Wednesday, May 28, 1997 | 10:49 a.m.
HERMOSILLO, MEXICO -- When a team of Mexican antidrug police and Army officers captured a prominent drug trafficker at one of his luxurious homes in Sonora in April, they were stumped over what to do with their big fish.
Not only was Jaime Gonzalez Gutierrez, known as "El Jaimillo," offering the police $100,000 to set him free. But the agents were anxious about holding the fish too long in the northern border state, a big pond that is one of the principal production centers and transportation routes for drugs entering the United States. They wanted a plane sent immediately, they told their chiefs in Mexico City, to get El Jaimillo out of Sonora. "This is urgent," an agent said. "Here we're still in his territory."
That Sonora is drug territory is not in doubt. But what is striking is that people often seem sympathetic toward the traffickers - as the agent's reference to being in a drug lord's "territory" indicates.
In a state with a relatively small population, people say they know who the traffickers are. But many of them also recognize a certain acceptance of, if not appreciation for, the money drug trafficking has brought to the community.
Once-struggling businesses and farms have been given new life with drug money laundered through the state. Local music and fashions also indicate drug traffickers' good standing. Northern Mexico folk bands like Los Tucanes sing popular narcocorridos - drug ballads - that croon about drug traffickers the way old corridos once sang of Pancho Villa.
Beyond that, complicity sometimes surfaces when private citizens warn traffickers of coming police operations, rent out their land for air strips or illegal crops, or act as lookouts for drug planes or convoys.
"The drug traffickers have a good image because people see them as regular guys," says Jesus Jimenez, who shines shoes on Nogales streets. "Some people see them as providing jobs or bringing money into town. But mostly they're accepted or even admired as someone who's been successful in business."
The positive image drug traffickers enjoy shows up throughout Mexico's northwest, says Cesar Morones Servin, director of the Center for Opinion Studies (CEO) at the University of Guadalajara. "They are very often seen as a kind of hero, as fighters and hard workers who in their own way are creating wealth," says Mr. Morones, who sees the good image continuing in a poll his organization took in Sonora in March. "They are well accepted, and even supported."
AMONG other issues, the poll took up recent reports in the United States press that US government officials suspect Sonoran Gov. Manlio Fabio Beltrones of ties to drug trafficker Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Mexico's most powerful drug lord - the man for whom authorities say El Jaimillo worked.
Nicknamed Lord of the Skies for using Boeing 747s to ferry Colombian cocaine to Mexico, Mr. Carrillo Fuentes is suspected of having bought high-level Army officials to help him win a war with a rival Tijuana cartel. The depth of the his infiltration into the military is coming out of the investigation into the drug ties of Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who was fired in February from his post as Mexico's top drug warrior and imprisoned on corruption charges.
The CEO poll found high support among Sonorans for their governor, and indicated that most Sonorans saw the reports as part of a campaign by the US government to sully Mr. Beltrones. The poll also found Sonorans mixed, however, over whether the governor has taken sufficient action against the drug trade.
Other observers say one reason traffickers aren't poorly viewed in Sonora is that recently the state hasn't experienced the same degree of image-tarnishing drug violence as cities like Tijuana, Guadalajara, or Juarez. "People in Sonora aren't so confronted with the downsides of drug trafficking like the violence," says Ramon Alfonso Sallard, a Sonora journalist who writes regularly about the drug trade.
Sonora was regularly the scene of shootouts, executions, and "mafia wars" in the late 1980s as drug gangs battled for routes and territory, Mr. Sallard says. "But then in 1991 along comes Governor Beltrones, and curiously everything becomes quiet," he adds. "The drugs keep coming through, but the killing pretty much stops."
One might argue, as Beltrones himself has, that a new governor's tough action against traffickers squelched the violence. But Sallard, who has exposed cases of influence peddling and other corruption under the current state government, doesn't buy it. "It's very difficult for someone who is not involved to manage to bring peace between drug gangs," he says.
In response to the accusations that he is linked to Carrillo Fuentes, Beltrones says that in fact he has taken action against the powerful drug lord. As state attorney general before being elected governor, he seized an ornate, onion-domed mansion, known throughout Hermosillo as the "House of 1,001 Nights," suspected of being owned through third persons by Carrillo Fuentes. The abandoned home is something of a local tourist attraction, Raul Jimenez Alatriste, a Hermosillo lawyer, says. "It gives you an idea of the traffickers' sense of invulnerability here."
Chatting over breakfast with friends, Mr. Jimenez says people in town know who the traffickers and planters are. "People here know what's going on, and we all know that you can't plant marijuana unless you have official protection," he says. "It's all neatly regulated beforehand - which fields or shipments burn, and which are left alone."
No one in town was surprised, he says, when the Gaxiola Medina family, local entrepreneurs, were accused of laundering more than $200 million in drug profits - in association with Carrillo Fuentes - through Sonoran businesses. "Their hardware store has much lower prices than anyone else. It's clearly a money-laundering operation," Jimenez says.
There is some growing recognition of the harm drug trafficking causes the community. The laundering businesses hurt legitimate companies, Jimenez says. Traffickers don't pay their fair share of taxes, and their extravagance makes housing prices go up. More important, he says, is the growing concern that the trade is starting to translate into higher drug consumption in Sonora, especially among young people. "They're starting to reach our children," he says, "and that's where you'll see a much more negative reaction from the population in general."
Recent studies show that drug use is higher in the northern states than in the rest of Mexico, and is higher still in border communities where drug trafficking is concentrated. "As you go north, drug use goes up," says Rodolfo Rubio, a researcher with the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Nogales, who took part in a recent study on border drug use. "We had family after family tell us, 'Whatever they don't get across to the US they sell here, and they're selling it to our children.' "
Sonora's drug traffickers often do themselves in by becoming fantastically ostentatious, making it impossible for the general population to see them as regular business people or for authorities to ignore them, Sallard says. Contributing to higher drug abuse might also cause them to self-destruct.