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COLUMN ONE

Peasants for the kingpins

Those who do the heavy lifting for Mexico's drug lords toil for paltry sums. They live humbly and die violently.

December 06, 2007|Hector Tobar and Cecilia Sanchez | Times Staff Writers

GUAMUCHIL, MEXICO — Jose alan montoya died far from the beloved roosters he raised on his patio, far from the tortilla shop his mother ran, far from the people who still weep for a man gunned down on a marijuana plantation in the mountains of Michoacan.

Montoya was born and raised in a humble, orderly neighborhood just outside this town in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. He died more than 600 miles to the south, shot and killed by army troops who say he opened fire on them.

Drug traffickers are mythologized throughout Mexico by a subculture that portrays them as lavishly paid gunslingers. But most of the 5,000 who have lost their lives in the last two years in the business are people of limited horizons who die in relative anonymity.

The oldest of six children, Montoya had little education. In Guamuchil, he held odd jobs at hospitals and construction sites where he rarely made more than $20 a day, relatives said.

"Someone told him he was going to make a lot of money, that he could send money to his family," said Elva Camacho, his mother. "They must have filled his head with big dreams."

The employees of Mexico's drug-trafficking groups are a varied bunch, including cannon-fodder "trigger men," drug- and cash-hauling "mules," accountants and communication specialists.

Many sell their souls for sums that are less than princely: In October, 25 officers of the Federal Preventive Police in the city of Tampico were arrested after allegedly receiving monthly payments of as little as $450 each for providing intelligence and protection to the Gulf cartel.

No one in Montoya's family knows how much he was offered to work for the drug traffickers. But his story is emblematic of the many myths and deceptions about the misnamed "cartels" that operate throughout Mexico.

Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico's top police official, said the typical drug-trafficking operative is young, 25 to 30.

"There is a tendency to give them this aura of power," Garcia Luna said this year. "But when you have a chance to see them face to face . . . you see they are really people of low circumstances."

In Guamuchil, Montoya lived with his mother and didn't have enough money to put his roosters to their intended use: cockfighting. He had once crossed illegally into the United States and worked for a while in Las Vegas, but he was apparently deported.

At 33, he seemed to have few ambitions. He was an easygoing man who joked with his relatives and traveled about town on a bicycle. In the U.S., he had "Sinaloa" tattooed on his stomach.

In October 2006, he announced to his relatives that he had been hired to work on a construction project in the southern state of Michoacan.

"When I'm gone, you'll be the oldest," he told his 28-year-old sister, Arely, on his last day home. "Try and visit our mother every day and look after her."

He called home from Michoacan several times. But during his three months away, he sent money home only once: the equivalent of $180 so his brother could buy a clarinet.

His mother asked him if he was eating well. "There's a whole bunch of us here from Sinaloa," he said. "There's a lady who cooks for us every day."

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The family learned of his death in a local newspaper. On the Internet, they found a picture of four soldiers carrying his body, one holding each limb, as if they were dragging away an animal they had hunted. The Sinaloa tattoo was visible on his midriff. His burial cost almost $3,000, including shipping his body to Sinaloa.

Days after his funeral, an anonymous caller telephoned to promise his mother that "everything you are spending will be repaid to you." But the family never heard from the caller again.

"Normally, the traffickers take people from here who are not involved" in organized crime, said Carlos Cota, a Sinaloa lawyer and Montoya family friend. "In the mountains, they recruit people to work from the poor neighborhoods, people who don't have full-time jobs."

Cocaine arrives in Mexico by the ton via sea and air routes from South America, U.S. officials say. But it's typically smuggled into the United States by the pound. In between, drugs must be offloaded, transported overland and protected against bajadores, bands that specialize in stealing shipments from rivals.

Although "cartel" suggests that one group controls all aspects of the drug trade, drugs are actually shipped through the region thanks to alliances among local and regional crime groups.

When deals between groups are broken, violence ensues, said Luis Astorga, a Sinaloa native and Mexico City academic who has written extensively on trafficking. Gunmen and support personnel are needed to staff a large, quasi-military infrastructure.

"Given the high levels of profit in the business, [personnel] costs are very small," Astorga said. Some traffickers have hired former special operations soldiers and high-ranking police officers, he said. But the vast majority of their employees are unskilled.

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