I live in a Narco capital—Culiacan, Sinaloa—the most dangerous city in Sinaloa, perhaps in all of Mexico. The city is top ten in the world for murders, the cradle of the feared Sinaloan Cartel and listed by the United States Embassy as a non-go for all foreigners. How can I explain I, an American, live here and thrive here.
Outsiders try to understand the danger and the city, but that is impossible; because in Culiacan nothing makes sense. There is a dichotomy of violence, danger, life and work exist in this city that makes it imperceptible from the outside.
There is a no-code to understanding this city or outsmarting it. This is a deadly city. It is complex, unpredictable, and raw, yet welcoming, creative, and beautiful. One might even say life is normal here. Residents themselves complain about the danger but will refuse opportunities to move. This city and community pulls you in and holds you here, despite giving you every reason to leave.
Culiacan, Sinaloa about three hours from Mazatlan carries a frightful but misunderstood reputation as the cradle of the Sinaloa Cartel, the homeland of El Chapo and the corrupt capital of the narco-state. In per-capita homicides, Culiacan has ranked in the top 15 most dangerous cities in the world for the past several decades. I moved here two and a half years ago after several visits with my wife. She is a native of Culiacan along with the rest of her family. My wife received a job offer working for an international company, and I had just finished a semester of teaching. We were only going to stay for six months. I imagined living in a type of house arrest punctuated by a trip to restaurants, workouts, and family visits. I meant to avoid the city and its violence.
In theory, Culiacan’s links to organized crime mean that narcos (drug capos) should be in control large sections of the city and armies of criminals. Laws should be ignored, after all, most cases are not investigated let alone prosecuted. Street authorities are easy to bribe, few people should follow traffic laws, there should be no stop lights. Without security guards, stores should be robbed every night by criminals. Kidnappings of corporate employees for ransom should be the norm. Highly armed and well- organized criminal organization should control every aspect of the city, dividing neighborhoods and zones of influence.
Yet, this is not the case: it simply does not make sense, because the current logic does not work in this city. The statistics generate a high probability that everyone is being impacted by violence or is frequently experiencing unsafe situations. A paradox of normality exists here.
There is an order to the city that everyone understands and follows in order for daily life to function. Outsiders and foreigners, of which there are very few, are quickly taught how to manage life here in a similar way to most major cities in the world. Profiles and places to avoid start to emerge. It does not take long, but you learn the behaviors, characteristics, and preferences—you learn to interpret the moving portrait of the city reading the moving pieces and evaluating its dangers. Yet, inside these guidelines, life continues: we eat amazing food, dance with our friends, have parties with our family, play organized sports, complain about traffic on the way to work, and order products on Amazon Prime. The balance of normality with the unpredictable or extreme violence surprises and confuses outsiders, as chaotic even insane, and individual interpretations of this juxtaposition creates a panoply of opinions about the Culiacan.
The dichotomy here ties to something more human, more primitive: Your tribe. The connections, friendships, family, and relationships that associated around you have an immense influence on your life, and your tribe dictates whose circle you will travel within, and thus what dangers or opportunities you are exposed to. For some, the defining characteristic of their lives is a family member associated with a negative or violent group, and the results of this impact the entire tribe.
In contrast, many in Culiacan are entirely insulated from negative elements and given every opportunity to pursue successful lives due to their association with a “clean” circle. Thus, depending on your tribe, experiences in Culiacan vary considerably from a soap opera version of narcos to respectable business owners and dedicated families. As a foreigner, you need to choose carefully what experience you want to find.
The logic of the outside cuts into two extremes: a naïve acceptance of the world as mostly good with some bad people like everywhere, or a cynical condemnation of societies and people—the missionary or mercenary to steal a marketing slogan.
Neither of these popular outlooks is correct. They miss the nuance and complexity of people, and people are complex. To live in Culiacan, you need to embrace complexity and learn to see people—some can do this, others can’t. To see the complexity requires forming your own tribe, listening to those around you, and analyzing people. These are not mystical powers, and they do not form a shield. Mistakes and the unexpected happen. Lines, tribes, and listening—these are keys to living, surviving, and loving Culiacan.
My city of sin and family can be an open paradise or a living hell: this column will explore this amazing and terrifying duality, covering topics ranging from underground cantinas and taquerias to political issues arising from the capital of Sinaloa. I will keep my readers connected to one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
Ryan Storr “El Gringo en Sinaloa”
Ryan Storr—writer, researcher and owner of Alcanza Consultants in Culiacan, Mexico. After earning a Master’s in History and a Bachelor’s in Economics, he has taught History, Spanish, English, and Writing for over 10 years throughout Spain, Colombia, Mexico, and in various cities of the United States. An avid reader and cyclist, he devotes any spare time to his business and adventures with his lovely wife.