangs occasionally set up roadblocks in the area to protect shipments or drug crops, check for rivals or shake down residents.
And in other parts of Mexico cartels have begun blocking main highways to keep police from sending reinforcements during gunfights.
So far there have been no run-ins between construction crews and drug traffickers, Ramírez said.
"I'm sure they're out there, but we don't bother with them and they don't bother with us," Ramírez said.
That has not been the case with the people in the region, where the thickly forested mountains are full of clandestine farms growing marijuana and opium, the raw ingredient in heroin, as well as airstrips used to move cocaine shipments northward.
In Pueblo Nuevo, a province encompassing many villages on the east side of the Baluarte Gorge, suspected traffickers killed three teenagers in February and sprayed a town hall building with assault rifles.
In March they gunned down 10 people, ages 8 to 21, for failing to stop at a checkpoint they had set up on a road near Los Naranjos, population 600.
In a village on the other side of the gorge, traffickers kidnapped and killed a man in September and another in January.
Drug-related murders doubled in Sinaloa from 2006 to 2009, and in Durango state they shot up by 900%, according to a tally by the Reforma newspaper. (Sinaloa had 350 in 2006, 767 in 2009. Durango had 64 in 2006, 637 in 2009).
The U.S. State Department has urged Americans not to travel to Durango state because of the danger.
Currently the closest federal police stations and military bases are hours away so drug traffickers operate with impunity, using murder and torture to silence villagers and keep weak local police forces at bay.
They also dabble in highway robbery, ambushing vehicles as they crawl along the Devil's Backbone road, said Gómez.
The new road will be high-speed, well-lit and patrolled by federal police cruisers, the Mexican Transportation Department says.
Military reinforcements will be able to move more easily through the mountains to deter drug smugglers, it says.
"We won't be so isolated from the authorities any more," Gómez said.
And that may help turn people away from the drug trade, officials hope.
"With development of this type, people will have less reason to turn to illicit activities," said Alma Larrañaga, a spokeswoman for Mexico's Transportation Department.
Eager for development
A real highway to the Pacific means the hundreds of thousands of people living in the central part of the country north of Mexico City will be able to drive to Pacific Coast vacation spots like Mazatlán. Along the way they will need to stop for a variety of goods, people hope.
In Palmito, population 788, residents are eagerly anticipating motorists who might stop in their town to buy gas, eat or visit nearby attractions like the Pope's Peak, a rock formation that looks like a man with his hands folded in prayer.
"It's already brought a lot of work. You see people going down to Mazatlán to shop and coming back with all these new things they've bought," said Sandra Quinteros, a nurse at the town's clinic.
And many townsfolk are getting good construction jobs on the project.
"It's going to be good. The people here need this."
And even greater hope is industrial jobs. During an event in Palmito this month, Durango Gov. Ismael González Deras said he's hoping the new highway will encourage Asian manufacturers to open factories in his state because of the easier connection to the Pacific Ocean.
His government has purchased 4,300 acres near the highway for a new industrial park. Sinaloa Gov. Jesús Aguilar predicted a boom in traffic at Mazatlán's seaport.
Experts cautioned against too much optimism.
Traffickers are deeply entrenched in the Sierra Madre, and the region is vast.
It could take years before new development puts a dent in the drug trade, said Gerardo López Cervantes, director of the economics department at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.
"It's not going to change overnight," López Cervantes said.
Says Velíz, "If we don't give these mountain people any options than to be criminals, then that's what they'll be."
Prime smuggling territory
The violence is devastating towns and families.
Three days after the gunbattle that claimed Jorge Marrufo, his mother sobbed as pallbearers lowered his casket into the ground.
The family set up a huge cluster of palm fronds and flowers, and erected a simple wooden cross.
There was a rattle as the first shovelfuls of sand and pebbles hit the casket — after that, nothing but the sound of weeping and shifting sand.
Three days later, tragedy struck again — Jorge's cousin, Alfonso Marrufo, was found dead, his body pumped full of AK-47 and 9mm bullets, outside a house in town.
At first glance, it's not clear what's worth fighting for in Villa Ahumada. There's not much here besides a few water towers, a railroad track and several roadside burrito stands.
A street sweeper machine roams the few paved streets, fighting a losing battle against the sand that collects in drifts along the curb.
The only landmark is a small clock tower, which is stuck at 8:39.
Look at a map, though, and the town's importance becomes more apparent.
Villa Ahumada sits astride Highway 45, a spur of the Pan American Highway and a straight shot to Guatemala, Panama and other points south.
To the west, dirt roads snake through the desert, providing a way around the military checkpoints on the highway.
To the east, another web of trails leads to the desolate, and lightly patrolled, scrubland of West Texas.
This is prime smuggling territory.
Enrique Torres, a spokesman for the Mexican army, says that two of Mexico's most powerful gangs —
the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels — are battling for control of Villa Ahumada.
"It's considered a key location," he says.
In a microcosm of the struggle being played out across Mexico, the fight for Villa Ahumada has intensified after the Juarez cartel's No. 3 leader, Pedro Sanchez Arras, was arrested last May.
The Sinaloa gang, based on Mexico's Pacific coast, have been vying for their rivals' turf ever since, leading to incidents such as those that killed the Marrufos, Torres says.
In an effort to stop the violence, Calderon has deployed 46,000 troops and federal police throughout Mexico —
an unprecedented law enforcement commitment that surpasses the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Despite their numbers, the army has no investigative powers to probe drug gangs' activities and root out kingpins.
Federal agents are spread thin, and there have been numerous incidents in which local Mexican police have been co-opted by the cartels.
On a recent morning, a USA TODAY reporter came across the aftermath of a gunbattle in the desert north of Villa Ahumada
Three bodies lay in the sand. Army Humvees and helicopters combed the desert for anyone who may have gotten away.
Hours earlier, an army patrol had come across a Toyota SUV picking its way through the wilderness, Maj. Gerardo Arce said.
Suddenly, the doors popped open and gunmen opened fire with AK-47s. The troops returned fire, killing all three.
Inside the SUV was an arsenal worthy of any commando unit: hand grenades, a .50-caliber sniper rifle, helmets, bulletproof vests, combat fatigues and radios.
Such firepower illustrates why townspeople see only one real authority.
"The gangs know everything.
They're always watching," says Sandra Munoz, Jorge Marrufo's niece. "They'll even mark your house, as a warning."
'The town with no law'
Shifter says the recurring pattern of Mexico's drug war — one cartel is weakened, only to be replaced by another —
shows the need for President Obama to seek solutions beyond the $400 million in mostly military aid the U.S. gave Mexico last year.
Options include more drug prevention and treatment programs to try to curb demand for illegal drugs in the U.S., and cracking down on the flow of arms from the USA into Mexico.
"It's hard to call the drug policy a successful policy," Shifter said.
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former anti-drug czar in the Clinton administration, warned last month that Calderon's government was in danger of losing control of some areas and that millions of Mexicans could seek refuge from the violence in the USA.
Recently departed CIA director Michael Hayden has said Mexico ranked alongside Iran as a top security risk to the U.S.
Calderon has rejected such talk, saying his government is firmly in charge and casting Mexico's drug war as a "historic challenge of truly becoming a country of law and order."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has credited his actions with a steep reduction of cocaine supply in many U.S. cities.
Calderon says the vast majority of those killed have been drug gang members, and his approval rating remains high at about 60% —
a broad enough mandate to keep pursuing the cartels for now, Shifter says.
The unknown factor, though, is just how bad the economy will get — and how that could change Calderon's plans.
The border region has been particularly hard hit by plummeting manufacturing demand from the United States, which receives 90% of Mexico's exports.
At a plant run by Quality Coils S.A., which makes components for Delphi auto parts and Motorola cellphones, the payroll has dropped from 240 a year ago to 180 workers today —
and they work only three days a week, says personnel manager Florentino Flores.
Mexican drug gangs wage war
Published: February 23, 2009
Mexican troops hunt for possible fugitives after a desert gunbattle near Villa Ahumada on Feb. 13, after one of the bloodiest episodes yet in Mexico's drug war, which killed Jorge Marrufo.
By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
Mexican drug gangs wage war
By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
VILLA AHUMADA, Mexico —
It was 3 a.m. when Griselda Munoz says she got the first terrifying phone call: "Mom, there are people all over, and they're shooting!"
A convoy of gunmen had invaded the ranch where her son, Jorge Marrufo, 32, was working.
As shots crackled in the background, he told her he was running into the desert to hide in the sagebrush.
Before dawn, another call: "If anything happens to me, tell my kids I love them."
The situation is similar across town at the Lear Corp. plant, where workers sew seats for Ford Fusion cars. In November the plant began cutting workers, then workdays.
"There's just no work for us, I guess," says employee Juan de la Torre, whose hours were cut.
Nationwide, Mexico's exports to the United States fell 15% in December compared with the year before.
Money sent home by migrants living in the USA, a crucial income source for poorer families, also fell 3.6% last year —
the first annual decline in a decade. Overall, the Mexican economy could shrink by 1.5% this year, according to Morgan Stanley bank, breaking a string of years of moderate growth.
"Markets are just now beginning to think through the costs associated with this rise in organized crime," says Gray Newman, Morgan Stanley's chief economist for Latin America.
The mix of violence and recession means bad business for everybody.
On Highway 45 just outside town, Javier Ramirez sits under the corrugated metal roof of his taco stand, waiting — in vain — for customers.
"Everyone is afraid to stop here now," Ramirez says. "Villa Ahumada, the town with no law. We've become famous."
A CLOSER LOOK:
Reporter Chris Hawley on Villa Ahumada
Later that day, Munoz found her son at a morgue with his skull caved in and four bullet holes in his chest.
He was among 21 people killed Feb. 10 in this town near the U.S. border after drug gangs abducted several men, then fought a massive running gunbattle with the Mexican army —
one of the bloodiest episodes yet in Mexico's war on drugs.
Prosecutors say they are still trying to determine whether Munoz's son was an innocent bystander, or involved with the gangs.
Either way, Munoz attributes his death to the unprecedented combination of drug-related violence and economic misery that is ravaging northern Mexico — and showing signs of spreading into the United States.
"He never caused any trouble for anybody. But in this town, you never know who's going to decide you're a problem," Munoz said. "This is a town without laws."
That's literally true — the entire police force of Villa Ahumada, a community of 10,000 people 80 miles south of El Paso, deserted its posts last May after drug gangs executed the police chief and two officers.
The crime wave, plus the crippling recession that has rippled here from the U.S., has caused the town's export factories —
possibly the only source of reputable, steady employment — to slash production.
"It's just one thing after another," says Villa Ahumada's mayor, Fidel Chavez. "First the economy, and now this."
The story is similar across much of Mexico's 2,000-mile-long northern border: a wave of beheadings, grenade attacks and shootouts as drug cartels battle each other for supremacy and lash out against Mexican President Felipe Calderon's drive to destroy their smuggling operations.
The death toll from drug-related violence in Mexico last year surpassed 6,000, more than double the previous year, raising questions about whether Calderon's government can prevail against a brutal and often better-armed enemy without additional help from the U.S. government.
"People are scared and they have reason to
be," says Michael Shifter, a Latin America specialist at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "The economic crisis is just going to aggravate the situation. It's very hard to imagine how things will get better in the short term."
That's bad news in broad swaths of the United States, where Mexican drug gangs have extended their operations to at least 230 cities from Texas to Alaska, according to a recent Justice Department report.
Police in Atlanta and Phoenix, both major drug transit points, have blamed a wave of kidnappings on the spreading turf war among the cartels. Drug-related violence has become ever more brazen and frequent, including a rise in attacks on Border Patrol agents.
In both Mexico and the United States, most of the victims have been linked to the cartels. Nevertheless, several travel agencies, colleges (including the nearby University of Texas-El Paso) and even the U.S. military have discouraged travel to Mexico's border areas as spring break approaches — resulting in a loss of crucial tourism dollars that could make the Mexican economic crisis even worse.
More than 329,000 jobs have been lost in Mexico since June, the government says; that translates to as many as 30% of Mexican adults who are now unable to find full-time work.
Rene Jimenez Ornelas, an expert on crime at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is among those who believe that unemployment could push more Mexicans into the ranks of the narcos.
The gangster lifestyle has been glamorized by television shows and songs called narcocorridos, and it is a powerful temptation for many youths.
"What organized crime mostly has on the front lines are people who need to eat," Jimenez Ornelas said. So the cartels "have an 'army' available — not all of them, of course, but enough to have a good-sized force at their service."
'You can't trust anybody'
Even the dead here aren't allowed to rest in peace.
Days after Jorge Marrufo was buried, the lock on the cemetery gate was smashed.
Someone drove back and forth over Marrufo's grave, splitting the wooden cross in two and scattering the flowers.
Then they tossed an empty beer can on the wreckage.
Later that morning, Griselda Munoz, his mother, came to the cemetery with other relatives to mend the cross and collect as many undamaged flowers as they could.
They shoveled the sand back into a mound, moistened it with water, and put the flowers back.
Munoz believes the army killed her son after mistaking him for one of the traffickers. She says that just before he was killed, Marrufo called her and said that soldiers were coming down the highway. "I'm all right," she says he told her.
That was the last time she heard from him alive.
The federal attorney general's office originally listed Marrufo as one of the gunmen.
But on Wednesday a spokesman for the federal attorney general's office, Angel Torres, said investigators were not sure of his role that night and had not determined how he died.
Forensic experts were still examining weapons to determine who killed Marrufo, Torres said.
Chavez, the mayor, says he believes Marrufo was killed by drug gang members dressed in fatigues.
The soldiers wear face masks to protect their identities, and traffickers often wear fatigues, so they are hard to tell apart, he said.
"There's no one to go for help around here," Munoz said. "You can't trust anybody to protect you."
Whoever killed Marrufo, many here fear their business in Villa Ahumada isn't finished. As Marrufo's family prepared to leave the gravesite, an unfamiliar SUV rolled slowly into the cemetery and parked behind some tombs.
Munoz shot a worried glance at the SUV and hurried to her car.
The family drove out together, for safety, and left the broken flowers in a heap next to Marrufo's grave.
Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and the Arizona Republic