War came to Chihuahua on a 100-year loop: Pancho Villa had risen up in 1910 and the Sinaloa Cartel invaded in January 2008. Only now has the Sinaloa Cartel’s mysterious invasion chief come out of the shadows, with the October 4 arrest of Noel Salgueiro.
Chihuahua, Salgueiro’s home state in Mexico, contains the border metropolis of Ciudad Juarez. Social meltdown and crime problems had already enveloped Juarez when the Sinaloa gang invasion of 2008 opened the Juarez Cartel War, still ongoing.
The stunning numbers reported up to now from this conflict–7,000 dead, 250,000 residents displaced, 25,000 homes vacated, 5,000 to 10,000 businesses closed, 130,000 jobs lost—are guesses in the dark and perhaps exaggerations, but show the depth of panic during the invasion and Juarez’s subsequent epidemic of gang murders. So does the label “most dangerous city in the world.”
This was not classic war or even “insurgency” (as a puzzling congressional subcommittee tried to say of Mexico’s criminal clashes recently–on the day of Salgueiro’s arrest, October 4). The Juarez War was the street-gang dynamic once feared as representing the bleak future of the United States, but blocked by the web of U.S. law enforcement–while the potential for gang disaster seeped south to more vulnerable ground. The ghost here is not Che Guevara but 1920s Chicago, writ large.
Noel Salgueiro, aka El Flaco (“Slim”), reportedly grew up a long eight hours south of Juarez in the remote mountains of southern Chihuahua, amid tales of giant pot plantations, epic drug lords rising from poverty and a clan culture of pacts and showdowns. Just south, completing the Golden Triangle of three mountainous Mexican states apt for drug-growing, were Sinaloa (drug-lord capital of North America) and Durango, whose crags still hide outlaw wonders the world can only glimpse.
Before 2008 Salgueiro was unknown outside his folksy home smuggling area on the Durango state line, astride the great corridor up Mexico’s mid-section to Texas at the Juarez-El Paso border. Local clan agreements had staved off the growing gang warfare seen elsewhere as Mexico morphed in a new millennium—the Nuevo Laredo War of 2004-2006, the Tijuana meat grinder, the upheaval in Michoacan. In 2004, however, the Juarez die was already cast as two underworld giants—the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel—began isolated tit-for-tat killings of relatives: brother for brother, the odd wife for the occasional cousin. By the end of 2007 either the stars had aligned or the killable relatives had run out–or the conspiracy theories were right and some big puppet-masters, always beyond final proof, wanted the whole pie. Either way, it was now all-out war. Among the 1.3 million or more residents of Ciudad Juarez, with their backs to the U.S. border, rumors said the coming invasion date would be January 6, 2008. The mayor later said the first killings actually started a day earlier.
No bugles called. The number of homicides in January 2008 simply jumped to more than 40, the most homicides of any January in Juarez history–though barely a blink compared to what was coming. Accordion-laced narco songs were said to break into police radio frequencies. Witnesses from police chiefs on down would later testify that every single cop in Juarez had long been on the take, or under orders from captains who were. The invaders, massing far to the south in the Sinaloa Cartel, were sending notice to police throughout the state of Chihuahua: defect now from your accustomed ties to the Juarez Cartel (the old but badly besotted hometown mob) and come over to our side as we take over.
Apparently the only public announcement was a hand-lettered poster left January 26 at Juarez’s Statue to the Fallen Policeman. The poster crisply listed four top police officials the infiltrating invaders had already killed that month–and 17 others set to be offed. When an SUV deposited the poster the statue was being sleepily guarded by a city cop, who was then indignantly fired–the gnat sacrificed to the hurricane. Police operations chief Francisco Ledesma was leaving his home on January 21 when he was obliterated by a .50-caliber rifle, the kind of belt-chewing blaster used by action-movie heroes, able to blow through both sides of an armored vest at a distance of 100 yards. That same January, by coincidence, on the 15th, a predecessor of Ledesma’s, ex-police chief Saulo Reyes, was arrested across the bridge in Texas with a thousand pounds of marijuana. Reyes was not a stereotyped thug but a fresh-faced boy wonder in business circles, appointed as unlikely police chief in a political swamp. A city that had been booming imperfectly at the turn of the millennium, with 400 factories for border export, was honeycombed with get-rich shortcuts.
To prey on this prize (or save it, they said), more than 500 clandestine gunmen were said to be hired by the Sinaloa invaders under the chief in the shadows, Noel Salgueiro, down on the southern state line. Above him were still more elusive top bosses in Sinaloa or Durango: El Chapo, El Mayo, El Azul–a fog of mystic symbols in a sierra Olympus. January 6 was the Day of the Three Kings, Epiphany, the end of Christmas vacation in Mexico—and the one-year anniversary of a big dance thrown deep in the sierra on January 6, 2007, by the Sinaloa Cartel’s storied top capo, Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman, as he had feted his 18-year-old beauty queen fiancée (Miss Coffee and Guayava Festival), prior to their marriage July 2, 2007, clearing the decks for war.
The blitzkrieg invasion force, with Salgueiro back in the bunker, was recruited from standard sources: dirty cops and ex-cops, ex-soldiers, lots of young sierra apprentice assassins–and barrio toughs from target areas in Chihuahua’s own neighborhoods.
Recruit Mario Nuñez, aka M-10, would be one of several (on both sides) whose name would be bandied about as perhaps responsible for a thousand deaths all on his own, like a Bosnian ethnic cleanser. Nuñez and some others came from San Dimas, a Durango mountain stronghold so bad, for so long, that its very name recalled one of the thieves crucified with Jesus, because a shocked father superior in the 1600s had secured an Inquisition permit to excommunicate the whole place, formally cursing “every man, woman and child… animals, land and seeds.”
Meanwhile, the city of Juarez was said to have 8,000 members of ordinary street gangs. The reputed 6,000 in the largest group, Los Aztecas, had long been employees of the Juarez Cartel, gradually taking over much of local drug pushing and debt murder, with a parallel blurring of cartel discipline. In earlier years the Juarez Cartel had held lordly pre-eminence in Mexican drug-smuggling, but the crown fell quickly; by 2008 the Sinaloa Cartel was called the largest in the world–so big that nearly every Mexican citizen seemed to know the never-proven theories that the Sinaloa Cartel had alleged secret links to the government.
Salgueiro’s invasion push from the south showed what the theorists meant (though not proving them right). To roll up the 600-mile corridor north to Juarez, his boys first came over the state line from Durango and disappeared a couple of local smuggling bosses–after three area police commanders were also whacked. On April 5 the Juarez clans struck back, guns blazing along 20 miles of state-line highway, with six dead, including a 19-year-old Juarez Cartel arm-twister with a fake federal police ID.
The punchline came at the 19-year-old’s large clan funeral on April 8–because the Mexican Army irreverently swooped down on this crowd of Juarez Cartel faithful, terrifying women and children with helicopters and rifle butts. The corridor guardians for the Juarez Cartel made easy targets for flashy drug arrests: they were long established and known to all–while the Sinaloa Cartel invaders were hit-and-run phantoms, sometimes blitzing whole towns in convoy strength, but final address unknown. The Juarez stalwarts were caught in a pincer movement, between government forces and the invading hitmen.
On March 28, as murders skyrocketed, Mexico’s federal government flooded Chihuahua with 4,000 troops, 180 vehicles, three Hercules C-130 cargo planes and a Boeing 707. Many residents saw the result as favoring the Sinaloa invasion. The government was in a devil’s bind, facing so many dirty local cops that a crushing blow against such a crowd would be horrific surgery, sure to raise cries of human rights abuse. As the Sinaloa Cartel stepped in to “cleanse” Chihuahua for its own reasons, there was no knowing how high the devil’s bargains might go.
As 2008 deepened, one out of every 889 Juarez residents would be murdered, according to the U.S. State Department. By 2010 the Juarez death toll was topping 3,000 in that year alone. As in World War I, the Sinaloa Cartel’s lightning strike through figurative Belgium hadn’t quite worked; the two sides settled down to permanent killing.
The invasion would succeed at getting the Sinaloa Cartel into major drug smuggling nodes in Chihuahua, but in the end, despite premature announcements, it did not eliminate the battered Juarez Cartel. Both groups would continue operating in the ruins of Juarez–and killing each other.
This past spring, as the Juarez murder rate began to dip a bit, federal authorities badly needed the capture of a high Sinaloa Cartel leader, in order to beat back the “government cartel” accusations. Dragnets had pulled in embarrassingly more members of the Juarez Cartel than of the Sinaloa Cartel. The criticisms were reaching gale force, and a logical way to counter them would be to parade in handcuffs the Sinaloa Cartel overseer for Chihuahua, Noel Salgueiro. But where was he hiding? On December 13, 2010, Salgueiro was said to have escaped, wounded, from a 500-officer raid. On April 30 the net closed not on Salgueiro but on 40 heavy weapons from the U.S. Fast and Furious arms-trafficking fiasco, guns that had somehow reached Juarez and a Sinaloa Cartel trove.
By this time, Salgueiro’s shadowy image was not that of a butcher but a moderator. Down in Durango, a group of Sinaloa Cartel underbosses had gone off the reservation, unleashing a reign of terror so bad that April 11 brought discovery of record-setting mass graves: 217 bodies at main sites and stories of more than 300. The Durango renegades began displaying angry public messages, aimed not at the pursuing government but at Salgueiro, who they said was barging in and trying to remove them. Again the pincer movement: both the government and the Sinaloa Cartel hierarchy were closing in on the extremists, who were known as the Emes, or “M’s.” One of them was bloodstained Mario Nuñez, M-10, of Juarez fame, who had come south to join his Durango brothers from San Dimas. By July this pocket had apparently been cleaned out.
On September 15, a government raid 80 miles south of Juarez was said to seek Salgueiro, but caught only stolen cars, one from Texas. Then on October 4, a mysterious pinpoint operation was said to strike at drug-lord central, in the capital city of the state of Sinaloa. The result was a lone arrestee, no shots fired, and no other details released. The face in the shadows had emerged.