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Nayarit and the Making of a Narco State

Updated: Mar 22

Nathaniel Morris

Nayarit rarely makes the headlines in Mexico, far less in the rest of the world. But this fall, the arrest of Mexico’s former secretary of defense, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, dragged this small and unassuming state into the spotlight. On October 15, Cienfuegos was detained in Los Angeles on charges including conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana in the United States, allegedly working on behalf of the Nayarit-based ‘H-2 Cartel.’ Cienfuegos denied the charges against him, and after a month of behind-the-scenes wrangling, US attorney general William Barr decided that ‘sensitive and important foreign policy considerations’ outweighed the case against Cienfuegos, ordering his release so that he ‘may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged’ in Mexico. For many, Cienfuegos’ arrest and subsequent release is a conspicuous symbol of the intrinsic corruption that plagues the militarized drug war strategy.

But there is more to the story. The ‘H-2 Cartel’ was not some minor group that somehow managed to bribe the country’s top security official. Rather, it was an organization that not only controlled drug trafficking in Nayarit between 2011 and 2017, but also established close ties with much of the state’s political elite. The story of how that corruption played out in Nayarit brings into focus the interplay between military operations, political maneuvering and drug trafficking. Indeed, it is in some ways unsurprising that Cienfuegos would be connected with an organization based in Nayarit, where the unique dynamics of local politics, combined with the state’s low profile as a hub for trafficking, have long permitted a particular brand of what Benjamin Smith has termed ‘narco-populism’ to flourish.[1] With any case against Cienfuegos now reliant on the information available to the Mexican prosecutor’s office—which, just days before Cienfuegos’ release, issued an arrest warrant for a former governor of Nayarit also accused of cooperation with the H-2 Cartel—it would seem that the Narco-Nayarit connection has never been more worthy of serious analysis.


With a total area of a little under 30,000 km2, Nayarit is roughly the size of Massachusetts, and 23rd out of Mexico’s 32 federal entities in terms of size. It sits halfway up Mexico’s Pacific coast, sandwiched between Sinaloa to the north and Jalisco to the south, while its mountainous interior also borders Durango and Zacatecas. Nayarit’s coast is a tropical zone fringed by mangrove swamps, where fishing and commercial agriculture are the lifeblood of the local economy. Indeed, Nayarit is Mexico’s second biggest exporter of mangoes, and primary producer of tobacco. Since 1970, eighty percent of Mexican tobacco has been grown in the vast plantations of the Nayarit coast, pulling in migrant workers from across central and western Mexico.[2]

Further inland is Tepic, the state’s slightly gritty capital of 330,000, located in an altiplano zone of cane fields and coffee orchards towered over by huge volcanoes. Finally, Mexico’s largest mountain range, the Sierra Madre Occidental, completely dominates the western third of the state. This region is difficult to access, sparsely populated, incredibly poor (even by Mexican standards), and predominantly populated by Indigenous Wixárika (Huichol) and Náayari (Cora) people.

Nayarit’s hugely important agricultural sector has made the state a natural stronghold of the PRI, and in particular of PRI strongmen of a particularly brash and populist bent; only two non-PRI governors have ever run the state (once between 1999-2005, while in 2017 the state flipped to current president López Obrador’s insurgent MORENA party), while the PRI’s stranglehold on municipal-level politics has been even more complete.

The legacy of this political history and the facts of geography together define Nayarit’s place in the modern Mexican drug trade. The heavily indigenous highlands that were the backbone of 19th-century rebellion, are today one of Mexico’s primary opium-growing zones, thanks to a combination of widespread and severe poverty, rugged, mountainous topography, and the limited, ineffective and often corrupt presence of state and federal authorities.[3] Similarly, the long coastline and strategic location between Sinaloa and Jalisco that, in the nineteenth century, had made Nayarit a stronghold of the British contrabandists, by the 1960s made the state a strategically important setting for the trafficking of drugs north towards the United States. This illicit trade was dominated by Sinaloans, although in many cases they operated from Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco. For Guadalajara-based Sinaloan capos like Ruperto Beltrán Monzón in the 1960s, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in the 1980s, and Héctor El “Güero” Palma in the early 1990s, maintaining control over Nayarit, whose roads connected their native state with their new homes, was therefore doubly important.

If Sinaloans dominated the higher echelons of the Nayarit’s drug trade, from the 1980s growing numbers of Nayarit natives also began to move from drug production into the more profitable business of trafficking. Sam Quinones has revealed that the traffickers who dominate the heroin trade in the US Midwest are all predominantly from Nayarit. Most of them hail more specifically from the town of Xalisco, just outside the state capital of Tepic, where opium gum from Nayarit’s mountains was processed into black tar heroin and then sent off north for distribution and sale.

Although the drug trade in Nayarit operated with the direct involvement of government representatives at all levels, the army occasionally attacked traffickers and often arrested, tortured and/or imprisoned peasants caught cultivating poppies and marijuana. Nor were skirmishes between rival traffickers, and the killing of state officials on the orders of organized crime, unheard of in the state.[4] But violence related to the drug trade only began to surge in Nayarit after President Calderón’s 2006 declaration of ‘war’ on the nation’s cartels. By 2010, Tepic had a murder rate of 229 for every 100,000 inhabitants, and was ranked the thirteenth most dangerous city in the world. 2011 was even bloodier, with 456 murders recorded across the state.