The War for the Control of Sonora


Groups of organized crime members confront each other on a daily basis in Northern areas of the State of Sonora. There is a fierce struggle for the control of drugs trafficking towards the U.S. In every clash occurring there are dozen of hitmen armed with AK-47, Barret rifles and grenade launchers. The authorities, being either overrun or colluded, have failed in stopping the violence. The government of Guillermo Padrés has launched a media campaign in order to position his State as “the safest of the border”, meanwhile peasants have to leave their communities and seek for shelter aside their family members in places where they are not extorted, robbed or killed. Only the municipal National System for the Comprehensive Development of the Family (Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, DIF) has recognized that there are 70 displaced families of the Ejido (Communal Land Areas) Desierto de Sonora (Sonora Desert); around 200 persons that are currently living in churches, houses and nurseries. The authorities have only been able to provide pantries, milk for babies, bottled water, blankets, mats and articles of personal hygiene.

Ramón Eduardo Ortíz León

Caborca, Sonora. The settlement of Ejido Desierto de Sonora (Desert of Sonora) now honors its name: death left it like a desert. Settlers of this place –contiguous to Sonoyta, the capital city of the Municipality of Plutarco Elías Calles-tired of the violence that started with a wave of murders, kidnappings and confrontation almost on a daily basis between thugs and also against the authorities, they decided to abandon it seeking for a peace, tranquility and that security, that according to the Governor Guillermo Padrés Elías, is granted in all of Sonora. It is the “safest “of the border states of Mexico, the public servant has assured.

At first more than two months ago some families left, when the clashes between antagonistic groups that operate in the region in order to dominate and obtain the control of the passage of drugs and arms through this sector of the border with the USA.

Ejido Desierto de Sonora

At the beginning of March shootings were reported near the Sierra del Humo (Mountains of Smoke), the Cubabi, Ejido La Nariz (the Nose), and in other places nearby. Even the criminals afforded themselves to confront military forces, in at least two occasions, without knowing to which group or cartel these hitmen belonged. The result of the first clash was two servicemen wounded. Of the second clash two military personnel died. These servicemen lost their lives as they were looking for the dead bodies of hitmen during a clash. They were welcomed with shots of high-caliber weapons. One serviceman died in the premises and another –very wounded-died in the Naval Hospital of Puerto Peñasco -100km away from Sonoyta-where he was transferred by air.

From there on the clashes occur almost daily with losses on both sides. The past 1st of May violence made itself visible, even though the state media informed little or not at all about it in order not to “bother” the Governor Guillermo Padrés Elías with cases that might tarnish his image of a “safe and peaceful” state.

As a matter of facts the state government is maintaining a policy of social communication in order to position the entity as the safest of the bordering states. In truth violence in the regions of the state occurs every day: cases of murder, kidnapping and disappearances happen all along from Navajoa up to San Luís Río Colorado. Despite these phenomena the authorities insist on the fact that no such thing is happening and that these events are “atypical”, “rare” and “exceptional”.

If the local media only report only the official declarations and that the national media turn away, the social networks have become a way to know what really is happening in the regions of Sonora.

The Ejido Desierto de Sonora with a population -barely surpassing 1,188 inhabitants according to the 2010 Population Census-, information provided on the website of Sedesol, in the section of the Localities Catalog, is deserted today. The inhabitants have left their homes, land and properties behind. The community now is only visited by groups of well-armed hitmen on board luxurious cars or the police force that scarcely controls the territory in their operations held.

The Police and Armed forces are faced with a hitmen commando armed with weapons of quality and class; with great fire and ammo capacity and with men willing to die in order to defend “their territory” and the honor to die for their bosses, despite the payment is limited to their dose of dope…and the promise to a burial with local band music if they died defending the “Master” or boss.

The Authorities deny the exodus of the settlement

The authorities of the local Government located in Sonoyta did not respond to the request for an interview in order to confirm or refute the abandonment of the Ejido Desierto de Sonora.

The Criminal Gangs had a clash on the 1st of May during the whole day and all night. The clashes occurred in the urban area as well as in the valley and along the international Highway leading to Caborca, the place it is said that originated the opponents of the group known as Los Memos, that dominate and control –as it appears- the area with the assistance of civil and police forces, according to blankets hung under bridges and “communiqués” diffused over internet by the contrary group known as Los Salazar. In its most recent message, written on a blanket placed on the main street of the neighboring municipality Puerto Peñasco, this criminal group threatened to pursue “the war” and “annihilation” of the Memos and the authorities that “assist” them.

Despite the official statement that in the state of Sonora “nothing happens” and that it is the “safest” in the northern border, the May festivities, a traditional and holding a reputation throughout the region, known as the Flowers’ Fair (Feria de las Flores), have been cancelled. According to the Municipal President Julio César Ramírez Vásquez the festivities will not be held.

The group of Los Salazar has accused the municipal president to “protect” the Memos Group. More than that, throughout a blanket hung under a pedestrian bridge of Puerto Peñasco they have threatened him with death.

 The warnings on Facebook

In this context of violence, people who claim to belong to the “Los Salazar” Cartel –mainly two, one by the name of Juan Salazar- have been posting “communiqués” on social network such as Facebook under profiles or in groups dedicated to highlight the violence and to alert the population when criminal acts occur and that broadcast alerts of clashes.

In one of the messages posted in a group called Border Sonoyta Community (Frontera Sonoyta Comunidad) the following can be read:

“I don’t want to hear anymore that my boys are in a clash with Adelmo and that Adelmo had the support of the government whether they are federal (forces), soldiers or anything, it doesn’t matter. If this should happen again I am afraid to tell you that the first head that will blow up is going to be the one of the president Julio César Ramírez Vázquez [sic].

“For being in support of the people of Memo, the people of Salazar respond with force, we brought the sweeper and it’s going to sweep up anyone who is fucking around [sic].

“(In Badiraguato, Sinaloa, with Joel Salazar Vega). That’s right, brother, because there has been enough, that many innocent people die at the hands of this dog. And the war will continue until this coward dies. We have been close of blowing up his head, but he ran. If he has the guts then he should confront my boys, face to face. And of all of this fucking government that supports him there will be heads blowing up too, same as the politicians and so-called journalists, for being tattle-tails. And here we send a word to the president Julio César Ramírez Vásquez: that if he continues to assist mister Memo, his head will be first in the headlines and not the one of Memo, and upon warning there is no deception. Thereby you politicians, government and the people of Memo should know by now what we are coming for, when crossing that line and by breaking the agreement that Mr. Memo had with our people, you already know what is going to happen[sic].”

Assistance for the displaced persons

The number of displaced families still remains unknown and numerous settlers have left their place of residence. Some sources reached by telephone reported of the displacement of the entire population that until the last census had 1,186 settlers.

Even though there is no total figure, when consulting the Municipal Director of the National System for the Integral Family Development (DIF), Karla Arias sent via e-mail the following data:

“(This is) the situation of the families of Desierto de Sonora that we are assisting: we have until today a register of 70 families, consisting of about 200 people. They have been brought to shelters in churches, houses and bunkhouses. The assistance consists in providing pantry, milk for babies, bottled water, blankets, mats and articles of personal hygiene. This is the case until today.”

Unstoppable violent acts despite joint operations

Despite the seriousness of the facts, the authorities at all levels of the government have shown their incompetence in containing the wave of violence and to protect the population of Sonoyta. Such is the case, that notwithstanding the announcement of the Executive Secretary of Public Security Ernesto Munro that 30 elements of the State Police had been sent in addition to those who are already in that operative base, the criminals continue their war outside the urban area, in the bush and among the hills of the surroundings dividing both countries.

The authorities act solely as corps collectors. The Social Communication Department of the Investigating State Police and the State Attorney’s Office reports in a bulletin of the 5th of May:

“Agents of the Investigating State Police are inquiring on the events where three male persons lost their lives, whose corpses were found in the El Cubabi Mountains yesterday around 14:30 hours.

“The three victims were identified as Eleazar García Borquez, 22 years old, from Sinaloa; Alfonso Silvas Bustillo, 40 years old, from Chihuahua; and Fredy Salas Olguín, 23 years old, from Sinaloa.

“The three perished were wearing camouflage clothes of military type, they were found in a state of decomposition and with the naked eye they presented wounds produced by shells of firearms”(sic).

Clashes stop car traffic

Another similar communiqué reports of two executed persons, allegedly resulting from a clash. This happened further south of Sonoyta near the town of Nogales in the Municipality of Imuris, where furthermore there were burned vehicles, weapons and bullet-proof vests among other things, these crimes being allegedly related with the fighting occurring in Sonoyta.

Up to the moment and extra-officially, 12 violent deaths have been registered, as well as a number of weapons, vehicles and illegal drugs that the armed groups left behind after the clashes.

But the dead, wounded and disappeared persons sum up to dozens since the start of this wave of violence and that became an open and all-out war at the end of February.

Around these dates a nephew of Adán Salazar was shot dead in Puerto Peñasco, who allegedly was the Chargé d´Affaires of the family in that region. He was widely known by his alias: el R-3. This also triggered the escalation of this war, by eliminating him as he was picking up his children at a school of the port city.

For the time being the municipal president has denied the optimistic statements of the public servants and the governor, certainly not in a direct manner, but in the facts, by declaring to a state media that he had requested more presence and police force in order to be able to contain the wave of violence that is occurring in the municipality, and which doesn’t seem to restrain.

Armed Forces, the Army, the Federal, the State and the Municipal Police Forces have been performing military operations by air and land with no results in view, as the fighters have surveillance systems as hawks, modern points of communication with up-to-date technology that allow them to avoid any roadblocks or moving to another spot when detecting the presence of any kind of authority.

The main protagonists of the war

The Memos owe their name to Adelmo Nieblas Ramírez, el Memo, or el Señor. This group is the one with the mayor presence, of arms as of members. Nieblas Ramírez is the operator of the Sinaloa Cartel in the region, according to official sources and foreign institutions, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the US.

El Señor also known as El memo is a drug trafficker native from the State of Durango of the mountainous region bordering with the State of Sinaloa, it is said that he arrived to Sonoyta 20 years ago where he started his outlaw career trafficking persons towards the US, from where after he was detained and served his sentence for human trafficking offenses, he was deported back to Mexico. Back in his country he resumed his career inside the organized crime and was detained for the first time in 2002 and confined at a Central Facility for Social Rehabilitation at Nogales, Sonora, from where he was quickly released.

At that time he met one of his first contacts in order to diversify his activities, and started to extend beyond human trafficking into drugs and arms. This contact with relations and control at high levels of the organized crime was Mario Aguirre, also known as 9-9, who died in a clash with the armed forces.

In 2009 el Memo was detained again and sent to the Penal Center of Durango, from where he left shortly after under bail despite having been detained in the possession of arms and drugs; he had also been accused of criminal association among other offenses.

He returned to Sonoyta, where according to the DEA he climbed up the organization until becoming the main operator of Chapo Guzmán in the region, and along Gonzalo Insunza, more known as Macho Prieto¸ they eventually achieved to fiercely control the passage of drugs and persons in that region.

When arresting him in 2012 the then-Federal Secretariat for Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública federal) reported that the detainee was responsible for the transport of marihuana, methamphetamines and heroin, from the municipalities of Puerto Peñasco, General Plutarco Elías Calles and San Luis Río Colorado towards the counties of Maricopa and Casa Grande in Arizona in the USA.

On his side, the Macho Prieto is said to have been shot down by the Navy, even though his corps was never shown publicly, as the version persists that is was taken away by gunmen of his group, thereby leaving Adelmo Nieblas as the absolute head in that region.

Adelmo Nieblas was detained once in September 2012, in an operation coordinated by the Armed Forces in Culiacán, Sinaloa. He was then brought to a Penal Center of that city. His stay was rather short-lived: he escaped a year after in company of two known drug traffickers of the Cartel of Sinaloa.

Since then, it is said that he returned to the region, where he was hiding, allegedly in one of the many ranches he possesses in the valley of Sonoyta, safeguarded by a dozen of gunmen that control the passages through the paths and trails, where no one enters or leaves without the permission of El Señor or his henchmen.

It is also said that he was frequently spotted at horse races that were held in the municipality, where his horses competed and where he bet big amounts of money, despite that he was being wanted by the federal authorities to confine him in prison again, but strangely enough, notwithstanding the presence of police force at the premises, they never spotted him.

In his favor, it is said that settlers of the Ejidos and of the municipal capital city see him as a benefactor and that he always assists those who request any kind of help or service, may it be for curing their ailments or any other need.

On the other hand the Salazar owe their name to Jesús Alfredo Salazar, the last known boss of the Salazar clan, currently in prison and extradited or at least in an extradition process.

The group was led by don Adán Salazar until his detention. And as a result of certain agreements within the cartel, along with the Paredes Machado group based in Agua Prieta, they controlled a corridor stretching from that city, throughout Nogales and the municipalities of Imuris, Magdalena, Santa Ana, Benjamin Hill, and certain regions of Caborca, Puerto Peñasco, and finally Sonoyta, but always under the agreement with the group of the Memos and the Macho Prieto.

Nevertheless some disagreement occurred among them, and they started a fierce struggle; perhaps the detention of the Chapo had been the real trigger, as both groups had been working for him and their leaders, people of his confidence, such as the Mayo Zambada, the known leaders of the Cartel of Sinaloa.

Despite being originally from the State of Sinaloa, the Salazar family –whose liaisons with the Cartel of Sinaloa was established by the patriarch Adán Salazar Zamorano- is being considered by the people of Agua Prieta as the responsible for the lack of tranquil ambience and the liberty in that city until the detention of the “awkward relative”.

Adán was detained by the Federal Police on the 15th of February 2011 in the city of Querétaro, while being the representative of the Chapo in the state of Sonora, and the person charged of warrantying the border crossing and the delivery of drugs to Arizona. After his detention, the sons of Adán, Jesús Alfredo and Adán Salazar Ramírez were in charge of the operations of the Cartel of Sinaloa in the state (excerpt of a reportage made by the magazine

The Salazar vs. the Memos

Currently the Salazar would be under the leadership of one of the founder’s sons of the dynasty and assisted by hitmen brought from Sinaloa and others sent in support by the caretakers of the area of Caborca, as the last incursion ended in a clash where five hitmen resulted dead. Anonymous sources assure that the convoy of over 20 vehicles left the city, and as usual no one saw them, neither did the authorities have any knowledge about it, until someone on the way alerted the Memos, who awaited them in their journey through the trails that lead to the Ejido Desierto de Sonora at the doorsteps of Sonoyta and close to the international highway, where the corporations acted in their favor, detaining part of the convoy that was heading in support of the Salazar in order to exterminate the people of the Memos, as report one of the members of the clan on social networks. “We brought the sweeper with us-he said- and we will do what it takes to exterminate those scourges of the people of the Memos and we will not stop until we have chased them out.”

The war has just begun, and doesn’t look like ending soon. The authorities at all levels have been overrun by these groups. On social networks they show off hand grenades, Ak-47 guns (cuerno de chivo), Barret rifles and they assure that they dispose of enough supply of arms until there is only one left of them.

Reality contradicts the Governor Padrés Elías

The optimistic statements of the governor Padrés made public by local media outlets clash with another fact: 11 young day laborers, native from the municipalities of Choix, Sinaloa disappeared, allegedly on Sonoran territory when they were heading to work the fields of grapes in the region of Pesqueira, roughly some 30 kilometers away of the state capital. Until the moment of edition the authorities of both states had not been able to know about their whereabouts; their families ask for them to be found “be that as it may”, as the mother of one of them declared.

Choix is another municipality of this country that is plagued with violence, of which the magazine Contralínea has reported on. There are various ghost towns in that area, as a result of the violence stemming from the drug trafficking, that has forced their settlers to leave everything behind: houses, lands and losing their uproots becoming outcasts within their land and cheap labor outside their own place of residence in their own states or beyond.

Same as the case of the 11 young men who seeking a way to maintain their family had an agreement with a contractor to work on these fields, but never made it there. They disappeared under way and the uncertainty of their whereabouts invades their family members and friends that saw them leave full of illusions for having found a source of income, meanwhile they could return to their usual work in the basin of the Huites dam, where in order to survive and maintain their families they worked fishing tilapia, catfish and bass fish.

The majority, nine of them were residents of the settlement of Mezquite, located at the shores of the basin of the Huites dam, and two others of Las Colmenas in the municipality of Choix, Sinaloa with family ties among them.

This is another case of extreme violence happening in the State of Sonora, the state that the governor considers the “safest on the border”.

Ramón Eduardo Ortíz León

(Translated by: Axel Plasa)

 Contralínea 437 /  18  – 24 May 2015