Narco-Tourism in Sinaloa

For a quick weekend trip from Tijuana, our neighbor in San Diego, my wife, friend and I decided to fly direct to Culiacan, Sinaloa for the weekend-one way, and return via Mazatlán. Our goal was to learn more about the areas Narco-culture and history. 

Sinaloa is home to the Sinaloan cartel and the cartel is arguably the most powerful criminal organization in the world dealing cocaine, and other illicit drugs mainly into the USA. Culiacan, home of the Sinaloa Cartel and the capitol of Sinaloa State is the best place to begin when learning about Narco-culture.

Culiacan, with its rough history of cartel related street shootouts, kidnappings, and general banditry, is labeled as a part of Mexico where even Mexican’s don’t like to go. In my travels, I always take such labels with a grain of salt, knowing that these places tend to be more genuine and interesting and with the right precautions, never as dangerous as advertised. 

Map of Sinaloa State-We flew into Culiacan and traveled by car to Mazatlán, a few hours to the south.

Cartel Related Violence

Cartel related violence recently peaked in Culiacan in 2019, when El Chapo’s son was captured by the Mexican Federal Police. The Sinaloan cartel responded by bringing in a small army of villagers from surrounding villages.  In exchange for loyalty, villagers were given hundred dollar bills, a rifle and a promise that their families would be cared for if they did not return.  Pick-up trucks full of hundreds of armed villagers along with Sinaloa cartel soldiers soon entered the city of Culiacan leaving a path of destruction, blocking roads and effectively holding Culiacan hostage until Chapo’s son was released.  Dozens of police were captured and the Mexican President had no choice but to authorize the release of Chapo’s son in exchange for peace.

Narco Cemetery 

Our first stop when we arrived in Culiacan was the Jardines de Humaya-dubbed the Narco cemetery. A private cemetery, which mostly houses fallen Sinaloan Cartel members.

Many of the elaborate tombs reportedly cost up to a million dollars to build and are equipped with bullet proof glass, security systems, air-conditioning, satellite TV, wifi,  and indoor areas where family and friends can sleep overnight and have parties.  Although not everyone buried here is affiliated with Narco-life, many I was told are.

The cemetery is far from a tourist attraction and officially doesn’t allow tourists to visit. I previously reached out to the cemetery by email to inquire if it was open despite the numerous Covid shutdowns currently in place in Sinaloa. I was told that it is closed to visitors with no explanation. Aside from being un-welcomed, there is an inherent danger in visiting the cemetery. There is a chance that you will cross paths with visiting narco-elements and such encounters are always unpredictable. Also, online tourist reviews are rife with reports of banditry at gunpoint and in some case the bandits are reported to be the cemetery guards. Then, there are the stories of occasional gunfights that break out between Narco-gangs inside cemetery grounds.

 

Cemetery Crypts that look like luxury condos

Notable Cemetery Residents

Most of the cartel residents of the cemetery are affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel but not all.  There are also some from other cartels such as the the Juarez and Guadalajara Cartels. Just as they lived a life of violence most of their lives also ended in violence… almost every life ending in trajedy.

Notable cartel members and family buried in tombs of the cemetery are; son of Don Neto-Ex-Leader of Guadalajara Cartel, Lord of the Skies (Amado Carrilo Fuentes, Ex-leader of Juarez Cartel), El Chapo’s brother-Sinaloa Cartel, El Azul, Ex-leader of Sinaloa Cartel, wife and two children of Luis Palma-Sinaloan Cartel, El Chino Anthrax-hitman of Sinaloa Cartel, and the Ex-leaders of Beltrán-Leyva Cartel. The list goes on and on.

Tomb of the Lord of the Skies, Amado Carrilo Fuentes-leader of Juarez Cartel who piloted cocaine in 727’s-he later died in a botched plastic surgery to try and change his appearance to evade capture.

Tomb of El Azule, Ex-leader of Sinoloa Cartel

As an extra safety precaution, I chose a Saturday morning in plain daylight to visit and I hired a Sinaloan fixer/driver-Ricardo from Culiacan to take us to the cemetery. He had a friend buried at the cemetery so we had a valid reason to be there if questioned. The plan was to stay as close to our vehicle as possible when visiting and we would keep any valuables of ours hidden away inside the car.  When we arrived at the gate, Ricardo waved at the guard and without hesitation drove right on by. He claimed that had he of stopped to ask permission, we would have certainly been denied entry.

Crypt of El Chapo’s Brother

We parked the car and began to explore, while being extra vigilante of our surroundings. There were rows of extravagant, and gaudy crypts before us. Many looked like luxurious condos, while others looked like chapels adorned with statues of angels.  One looked like the Taj Mahal and another had ancient Greek characteristics. The only activity in the cemetery was landscaping, and new crypt construction.    Ricardo found a grave digger and asked him if he could assist us with locating some of the more notorious Narco-crypts, since they are all unmarked. The grave digger reluctantly agreed to help us but for a tip and only if we didn’t photograph him or walk closely to him in case others could see that he was helping us. He claimed this was for his safety and to avoid being fired from his job.

The grave digger walked us around pointing to different tombs and explaining the macabre history associated with their occupants. He was very eager to tell us stories but he like us was constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure we were not being watched or followed.  Most of the information I gathered from our visit was based on what the grave digger explained to us and is subject to question.

Many of the crypts had security cameras installed. Some had windows that you could peer inside to see photos, memorabilia of the diceased and other items of meaning.

 

 

Tomb of man with a mural of him holding an automatic rifle

Judging by the decore of some of the tombs, it was obvious that violence was a glorified way of life for the now diceased occupants . One man’s tomb depicted a mural of him holding an automatic rifle, while others had images of Santo Muerte-a female skeleton figure considered to be the saint of death and worshipped by many in the narco occupation.

Another tomb we saw was of Marcos Arturo Beltrán Leyva-an organized crime figure and leader of the Mexican drug trafficking organization known as the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, which he and his brothers Carlos, Alfredo and Héctor founded.

Tomb of Beltrán Leyva Cartel 

The Leyva tomb had photos depicting family men but their lives were anything but. Marcos Arturo Beltrán Leyva was finally captured and killed in 2009 after two ambushes by Mexican Marines. In both ambushes a shootout ensued ending in dozens of deaths. Leyva escaped the first ambush but was killed during the second ambush. In revenge, surviving cartel members assassinated the mother, and family of one of the fallen Mexican marines who died in the ambush, a day after his funeral. 

Tomb of the Girlfriend of El Chino Anthrax

A portrait and flowers were all that remained in the tomb of the Girlfriend of El Chino Anthrax-hitman of the Sinaloa cartel. Sadly she was targeted by a rival cartel, and kidnapped outside of her gym in Culiacan in broad delight while spectators stood and watched powerless to stop it.  She was later tortured and viciously murdered in the desert, her head decapitated and sent to El Chino as a message.

Tomb of Don Neto’s son, who was shot to death at a boxing match

The grave digger showed us the inside of the tomb of El Chino Antrax-Sicario. The young sicario was a rising figure in the Sinaloan Cartel and he was able to amass a small fortune in his work with the Sinaloan Cartel. With his money he jetsetted around the world visiting Africa, Europe, Asia and posting exotic and flashy vacation photos on Instagram. Eventually he was captured in Amsterdam and extradited back to Mexico, where he was released on bail awaiting trial. For whatever reason he had fallen out of favor among his cartel-maybe it was feared he would cut a deal with the government, but whatever the reason was in 2020 a Sinaloan death squad came to his house, and after a shootout where El Chino ran out of ammo, his entire family was viciously murdered. To add to this disturbing story, the grave digger mentioned that a few years back, a few decapitated heads were left in this area of the cemetery at night, likely done so in order to make statement.

 

 

El Chino Antrax-Sicario for Sinaloa Cartel

Vacation photos of El Chino inside of the Tomb of El Chino Antrax-Sicario

Tomb of Hector Palma’s children thrown off a bridge in Venezuela’

Every story was as dark and depressing as the next. After an hour or so of visiting the cemetery and being overwlemed with disturbing tales of violence and murder, it was time to leave.  I didn’t want to become complacant, and push our luck by staying any longer.

Jesus Malverde Shrine

Jesus Malverde 

Our next stop was to visit the shrine of Jesus Malverde, a patron saint to poor Sinaloan villagers as well as Narcos. Jesus Malverde was a bandit in the 1800’s who lived in Sinaloa. He was hailed as a Robin Hood figure for stealing from the rich during the days of a cruel Mexican dictatorship and giving to the poor. Eventually he was captured and was executed in public and to set an example to others, his body wasn’t allowed to be buried and he was left to rot in public. To this day, his spirit is believed to protect the people of Sinaloa and those who have chosen a life of crime. Cartel types are known to visit his shrine and to ask for his blessing before carrying out a hit on a rival member. Smaller versions of his shrine can also be found throughout Sinaloan family households.

Worker at Jesus Malverde Shrine Conducting Blessing Ritual of Malverde Bust that we purchased 

When we arrived at the shrine, a few Narco looking types were inside paying homage to Jesus. There were Santo Muerte statues and dozens of Jesus Malverde statues surrounded by lit candles. Dollar bills and pesos were left as offerings.

We purchased one of the Jesus Malverde statues for 20USD and the shrine attendant informed us that there is a ritual she must conduct before we can leave. She held the statue up in the air and said some kind of a prayer and rubbed multiple ointments on Jesus’s head, one of them being a mysterious green fluid and she rubbed him against what might have been the mother statue-a decayed looking wax figure of Jesus. Then after five minutes, we were the proud new parents of our adopted Jesus Malverde statue, which now sits proudly in the entrance to our house, where it un-doubtedly will protect us. 

Las Labradas Beachpictograph of a witch 

Ricardo asked me why we came to Culiacan. My response was that we wanted to learn more about Narco-Culture in this part of Mexico, where it is reported to have such a heavy presence. Ricardo expressed his disgust with narco-life. He showed me videos on his phone taken by residents in Culiacan that were circulating on social media. These videos were of street shootouts, dead bodies, kidnappings in broad daylight-one of someone thrown into a trunk by cartel gunmen. He had his own stories of when he had to seek shelter inside his house or elsehwere during violent uprisings.

Ricardo very emphatically stated that nothing about Narco-life interested him. Instead he longed for when the region could part from it’s narco-ties and find civility.

 

 

 

On the way to Mazatlán a two hour drive from Culiacan through mostly agricultural lands, we passed the occasional truck stop. Ricardo, pointed out drug dealers on motorcycles pulling up to trucks and brazenly dealing meth, which truck drivers used to stay awake and drive for longer hours.

Along the way, we stopped at a pristine wild beach called las Labradas Beach with a sandy and rocky section. The rocks has ancient carvings and pictographs on them made from an indigenous people that once lived in the area hundreds of years ago. 

We eventually made it to the resort city of Mazatlán situated on a beautiful stretch of the Sea Of Cortez and we checked into our hotel overlooking the ocean where we relaxed poolside.

Paula in the infinity pool at our hotel overlooking Mazatlan 

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