COQUIMATLAN, Mexico — Before he was shot to death at a Guadalajara intersection last month, Manuel Salcido Uzeta was one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords. El Cochiloco, or "Crazy Pig," as he was called for his violent rages, had been hunted by Mexican and American officials, as well as by the international police agency Interpol.
Apparently they didn't look very hard.
For the last six years, Salcido, 44, had lived at least part of each week on a willow-shaded ranch in Colima state where, as wealthy engineer Pedro Orozco Garcia, he often played host to the governor, the state police chief, the mayor and other luminaries.
Orozco the rancher rode his palomino in the annual Independence Day parade, bought uniforms for a municipal volleyball team and lent his heavy machinery to pave a rural road.
Salcido the drug lord, meanwhile, moved comfortably around Guadalajara during the week without guns or bodyguards and apparently continued to run loads of South American cocaine through Mexico to the United States.
Since his death, federal agents have captured two shipments of cocaine totaling more than 7 tons and 5 tons of marijuana in the port of Manzanillo that are believed to have been his.
"Everyone in Colima said Orozco was a narco ," recalled Hector Sanchez de la Madrid, editor of El Diario de Colima. "It was strange that this man arrived with so much money and began do-good public works. Why didn't the governor ask questions before going to his ranch? How is it possible that the attorney general's office didn't know who this was?"
One wonders if they wanted to know.
The Bush Administration has praised President Carlos Salinas de Gortari for his efforts in fighting cocaine trafficking through Mexico. The government has captured 122 tons of cocaine in the last three years and jailed Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, another of the country's top traffickers and the reputed mastermind of the 1985 murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique S. Camarena. But Mexico still serves as a bridge for an estimated 70% of the cocaine that enters the United States, and Salcido's double life offers clues as to how. Whether through blindness, willful ignorance or corruption, officials allowed Salcido to remain free.
The drug lord made a weekly trip from Coquimatlan to Guadalajara and back by road, driving his wife and four children right past the attorney general's district office in Colima. The office walls are papered with Interpol posters of international terrorists. But there is no photograph of El Cochiloco on display.
As Orozco, Salcido paid for everything from the overhaul of his trucks to the rental of 120 acres in cash. But no one ever inquired about the large amounts of money.
Born poor in rural Sinaloa, Salcido grew up to become a member of the Guadalajara cartel--a desperado elite that ran marijuana, cocaine and heroine trafficking in Mexico for a generation. His stronghold was the Pacific Coast region around Mazatlan.
He was jailed briefly in Sinaloa in the mid-1970s but escaped, apparently taking his criminal records with him. Federal officials admit they cannot find his file.
U.S. and Mexican drug officials considered Salcido a sadistic murderer, but the poor villagers in Sinaloa told another story. He became godfather to numerous children, and his generosity is celebrated in a local ballad.
"He may have been the last of the Robin Hoods," admitted a U.S. official.
During the 1970s and early '80s, Guadalajara was Mexico's drug capital, a haven for the cartel leaders until they abducted U.S. drug agent Camarena in February, 1985.
Camarena was tortured to death, and his mutilated body was discovered several weeks later in the neighboring state of Michoacan. The murder provoked a massive manhunt for cartel leaders and forced them out of the city for a time.
U.S. drug officials believe Salcido visited the house in Guadalajara where Camarena was being tortured. They wanted to question him about the murder, but they never got a chance. Time and again they claimed to be closing in on him, but he always slipped away.
According to residents of Coquimatlan, the man known as Pedro Orozco Garcia moved to this picturesque town of cobblestone streets and orange trees shortly after the Camarena killing. A tall, robust man with a mustache and glasses, Orozco built his ranch outside Coquimatlan, about six miles southwest of Colima city.
The 900-acre Rancho Jayamita was a sight to behold, with 1,200 head of cattle and a stable of thoroughbred horses. Orozco built a lake and lined it with rose bushes, ficus and willow trees.
Orozco was known as a family man, a trait the ranch would seem to confirm. He had built a playground with a merry-go-round and slides. A miniature zoo housed deer, monkeys, llamas and a flock of brilliant peacocks.