Local drug sales in Sinaloa’s capital city may be a small-time business. Even so, it’s controlled by one of the most notorious and powerful organized crime families in Mexico.
A sign with “Supreme” written in big letters hangs outside. You can wash your car here for 100 pesos, about $5, with the assurance that it’ll leave clean and smelling like coconut, “new car” smell, or Hugo Boss cologne, among other counterfeit fragrances. But this is not all they’re selling.
This carwash is located in the Las Quintas neighborhood, one of the oldest and most expensive in Culiacán, the capital of Mexico’s northern state of Sinaloa. There’s an office off to one side, unnoticeable if not for the steady stream of people coming and going.
Upon entering, there’s a waiting room with a television. There’s nothing suspicious except for the strong odor of marijuana that would make anyone unaccustomed to such a smell dizzy.
There’s another door in the back. In the room behind it, the shelves are lined with neon lights and accessories that promise an enjoyable experience. There are pipes, lighters, creams, oils, grinders, brownies, pastries, and all kinds of candies made with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient.
More products fill a glass cabinet with a young woman — no more than 20 years old — standing behind it. She’s a saleswoman like any other, trained like a Starbucks barista to personalize your order.
Similar to the dispensaries in US states where marijuana has been legalized, the young woman isn’t there just for the transaction but to guide the customer. Maybe you don’t know what to buy, but she’ll explain each product and how much will best fit your needs and expectations.
For those that already know their way around these establishments, there are marijuana strains like “royal gorilla” or “amnesia haze” sold by the gram. Promotions offer three joints for 500 pesos, about $25. To pay, the young woman happily accepts Mexican pesos, US dollars, bank transfers, and even Bitcoin.
This is one of 18 informal dispensaries scattered around Culiacán: behind the main cathedral, alongside the university, three blocks from the Holy Spirit Parish. Each has a certain front to try and hide the true business dealings happening behind its doors. Inside, the business tries to mimic dispensaries in places like California, where marijuana is legal.
The promotions marketed inside also reveal something else. The joints are packaged inside sealed glass tubes with specific sticker labels of presidents, actors, and television personalities.
But the most common label is a small rat with a blue or red ribbon, the same cartoon used to refer to Ovidio Guzmán López.
A New Generation
Guzmán López is the half-brother of Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar. Known collectively as the Chapitos, they are the sons of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, who is now jailed for life in a maximum-security US prison.
For each son, the US government is now offering a $5 million reward to anyone who could provide information leading to their arrest to dismantle the criminal organization.
Authorities upped the reward a little more than two years after Mexican authorities entered Culiacán and briefly detained Ovidio on October 17, 2019. Within minutes, the Sinaloa Cartel mobilized dozens of armed men. They kidnapped members of the army and some of their family members before the government eventually gave in and freed Ovidio.
In addition to shops like Supreme and some ten others that sell a variety of drugs, the Chapitos have firm control over street drug sales in Culiacán. Their influence and firepower have helped them assume control over a violent market often defined by forced disappearances and torture.
This way of doing business is different from how things used to work in Sinaloa, according to displaced farmers, fishermen, and drug users. There used to be a free market with multiple suppliers operating and no significant conflict.
“Before [the Chapitos] arrived, you could sell [marijuana] to multiple people, but now they tell you who and who not to sell to. If you sell to somebody else, they kidnap you or torture you,” said one Uber driver who previously grew marijuana.
The Chapitos also decide where drugs should be moved and when. They set the price at every step in the production chain. Those who don’t follow the rules suffer the consequences, which can be fatal.
The Chapitos also manage a vast methamphetamine and fentanyl market. Unlike marijuana, this doesn’t require large plots of land or a specific climate. Synthetic drug labs can operate in any place where there’s electricity, water, and ventilation.
Between 2010 and 2021, the Mexican army destroyed some 700 drug labs in Sinaloa alone, the most of any state by far. The US government has zeroed in on the Chaptios as part of renewed efforts to combat organized crime groups dedicated to such synthetic drug production.
The vast majority of this clandestine production is bound for consumers in the United States, but a growing part is staying behind in major cities like Culiacán, where the Chapitos set the price.
“You can’t look for it anywhere else because you can only buy from one group. If I buy from somebody else, they’ll pick me up and beat me,” said one agricultural worker in the south of Culiacán who regularly consumes marijuana and methamphetamine.
Marijuana in Decline
These shifting dynamics are part of an evolution in the marijuana trade. For decades, hundreds of small farmers depended on it to survive. And the mountains provided: the conditions are perfect for growing and processing the harvest, and the criminal groups were ready to buy in huge quantities.
What’s more, there was little else to do. According to Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social – CONEVAL), five of the municipalities with the highest rates of extreme poverty in Mexico are in Sinaloa: Badiraguato, Choix, Cosalá, Mocorito, and Sinaloa, all places where growing marijuana was a primary economic activity.
The illicit growth made the region a central target for authorities. According to data from Mexico’s Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional – SEDENA), between 2012 and 2021, soldiers destroyed more than 292 million hectares of cannabis in this state alone, most of it by spraying glyphosate, a chemical that kills plants at the root. During that time, they also destroyed more than two billion kilograms of marijuana seized by soldiers in operations throughout the western Sierra Madre mountains.
Now, however, this business is dying. With marijuana legalization in many states in the United States, demand for Mexican marijuana fell considerably. In 2006, a kilogram of low-grade marijuana was sold in Mexico for about 800 pesos, or $40. Today, that same kilogram sells for about a third of that price.
“It’s much harder to sell. We grow a lot, but they pay you barely anything,” said one of those farmers who migrated to Culiacán and now lives with his wife and two kids in a rented house alongside his sister, who also migrated to the city with her husband and three children.
The 38-year-old farmer, who just a couple of years prior was cutting cannabis plants and hanging marijuana up to dry before pressing it into bricks wrapped in plastic and adhesive tape, now works as an Uber driver.
From Bricks to Boutique Edibles
The cupcake looked like any other. Covered with cream and colorful sprinkles on top and all around, it sat inside a transparent plastic box with a rubber band that read “gastromágico.” A cell phone number was also visible. It arrived as part of a birthday celebration for Daniel’s grandson. Even after his eldest son warned him that it wasn’t just any cupcake, the 60-year-old didn’t think twice about eating it.
“He told me it had marijuana in it, but I didn’t believe him. How was he going to bring marijuana to my grandson’s birthday party?” he later asked while drinking an electrolyte and eating spicy chilaquiles to kill the effect of the drug.
The marijuana-laced cupcake had made Daniel’s heart beat so fast that he thought he would die. The dryness in his mouth was intense. He said he saw his past and present, and premonitions of a future he swore he wouldn’t be around to experience. The cupcake had delivered the “gastromagic” journey its packaging promised.
This isn’t the only shop where you can find these items. In Sinaloa, it’s illegal to produce and sell any product made with marijuana. This is why the packaging had a name and a telephone number that only responded to WhatsApp messages.
But similar to the Supreme stores, these shops offer a variety of marijuana-infused treats that boast flavors like red velvet, chocolate chip, and vanilla and promise a “flavor journey.” You can also find brownies and cake. Everything is made to order, and the prices are more expensive than those sold without marijuana. The illegal component is the so-called “value-added.”
In addition to the dispensaries, the Chapitos also maintain control over who can sell these pastries and other baked sweets, like the cupcake infused with 100 milligrams of marijuana that Daniel’s son purchased.
For Daniel, this value-added sent him to the Red Cross, where he got an intravenous injection to start flushing the marijuana from his system. After all, he had decided to eat the whole cupcake without sharing it with his wife or children.
The misadventure cost him dearly. But days later, he felt much better, joking around and wondering to himself, “Where did that marijuana come from?”
*Parker Asmann, Victoria Dittmar, Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, Michael Lettieri, and Marcos Vizcarra contributed reporting to this article.
*This article is the second in a four-part investigation, “The End of (Illegal) Marijuana: What It Means for Criminal Dynamics in Mexico,” diving into how the legalization of marijuana in a growing number of US states is impacting organized crime dynamics in Mexico. Read the full investigation here.
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