The Narco Trafficker Next Door

Even in some of Mexico’s most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods there is no escaping the drug cartels—they’re your neighbors.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

GUADALAJARA, Mexico—Gabriela Navarro, who lives in an exclusive gated community in southern Guadalajara, suspects three locals of having ties to one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels. She bases this belief on their unconventional working hours, unexplained wealth, and fondness for narcocorridos—folk ballads that glorify drug traffickers.

All, she says, are from Sinaloa, the mountainous home-state of drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the ruthless Sinaloa Federation, one of the largest criminal organizations in the world.

“Some people’s backgrounds are a bit doubtful,” said Navarro, who is in her forties and asked that her name be changed to protect her identity. “They have lots of money and big trucks. No one knows what they do, but it makes you wonder.”

In one incident a visitor broke the parking barrier with his car when security refused him entry.

“The guard said he had no ID and nobody could enter without it,” Navarro said. “A resident came out with a gun in his hand shouting: ‘No, he’s my guest, let him through!’”

Even when these suspect neighbors set off fireworks in the early morning hours, locals are afraid to complain.

“It’s either stay quiet or be threatened. People moan, but everyone puts up with it,” Navarro said.

Thirty minutes’ drive from the bustle of central Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city and the capital of the state of Jalisco, the wealthy community is ringed by a 1.5 kilometer electric fence. Visitors must sign in at the sentry box. The huge CCTV network is managed from a 24-hour control room and uniformed guards patrol the grounds round-the-clock.

Drug lords living in gated communities is nothing new, and the phenomenon is not limited to Guadalajara.

In the border city of Juarez, the wealthy neighborhood of Rincón de San Marcos, or St. Marks Corner, is popularly known as Rincón de San Narcos because of its links with numerous top traffickers, including the late Amado Carrillo.

In December 2009, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, a particularly bloodthirsty drug lord, was killed during a firefight with the navy’s Special Forces in an exclusive apartment community in Cuernavaca, near Mexico City.

Nine months earlier, Beltrán Leyva had been included on the Mexican government’s list of 24 narcos worth a bounty of 30 million pesos (around $1.6 million U.S. dollars). Of the 17 who have been captured since the release of that list, five were in exclusive communities when the authorities swooped.

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Guadalajara property developers have taken to the gated model with particular enthusiasm. There are nearly 2,500 gated compounds in the city, occupying more than 14 percent of its territory, according to investigators at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara.

While international media focuses on U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, the proliferation of walls within Mexico betray growing internal divisions and a deep dismay with the government’s ability to tackle crime.

Of course, such high security, gated spaces are popular outside of Mexico. Almost identical developments are now a common feature in South Africa, China, and the United States—all countries with high levels of inequality.

But Mexican gated communities come with the added irony that the “undesirables” have already breached the walls. A significant number of those living in private enclaves are themselves criminals, beneficiaries of a drug industry that has massively enriched traffickers yet left a truly staggering body count. According to official figures, more than 170,000 murders have been recorded in Mexico since 2006, many of them directly linked to the ongoing drug-war (PDF).

Gated neighborhoods, with their promise to protect the rich from the risks of the city, have become as much a part of the narco lifestyle as luxury suburbans or AK-47’s.

From the beginning, the growth of gated communities in Guadalajara was closely connected with the rise of drug cartels in Mexico.

A government clampdown on cannabis and opium producers in Sinaloa in 1976 pushed many narcos from the state. Dozens of top kingpins set up shop in Guadalajara, finding their wealth was welcomed in the city.

The Guadalajara cartel, formed by Sinaloan drug lords, took advantage of the new housing that was springing up in response to the city’s rapid growth. The real estate provided traffickers with easy money laundering opportunities.

A founding member of the Guadalajara Cartel, Rafael Caro Quintero still owns many properties in the city, including gated residential complexes, according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC (PDF).

Responding to U.S. pressure, Mexican authorities eventually dismantled the Guadalajara Cartel but the Sinaloa Federation, a spin-off from the Guadalajara organization, took the reins of power (PDF). Under the leadership of the notorious “Chapo” Guzmán, the cartel became the largest and most powerful in Mexico. For two decades, Guadalajara was run by local boss Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal, who earned the nickname the “King of Crystal” for his success in the crystal meth trade.

Throughout this time, Guadalajara avoided the widespread violence that plagued many Mexican cities, even after 2006, when the country’s death toll spiraled after then-President Felipe Calderon deployed troops in a disastrous attempt to stamp out drug gangs.

One popular theory holds that local narcos made a pact to keep their immediate surroundings safe.

Ioan Grillo, the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America said that while there is little evidence of any formal agreement, local criminals probably shared a tacit understanding about security.

“It makes sense. If you are a cartel boss and you have a child who’s going to school in a certain place you are not going to send assassins to start shooting outside their school.”

Grillo said the Sinaloa Federation’s dominance of the city was another key factor behind Guadalajara’s relative calm.

“There’s clear evidence that for many years, Sinaloan traffickers had a monopoly on the area.”

Yet this fragile peace was shattered on a hot summer night in 2010, when Nacho Coronel was killed during a military raid on his mansion. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel sprang up to fill the vacuum, triggering a wave of violence that included massacres of civilians, deadly attacks on police, and the downing of a military helicopter in 2015.

“At local level, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel operates a kind of franchise system,” said Darwin Franco, a Mexican journalist from Guadalajara. “These smaller groups tend to focus on crimes which particularly impact civilians, such as kidnapping and human trafficking.”

Killings in Jalisco more than doubled in the five years following Coronel’s death compared to the five years before it (PDF).

Kidnappings quadrupled over the same period (PDF), although analysts agree official numbers massively understate the problem, because victims and their families are often unwilling to involve police.

Although cartel hits make more international headlines, kidnapping is the menace looming over daily life in Mexico.

A recent survey conducted by pollsters Mitofsky found 48 percent of respondents were “very afraid” of being kidnapped (PDF). This dread has fueled a private security boom and contributed to the exodus to the suburbs.

Despite the presence of such criminals and the potential dangers they attract, residents still express the apparently logical belief that the guards and cameras will protect them.

Navarro has lived in her gated community for more than a decade and feels it is worth the extra cost.

“In the city, there are people who are drugged and make you nervous they might attack you,” she said. “We think with all this violence it’s better to stay here, even if it costs a bit more.”

Yet statistics show gated communities cannot always guarantee security.

According to data obtained by Máspormás, a local newspaper, 3.5 percent of households reported a robbery in Navarro’s community between October 2015 and December 2016.

In academia, debate rages in urban studies as to whether gated communities effectively protect residents.

A comparison of gated and non-gated areas in California found no difference in crime rates, as criminals target neighborhoods because of their wealth and isolation.

According to the United States Overseas Security Advisory Council, “wrong-place, wrong-time violence is the greatest threat to personal safety” in Guadalajara, and “the risk is as likely in upscale as well as lower-income areas.”

In many Mexican gated communities, the presence of drug traffickers further compromises safety.

“Sometimes it’s scary,” Navarro said. “If there’s a gunfight and I’m here I could get caught in the crossfire. Or if my daughter goes out to play…”

The problem is, the promise of gated communities—to enhance security through the use of walls, guards, and cameras—is as attractive to drug traffickers and contract killers as to law-abiding citizens.

Ironically, another common feature of gated communities that appeals to criminals is the lack of community life—those random interactions and curious neighbors—within their walls.

“A gated community very often isn’t a community, it’s just a gated transport hub,” said Anna Minton, the author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City. “A really interesting paradox I found is that they advertise all these facilities and they have all these amazing things on offer: swimming pools and sports courts and even a theatre in one place, and yet no one uses them because there’s no sense of community.”

Social contact with strangers in gated suburbs is often seen as unnecessary, because residents delegate responsibility for security to professional guards and cameras, Minton said.

“Residents tend to avoid mixing with others,” said one Guadalajara academic. “Criminals like that because the place affords privacy.”

While developers present gated communities as the perfect private solution to the public problem of crime, suspicion of strangers is not so easily subdued.

Only 12.4 percent of Mexicans believe “most people can be trusted,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This compares unfavorably to an average of 36 percent among all 34 OECD countries and is well below Demark, where 74.9 percent reported trust in others.

These anxieties do not disappear in the suburbs, as residents of gated communities are often suspicious of those living and working among them, whether narco neighbors or visiting staff.

Andrea Castellanos, whose name has been changed, is in her thirties and lives in Colina, a gated community within Ciudad Bugambilias in Guadalajara, one of the richest neighborhoods in Mexico.

Also located in southern Guadalajara, this private city-within-a-city has an English speaking kindergarten, bilingual schools, an ice-skating rink, and a shopping mall.

The neighborhood is classified as semi-gated, because visitors pass through a single entrance, but there are no entry procedures at the gates. However, there are several fully-gated communities within the suburb’s limits.

Castellanos has never lived outside of the Bugambilias complex.

“They regularly change the security personnel,” she said. “That’s a good thing because the guards know all your movements and they’re often the ones who end up stealing from you.”

A 2011 study of different housing types in Mexico City found that living in a gated community did little to reduce the self-reported levels of fear among residents who were home alone.

Research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a British social policy and development charity, concluded that “the provision of additional security measures,” may actually serve “to heighten levels of anxiety.”

Another study (PDF) released by the same organization found that security measures stoke fears because “symbols of security can remind us of our insecurities.”

In Bugambilias, the illusion of safety is undermined by the presence of Jalisco state Attorney General Eduardo Almaguer. His neighbors have publicly asked him to move, complaining that his huge security team is a disturbance.

“They’re dressed as police officers and they have guns in their hands. I don’t know if they have the safety on, but they’re carrying it in their hands,” said resident Paulina Barragan. Of course, the subtext here is that if the neighborhood really was as safe as advertised, the guards would be unnecessary.

Plenty of evidence suggests that the fear of crime in Bugambilias is well-founded. Yet the location attracts problems precisely because of its reputation for luxury.

Even the U.S. Department of the Treasury has highlighted Bugambilias as a narco hotspot, and arrests of residents are fairly common, even though it only has around 3,200 inhabitants.

In April last year, the leader of a kidnapping ring died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after dozens of armed soldiers surrounded his house in the complex. Two kidnapping victims were discovered alive in the residence.

A man was shot multiple times in a botched hit in February last year, while a bodyguard and a pair of armed robbers exchanged gunfire during an attempted car theft last October. Except for 2014 and 2015, shootouts have occurred within the suburb every full year since 2008.

While exclusive communities like Bugambilias promise a solution to crime, they in fact foster the kind of social divisions that fuel it.

The village of Santa Ana Tepetitlán sits just outside of Bugambilias, and provides the suburb with an army of construction workers, gardeners, security guards, and nannies. As such, it is a relationship of mutual convenience.

Yet it also presents a vision of almost feudal inequality.

“There are incredibly high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction,” said Tulio Rosas, the former general secretary of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) in Jalisco. “You can see young people using drugs on the streets. Gang fights are common, leading to murders. There’s a gang known as ‘the Dwarves’ with children as young as 5 that rob to buy drugs.”

Sewage from Bugambilias collects within the village limits and most of its 6,000 residents live in crowded, makeshift houses. Child sexual exploitation is reportedly widespread in the neighborhood.

Social contact between the residents of Bugambilias and its neighbor is completely non-existent, and these stark divisions create anxieties on both sides.

“It is not only the level of inequality and poverty in a city that triggers social conflict but the perception of this inequality,” said Dr. Eduardo López Moreno, the director of research and capacity development at UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Program. “The best way that perception can manifest is through a wall.”

López Moreno argues that residential segregation has played an indirect role in fueling Mexico’s drug war, because physical walls reinforce existing inequalities.

“The city can contribute to negative social behaviors,” he said. “The more inequalities exist in cities the more you will have cheap labor to join cartels. That will be all these young people that are ready to kill for very little money.”

López Moreno believes a plan to break up clusters of wealth and poverty in cities should be part of the government’s long-term anti-crime strategy.

“In the developing world gated communities are the result of a lack of planning,” López Moreno said. “Clear rules and regulations are needed so the city is not formed by the addition of gated communities but is designed as a whole—as an integrated system.”

Augusto Valencia, a political deputy for the liberal Citizen’s Movement in Guadalajara has proposed major changes to the law that would effectively open private communities and prevent them from restricting road access.

Although the proposal has been met with significant opposition, it still represents a milestone for raising awareness of the issue.

In recent years, local authorities in Guadalajara and Mexico City have tried to breathe life into public spaces. Initiatives such as the renovation of Guadalajara’s historic center and Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park are positive first steps toward strengthening public life. Free open-air events and bike sharing projects have also been successful.

Yet the prevalent sense in Mexico is that the government and its institutions are ill-equipped to curb divisions.

This view is reflected in Rodrigo Plá’s film, La Zona, which focuses on wealthy citizens who take security into their own hands.

“In Mexico, we live with this intense feeling that there’s an absence of state. The state doesn’t regulate and is not there to resolve conflicts,” Plá told The Daily Beast. “Social polarization, fear of others and a desire for status are also factors driving the growth of these communities.”

Following the film’s release nearly a decade ago, the director suffered an experience that forced him to reconsider its tone.

“Me and my family have chosen to live outside of a gated community, without this kind of security. However, soon after making the film, we were held up at gunpoint. And we had to ask ourselves if we had done justice to the people who choose to close themselves away. Because it’s also a reality, the impunity and violence.”

Plá said the shock of President Trump’s plans to build a wall along the border with its ally have forced the conversation on Mexico’s own walls.

“We like to think of the wall of the film as a metaphor for the walls that spring up on all sides to separate, to enclose, to divide, to prevent people passing. These walls correspond exactly to the inability of human beings to solve their problems. The bigger and higher, the more clumsy and intolerant we have been.”