Beside the steps leading up to the crisp white walls of the Catholic cathedral that towers over downtown Culiacán, Sinaloa, almost 40 bright red posters demand the attention of passersby.

The flyers are part of a statewide effort from an independent collective searching for their missing loved ones here and across this northern Mexican state. Made up primarily of women, dozens of these groups work tirelessly to raise awareness about the growing number of people who have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico and, ultimately, to find those missing.

*In northern Mexico, the rise of synthetic drugs has come with serious consequences. In this three-part series, InSight Crime looks at the social, public health, and environmental impacts of large-scale synthetic drug production and related consumption at the local level in the states of Sinaloa and Baja California. See parts two and three.

InSight Crime spoke with several of these search brigades across the major cities of Culiacán, Los Mochis, and Mazatlán, as well as other activists, lawyers, and government officials. All of them were adamant that the uptick in forced disappearances seen in Sinaloa in recent years is directly linked to one dynamic more than anything else: local consumption and sales of synthetic drugs.

Photo: InSight Crime

The rise of synthetic drugs here and across Mexico has transformed local drug consumption and altered the dynamics of violence in the process. In 2010, at the height of the violence, Sinaloa registered more than 180 murders per day, largely driven by feuding crime groups. But in recent years, authorities have seen more forced disappearances than ever before, now outpacing homicides.

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

SEE ALSO: Mothers Searching for Loved Ones in Mexico Abandoned by Authorities

Flyers calling attention to the disappearance crisis are present all over Culiacán, Los Mochis, and Mazatlán. Featured in the middle of those hanging outside the capital city’s main cathedral, there is a collective plea for forgiveness.

“I’m sorry for not holding you tighter. I thought I’d see you again.”

Local Production, Local Consumption

Over time, Mexico’s organized crime groups have stepped up production of potent synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl as they diversify 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 this production is bound for US consumers, a growing portion is supplying local demand, Ricardo Jenny del Rincón, the head of Sinaloa’s Executive Secretary of Public Security (Ejecutivo del Sistema Estatal de Seguridad Pública), told InSight Crime in an April 2022 interview.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa State Dominates Fentanyl and Meth Production in Mexico

Between 2013 and 2020, demand for treatment related to the misuse of methamphetamine increased 218% across Mexico, according to data from a 2021 report published by the Mexican Observatory of Mental Health and Consumption of Psychoactive Substances. Sinaloa was one of 12 states nationwide where methamphetamine use was deemed 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 many more, according to health officials consulted by InSight Crime.

“Synthetic drugs pose a serious problem here in Sinaloa,” said one doctor working at a state center to help those battling addiction. “It’s a public health issue that transcends public security, hitting at 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 forced 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 (around $2.50) on the streets of Sinaloa’s three major cities. Those 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 forced disappearances, or between 70% and 80%, were tied to drug consumption or street-level drug sales.

The motives behind the forced disappearances, they explained, are relatively straightforward and deal with several unwritten rules.

A consumer caught with cristal, or methamphetamine, purchased from a rival group and marked with a competing seal, can be grounds for being forcibly disappeared. It’s not uncommon for those struggling with misusing drugs to also resort to robbery or other petty crimes to feed their consumption. If caught, being disappeared is often the punishment handed down by criminal groups.

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

In many cases, these collectives have alleged there are direct connections between forced disappearances and local authorities, above all, the municipal police. At times, sources told InSight Crime, the local police’s involvement could possibly include detaining dealers and consumers that have broken these unwritten rules and handing them over to organized crime groups to be disappeared. Police officers themselves have also been victims of forced disappearances.

As collectives battle local authorities and the organized criminal networks so often responsible for these forced disappearances, they’re also fighting to preserve the dignity of their loved ones.

“Why do we search for them? Because we love them!” Photo: InSight Crime.

“We can’t normalize the belief that these people deserve to be disappeared,” said one leader of a search collective in Culiacán. “Many of them are poor and come from broken families living in communities the state does not support.

“Nobody deserves to disappear.”

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

*In northern Mexico, the rise of synthetic drugs has come with serious consequences. In this three-part series, InSight Crime looks at the social, public health, and environmental impacts of large-scale synthetic drug production and related consumption at the local level in the states of Sinaloa and Baja California. See parts two and three.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.