In Sinaloa, Mexico, a deadly mix of designer drugs and enforced disappearances

Next to the steps leading to the pristine white walls of the Catholic Cathedral that dominates downtown Culiacán, Sinaloa, nearly 40 bright red posters demand the attention of passers-by.

The flyers are part of a statewide effort by an independent collective to search for their missing loved ones here and in this northern Mexican state. Comprised mostly of women, dozens of these groups work tirelessly to raise awareness of the growing number of people who have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico and, ultimately, to find the missing.

InSight Crime spoke to several of these search squads in the major cities of Culiacán, Los Mochis and Mazatlán, as well as other activists, lawyers and government officials. All were categorical on the fact that the increase in enforced disappearances observed in Sinaloa in recent years is directly linked to a dynamic more than anything else: the consumption and local sales of synthetic drugs.

Photo: InSight Crime

The rise of synthetic drugs here and across Mexico has transformed local drug use and changed the dynamics of violence in the process. In 2010, at the height of the violence, Sinaloa recorded more than 180 killings a day, largely attributed to warring criminal groups. But in recent years authorities have seen more enforced disappearances than ever before, now exceeding homicides.

As of the end of October, there were currently 5,654 people actively missing in Sinaloa, according to data from Mexico’s National Research Commission, although activists said it was likely a vast undercount. On the other hand, authorities recorded just 645 homicides statewide in 2021, down more than 70% from the 2,250 recorded in 2010.

SEE ALSO: Mothers looking for loved ones in Mexico abandoned by authorities

Leaflets drawing attention to the crisis of disappearances are everywhere in Culiacán, Los Mochis and Mazatlán. Pictured amid those hanging outside the capital’s main cathedral is a collective call for forgiveness.

“I’m sorry I didn’t hug you tighter. I thought I’d see you again.

Local production, local consumption

Over time, Mexico’s organized crime groups have ramped up the production of potent synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl by branching away from the traditional mainstays of marijuana and heroin. Today, the state of Sinaloa is ground zero for the mass production of these drugs.

While a large percentage of that production is destined for U.S. consumers, a growing share is meeting local demand, said Ricardo Jenny del Rincón, head of Sinaloa’s Public Safety Executive Secretary (Ejecutivo del Sistema Estatal de Seguridad Pública). , to InSight Crime in an April 2022 interview.

SEE ALSO: The state of Sinaloa dominates the production of fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mexico

Between 2013 and 2020, treatment demand related to methamphetamine abuse increased by 218% in Mexico, according to data from a 2021 report published by the Mexican Observatory of Mental Health and Substance Use. . Sinaloa was one of 12 states in the country where methamphetamine use was considered the most problematic.

And as illegal fentanyl produced in Mexico dominates the US drug market, the deadly synthetic opioid has also seeped into the local drug supply in Sinaloa. So far this year alone, the drug has been blamed for at least three overdose deaths, although there are likely to be many more, according to health officials consulted by InSight Crime.

“Synthetic drugs are a serious problem here in Sinaloa,” said a doctor working at a state center to help those struggling with addiction. “This is a public health issue that transcends public safety, touching the heart of the social fabric.”

Collateral damage

The increase in local retail sales of drugs like methamphetamine has had “very strong” collateral consequences in Sinaloa, particularly in terms of enforced disappearances, according to Jenny del Rincón.

Methamphetamine in particular is highly addictive, easy to access, and extremely cheap, with a typical dose selling for around 50 pesos (about $2.50) on the streets of Sinaloa’s three major cities. These qualities have drawn many new users into more frequent contact with Sinaloa’s dangerous criminal actors.

Photo: InSight Crime

Members of cooperatives searching for missing loved ones in Culiacán, Los Mochis and Mazatlán agreed. Representatives from each city estimated that “the majority” of enforced disappearances, between 70% and 80%, were related to drug use or selling drugs on the street.

The motives behind enforced disappearances, they explained, are relatively simple and deal with several unwritten rules.

A consumer caught with crystals, or methamphetamine, purchased from a rival group and branded with a competing seal, may be grounds for enforced disappearance. It is not uncommon for those struggling with drug abuse to also resort to theft or other petty crimes to fuel their use. In case of capture, disappearance is often the punishment inflicted by criminal groups.

On the other hand, if a dealer is found selling drugs marked with the wrong color or a different seal than the criminal group overseeing the sales in a particular neighborhood, he could be the victim of a disappearance. forced or killed.

In many cases, these collectives have alleged that there are direct links between enforced disappearances and local authorities, primarily the municipal police. Sometimes, sources told InSight Crime, local law enforcement involvement could eventually include detaining dealers and consumers who violated these unwritten rules and handing them over to organized crime groups to disappear. Police officers themselves have also been victims of enforced disappearances.

As the collectives fight against local authorities and the organized criminal networks so often responsible for these enforced disappearances, they also fight to preserve the dignity of their loved ones.

“Why are we looking for them? Because we love them! Photo: InSight Crime.

“We cannot normalize the belief that these people deserve to disappear,” said an official from a research collective in Culiacán. “Many of them are poor and come from broken families living in communities that the state does not support.

“No one deserves to disappear.”

*Victoria Dittmar, Sara García, Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, Michael Lettieri, and Marcos Vizcarra contributed to this article.

Alvin J. Chase