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The Two Black Thursdays in Culiacán and the Challenge to the Codes of Urban Space

Iliana del Rocío Padilla Reyes

It is common for outsiders to construct a narrative, based on myths surrounding drug trafficking, about the alleged normalization of violence in Sinaloa. In addition, this idea is used by public officials to justify their omissions and to draw up hasty interpretations. The reality is that the residents of Sinaloa—and of Culiacán in particular—are not ignorant of the complexity of the situation. Rather, they create strategies that allow them to coexist in the urban spaces, recognizing and coexisting with what we have called “the codes of violence in Culiacán”[1].


With the high levels of violence that occur, with 40 homicides per month[2] and 6 people who are disappeared every day, the residents of Culiacán go about their routines with relative confidence—however, this does not mean that they are not afraid. According to the most recent figures of the National Urban Security Survey (known by the Spanish language acronym ENSU), which is conducted on a quarterly basis by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), 77.8 percent of residents feel unsafe in their city.


A few years ago, I conducted interviews with several people who faced violence on a daily basis in the areas of Culiacán with the highest levels of crime. I saw that a social order has been established in the city, characterized by the creation of codes on the street or in the neighborhood which allow individuals to carry out their routine activities with a certain degree of confidence and tranquility, despite the constant risk posed by violence. Business people, police, criminals, and other residents of the city share these codes. Culichis (colloquial term for residents of Culiacán) are aware of the complexity of the various types of violence, and some of them participate in it as well. The networks of involvement and complicity in crime, which are extended through connections of convenience, family ties, friendship, solidarity, and fear as well, give rise to unwritten codes of behavior: where not to go, what not to talk about, how to interact with others, and when to look the other way.


These codes keep daily life in the city working in spite of the violence, but on occasion they are disrupted. This occurred, in particular, on two Thursdays that are recalled, in the recent history of Culiacán, as moments when, for a few hours or even days, organized crime broke with the established order and was tolerated (but not normalized) as it terrorized the population in public spaces, suddenly increasing the level of the already well-known and accepted insecurity.


The First Black Thursday


The first Thursday referenced herein occurred in May 2008. Residents of the city heard the blast of a bazooka and 500 shots fired from the AK-47 that ended the life of Édgar Guzmán López, the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in the parking area of a shopping mall in one of the busiest areas. That Black Thursday remains in the collective memory because we culichis had to take cover inside our houses, due to the constant threats that were made on social media, and the rumors that a war had begun which would take place in different public spaces.


People spent that weekend sharing messages and recordings via digital media in which unidentified individuals warned the population to not leave their houses, because they would be setting off bombs on the streets and in shopping malls.


In an account that he wrote for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, journalist Javier Valdéz described the events:


“Streets shut down, helicopters flying overhead, soldiers and police everywhere, on every corner. Nobody honks at other drivers, and certainly doesn’t curse them out. People are very afraid. At every traffic light, people glance at the other drivers out of the corner of their eyes. If they see a pickup truck, they don’t move until the truck leaves.[3]


The city went silent, but for the noise of bullets and the alert messages that did not stop coming in. Merchants shut up their shops in the middle of the Mother’s Day celebrations—observed on May 10 in Mexico—and the shopping malls remained empty.


The war between two groups—on one side, the Beltrán Leyva group, and the group of Zambada and Guzmán on the other—created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the city, one that was exacerbated even more so by the threats that were made against the population. The Culiacán-Navolato military operation was the subsequent punitive response that increased the violence. Sinaloa experienced clashes between the two groups, and also with government forces.


In Culiacán, there are still many wounds and marks left by that first Black Thursday, when terror and threats against uninvolved civilians disrupted the social order of chronic violence, that order that consisted of unwritten agreements and tolerable levels of insecurity. One of these marks left on the city, evoking what occurred during those days, was the nearly two meter-high cenotaph that the Guzmán family built in the parking area of the shopping mall, which can also be seen from the street, because they often decorate it ostentatiously to attract the attention of passersby.


The youngest residents of the city identify the cenotaph of Edgard Guzmán as “the monument to El Chapito”; this is how they refer to it when they play the video game in which they hunt for Pokemon with their cell phones in real spaces. “Look, mom, there’s a Pikachu on the ‘monument to El Chapito,’” my son tells me, although when the murders and threats were taking place, he was still in my womb.


The Second Black Thursday


The second Black Thursday—the more recent one—terrorized the city on October 17. Culichis recall it as the day in 2019 when people who were “in bad company” (young people involved with drug trafficking and their admirers) took to the streets to spread terror. They set up checkpoints in a perimeter surrounding the city, they fired guns and grenades to frighten spectators, and to threaten or attack the police and the armed forces. People who found themselves in public spaces ran to take cover inside offices and commercial establishments, in order to avoid falling victim to the crossfire, and they stayed there for the rest of the afternoon—some of them even remained there all night.


Within a couple hours, the streets were nearly empty. Some people peeked out their windows and balconies to record the barbarism with their cell phones, and to watch the armed men taking control of the streets. The right to occupy the city had been eliminated for everyone except them, and now they were seen firing their guns to the beat of their narcocorrido music, shouting, driving around at breakneck speed, and later on, when it was assumed that Ovidio Guzmán had been set free, they were seen celebrating, setting cars on fire, throwing empty bottles into the air, and holding drag races in a state of total chaos.


During those hours when the urban space was violently taken over in an improvised fashion, the unwritten codes were ignored. The understood agreements had been defied, and those who were on the streets, or watching from their windows, witnessed, in shock, the siege of their city. The habitual fear now turned into uncertainty, and the information obtained from the media was scarce in comparison with what was circulating on social media: audio messages with warnings, messages with alleged detailed explanations regarding the arrest of two of “El Chapo’s” sons, explicit photographs of the victims of the clashes, and also wartime images (although they were not from that place and time).


The Secretary of Public Safety of the State of Sinaloa stated, in a meeting with activists and the media, that on that day, “the people of Sinaloa saw the true face of drug trafficking.” In my opinion, we Sinaloans are familiar with the various faces of drug trafficking in our state. What they had not seen—and this is the reason for the shocked reaction—was the betrayal of a tacitly agreed upon order that had made it possible for the various social actors to coexist in the same urban space. Those who terrorized the streets, to quote Arendt, were not unknown monsters, but rather “men who were efficient at the tasks entrusted to them.”[4]


According to the testimonies and interviews that journalist friends of mine wrote, some of those young people who we saw on the videos that were shared on social media had been recruited and armed on that very afternoon. In this way, “El Chapo’s” people showed that their operational structure can be extended, at any given moment, to include sympathizers who are not a regular part of drug trafficking groups, but who appear to be quite numerous.


On the following day, in a press conference with the Security Cabinet in Sinaloa, the National Secretary of Public Safety, Alfonso Durazo, recognized that they had not predicted the scene that would result from the poorly-planned strategy to arrest Ovidio Guzmán. They did not foresee it from the center of the country, despite the history: the ambush launched on soldiers in 2019, in the very city of Culiacán, and the violence following the murder of Edgar Guzmán during the war between the two groups in 2008. They forgot, or—even worse—they were unaware of the fact that, in cities like Culiacán, where the active parties of drug trafficking establish networks of coercion and complicity, social order is largely shaped by those who have the upper hand of power.


Although the President of Mexico has called, before the media, for a redirectioning of the bilateral policy of fighting drug trafficking—seeking for the United States to also recognize its own active role as the main consumer of drugs and provider of weapons—in practice, beyond the level of discourse, security strategies continue to focus on capturing the heads of a massive hydra that puts out dozens of new tentacles every day. A year after the second Black Thursday, the policy of “hugs, not bullets” continues with all its contradictions, lack of clarity, confused instruments, and scarce resources. There are no specific diagnostic tools—or, at least, there is no knowledge of them—and the National Guard has had poor results.


The murder rate has gone down in Culiacán, but reports of forced disappearances have gone up. Following the difficult event, in which the established order was betrayed, the codes of violence were redefined, and although the perception of insecurity grew, the city’s residents went back to their routines. Those who consider themselves “the good guys” went back to coexisting with well-known levels of violence, in which young people are disappeared and murdered, but people are not engaged in full-blown shootouts on the streets. The chronic, tolerated kinds of violence are back, but with one constant factor: the fear that, at any moment, that order may vanish all over again.


________________

Iliana del Rocío Padilla Reyes is a Professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Juriquilla Campus. She is a native of Culiacán.



[1] Padilla, I., and Botello, N. A. (2019). Códigos de la violencia en espacios económicos en Culiacán, Sinaloa, México. [Codes of violence in commercial spaces in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico.] Papers: revista de sociología [Papers: Journal of Sociology], 104(1), 25-45.

[2] Data on homicides for each month of 2020, “Crime Indicator of Sinaloa,” with figures from the Attorney General 's Office of Sinaloa.

[3] Valdez Cárdenas Javier and Gustavo Castillo. (May 14, 2008). “El ejército ocupa Culiacán y Navolato, en un intento por abatir ola de violencia” [The army occupies Culiacán and Navolato, in an attempt to abate the wave of violence.] La Jornada, Politics section. Available online:nhttps://www.jornada.com.mx/2008/05/14/index.php?section=politica&article=012n1pol

[4] Arendt, H., y Kroh, J. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking.

This project is a joint effort between the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the Noria Mexico-Central America program, and Revista Espejo.
 

La versión en español se encuentra aquí

Click here for a PDF version of this project in English. Para el PDF en español da click aquí

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