The border metropolis of Ciudad Juarez is located in Chihuahua, Salgueiro’s home state. Social meltdown and crime problems had already enveloped Juarez when the Sinaloa gang invasion of 2008 opened the Juarez Cartel War, which is still ongoing.
This was no classic war or even “insurgency” (as a congressional subcommittee tried to say of Mexico’s criminal clashes on the day of Salgueiro’s arrest, October 4). The Juarez War was the street-gang dynamic which was once feared to represent 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.
Noel Salgueiro, aka “El Flaco” (Slim), reportedly grew up about 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.
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. Now it was all-out war. Among the 1.3 million or more residents of Ciudad Juarez, with their backs to the U.S. border, rumours said the coming invasion date would be January 6, 2008. The mayor later said, the first killings, actually started a day earlier
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 ties to the Juarez Cartel (the old but badly bogged-down 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 top capo, Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman, as he had feted his 18-year-old beauty queen fiancee (Miss Coffee and Guayava Festival), prior to their marriage July 2, 2007, clearing the decks for war.
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, the 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 theory that the Sinaloa Cartel had secret links to the government.
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 brought the 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 be seeking 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.