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THE WORLD | DISPATCH FROM APATZINGAN

Serendipity in a town torn by violence, drugs

A canceled interview brings a chance to see the city's lighter side.

June 18, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

APATZINGAN, MEXICO — The pork carnitas were served hot and greasy with a side of fresh green chile salsa and a stack of handmade tortillas off a griddle about 20 feet away.

Conversation was nearly impossible with the seven-piece mariachi band blasting away tableside, so Jorge Luis Castenada Castillo went ahead and brought the works: cold beer, a pitcher of juice and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch.

"How's that?" he said. "Can I get you anything else?"

I was supposed to be interviewing the police chief of this city in Michoacan, a Pacific coast state torn by drug gang violence. But the chief canceled. He'd been shot on his way to work and was being treated. He would quit his job the next day and leave town with his family.

So instead of working I joined 100 people at Castillo's 50th birthday, an afternoon affair that was as fortuitous as stumbling onto one of those catered Rose Parade parties on New Year's morning after a night on the curb.

"This is why Mexico is wonderful," said another newspaper man, well into his cups, as he pointed out our good luck.

The shindig was in an outdoor pavilion on the sprawling grounds of Rancho San Francisco, a successful ranch and hacienda that is a dream for many here. The pavilion had ceiling fans to cool off guests, and children swarmed a swimming pool while their parents sat at dozens of round party tables nearby.

Leading locals were happy to brag about their town to a visiting reporter: new roads; the restoration of the building where Mexicans drafted their first constitution in 1814; and perfect weather for growing grapefruit, bananas, papaya and mango.

"Everybody comes here to write about drugs," said Javier Lozano, the city's director of communications. "Maybe you'll write about the good things."

Apatzingan enjoyed a boom during the 1970s when thousands of acres of cotton provided work. Rain is plentiful, and the port is only 90 minutes away.

But farmers never recovered after falling cotton prices, cheaper labor elsewhere and the rise of synthetic fabrics killed the local market. Low wages, along with ideal weather and transport routes, have again made the region valuable -- this time for a different kind of crop.

Fields of marijuana and opium poppies flourish. There are plenty of able hands for harvest and transport. The rugged mountains, and protection money, make law enforcement difficult.

The Mexican army has 4,660 troops here, the frontal assault in President Felipe Calderon's 6-month-old national war on drugs. But the drug business and the killings continue. Now, soldiers -- and not only police -- are getting ambushed.

Castillo went from table to table, dressed in pressed jeans, Western shirt, cowboy boots and gold chains. He's a former mayor, and despite the troubles that surround and sometimes invade his hometown, he'd like to run again. He served from 1999 to 2001, then returned to tending his butcher shops.

"We've had about nine years of real economic and social development," he said, "so we're just getting started."

Party host Francisco Medina bought his 160-acre spread in 1964 and now raises prizewinning cattle and blue agave, the cactus used in tequila. He's planning a factory that will process agave syrup, enough to export more than 7,000 tons a year to the United States and Japan.

"It's clear, it's beautiful, it's got a great taste," he said, describing the product.

But in Michoacan, the largest export remains its people. Calderon lamented in meetings with President Bush this year that as many as half the residents of his home state are in the U.S.

The money-exchange houses in town serve as a conduit for the millions of dollars sent home by workers abroad. They also serve as a means of laundering some of the profits from dope sold on U.S. streets, drug experts said.

"We need to invest in jobs," said Castillo, sipping a glass of Scotch. It's an observation echoed in every corner of Mexico, probably because it's true.

"In 15 or 20 years," he said, envisioning a countryside studded with Rancho San Franciscos, "this could all look like a giant ranch."

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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