Working Out: A Letter from Sinaloa

Working Out: A Letter from Sinaloa

Mini Teaser: Sinaloa's maverick governor and his team have turned a narco-trafficking hellhole into a civic and commercial success. Maybe their formula can be franchised.

by Author(s): George Grayson

With less than four years left in his term, Mexico's President Vicente Fox looks increasingly like a lame duck. To his credit, he has brought honest people into government, cracked down on narco-trafficking, backed a freedom of information act, and quieted the Zapatista guerrillas in southern Chiapas state. Still, a medley of factors-poor relations with Congress, an inability to set priorities, a quixotic management style, intramural cabinet fights and spillover effects from a sluggish American economy-have contributed to the deadlock and drift that beset his administration.

But even as Fox slogs through a political quagmire, a basketball-playing labor leader, a law-and-order impresario and a Rocky-like swat team commander have shown that change can be accomplished at the state level. This unlikely trio has transformed the state of Sinaloa from a narco-dealer's paradise to a magnet for entrepreneurs. As a result, this carrot-shaped province hugging the Gulf of California in northwest Mexico has attracted, as of November 2002, 227 new businesses, totaling more than $700 million in investment since 1999. While much of the country has remained bogged down in a protracted recession, sun-baked Sinaloa has led the nation in job creation during the first quarter of this year and attained the number-one ranking among 31 states for slashing red tape. Who are the men responsible for this turnabout? How have they achieved so much despite a disquietingly high murder rate and an abundance of corruption and narco-clans? Does Sinaloa's experience hold any lessons for the rest of Mexico or for the developing world in general?

The Politico

Changes began in the state of Sinaloa soon after basketball aficionado Juan S. Millán Lizárraga swore the gubernatorial oath nearly four years ago. A former announcer who worked his way to the top of the Radio Workers' Union, the indefatigable Sinaloan became a leader in the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the nation's largest labor organization. Traditionally, all ctm members were automatically affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which dominated the country's politics for 71 years until opposition-candidate Fox captured the presidency in 2000. But Millán soon acquired a reputation as a maverick among the "dinosaurs" who ran the lethargic ctm. This image sprang from Millán's attempts to forge alliances with other labor centrals, while working with the private sector to link higher compensation to improved efficiency, productivity and quality. The pay-for-performance concept was as alien as square tortillas to union bosses who came to power within a statist, authoritarian regime that favored union shops, featherbedding, payola for ctm honchos and workplace tranquility for coddled businesses.

Millán's independent streak nearly ended his political career in 1989. With the backing of Sinaloa's labor movement, he had just completed a six-year Senate term and was presiding over the local PRI elite. With negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement hanging fire, then-President Carlos Salinas decided to show skeptics in the U.S. Congress that Mexico had shed its corrupt, single-party dictatorship, and Salinas cavalierly selected Sinaloa as the venue to drive home this point. Specifically, he agreed to allow the pro-Catholic, middle-class National Action Party (PAN) to "win" the mayorship of the resort city of Mazatlán. Although himself no political puritan, Millán-convinced that the pri had won fair and square-raised unshirted hell at this Machiavellian ploy. He even proposed having the ballots re-counted publicly at high noon in the city's central plaza. When Salinas fobbed off this suggestion, Millán promptly resigned his party post. Once Salinas left office, however, Millán returned to national prominence, serving as the pri's secretary general before winning a party primary en route to the Sinaloa statehouse. Even though anathema to some of ctm's diehards, Millán enjoyed organized labor's backing for the state's top spot inasmuch as it was the only governorship available to a union notable.

His labor credentials aside, Millán knew that investment was the key to raising the quality of life in this seafood- and farming-dominated state whose personal income ($5,800) fell far below the national average ($9,100). Yet honest businessmen looked askance at Sinaloa because the state-which forms part of the Chihuahua-Sinaloa-Durango "Golden Triangle" for drug activities-produces an abundance of heroin poppies and marijuana and was home to many of the nation's most notorious narco clans, including Carrillo Fuentes, Arellano Félix, Caro Quintero, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada. Some members of these families still live in heavily fortified compounds, especially in the mountainous eastern part of the state.

Contributing to these Hobbesian conditions was a lack of teamwork-even hostility-among the military and the various federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies. As a result, Millán appealed to President Ernesto Zedillo, Salinas' successor, to order army, navy and federal authorities to collaborate with state and local police forces. This sparked the creation of the Sinaloa Central Group, chaired by Millán, that met monthly, fostered cooperation and helped reduce the murder rate. The number of homicides, which had averaged 649 annually in the six years before Millán took office, dipped in 1999 (560) and 2000 (499) before rising again after Fox's inauguration.

The Policeman

As vexing as they found this bloodletting, Millán and Mexican business moguls understood that most of the killings involved drug cartels that were competing for territory, settling old scores with competitors or reaping vengeance on audacious judges. What investors feared even more than ak-47-wielding goons was the continued kidnapping of corporate executives and their family members-a crime in which Mexico is second only to Colombia in the Americas. ceos live in fear that they, their colleagues or family members will be grabbed for cash by predators who do not think twice before cutting off a captive's finger or ear to show their ruthlessness.

This realization prompted Millán to recruit Iván Ortega Colmenares, a 47-year-old ex-Venezuelan intelligence officer who studied industrial security at Florida International University and had attended specialized schools throughout Latin America, as well as at Ft. Bliss and other U.S. facilities. Millán gave Comandante Simón, as Ortega prefers to be called, a blank check to create a Special Anti-Kidnapping Unit, also known as the Fuerza de Respuesta Inmediata or FRI. Over the course of several months, the muscular hawk-eyed commander with a quarter-century experience under his belt assembled a crack team of eighty young men and women whose sole function was to prevent kidnappings and, failing that, to return the victim unharmed. fri operatives train in part by working out; they run twenty kilometers and swim a mile and a half each day. The squad includes twelve sharpshooters and other heavies, but most of its members are wizards in computers, electronics, engineering, voice profiling, polygraphs and other technical skills-some of which they have honed in classes with Israeli and American instructors. The force provides round-the-clock security for 180 top businessmen, who reimburse the state based on their ability to pay. Several dozen executives are on the waiting list.

During Millán's first year on the job, citizens reported 37 kidnappings. Since the FRI's deployment 22 months ago, the number has dropped from thirty in 2000 to 25 in 2001-with only a handful so far this year. Nationwide, Mexico-which suffered at least 360 kidnappings last year-has endured 331 in the first eight months of 2002. Meanwhile, Comandante Simón's team has rescued every one of the victims and recovered every peso of danegeld paid. He has done so, too, without either losing a single member of his force or activating his marksmen. Before the advent of the fri, residents often failed to disclose kidnappings, believing that the police were in cahoots with criminals. Instead, distraught families would negotiate privately with the wrongdoers. Sometimes the loved one showed up unharmed; sometimes the result was mutilation or death-and the loss of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars.

Millán has upped the ante for those foolish enough to attempt kidnappings in Sinaloa. He persuaded the state legislature to double to fifty years the prison time for this felony. When local judges treat the bad guys with kid gloves out of fear or fecklessness, the hard-charging governor asks their judicial superiors to relieve them.

The populist Millán, who visits a different school every "Civic Monday" to meet with students, teachers and community leaders, derives particular satisfaction when he can reunite a missing child with its grieving family. After being held for five days, eleven year-old Rodolfo Rochín had only two desires: freedom and a helicopter ride. Ten FRI counter-kidnapping pros answered the first wish, Millán the second. Late last February, the governor, a wide-eyed Rodolfo, and several family members and friends took to the air. A crowd of well wishers and popping flash bulbs attended their landing.

Although he assembled the fri to grab investors' attention and dollars, Millán has been careful to demonstrate that the unit serves the meek as well as the mighty. In August 2001, a criminal band snatched the beloved sheriff of the poor community of Escuinapa and demanded $6,500 for his release. A gubernatorial advisor indicated that it would cost at least that sum to dispatch the fri to this remote area. It would be more economical, he reasoned, just to help the locals raise the ransom. Millán thought otherwise on the grounds that every Sinaloan, regardless of his financial standing, deserved protection. Within twelve days, Comandante Simón and his force had rescued the sheriff (whose entire wealth consisted of six head of cattle so scrawny that they, with a seventh in tow, could have come straight from Pharaoh's dream).

Essay Types: Essay