Nobody answers the door of the cinderblock home in Santa Ana, a crossroads town in northern Mexico. Indeed, there aren't many people walking the street in the growing heat of the desert morning.
Last spring a bust went down here, so big it left cops on both sides of the Arizona border cold. In the torrents of a war that has embroiled Mexico, it takes large events to startle people who live with it every day. Cartels have fractured, thousands of people have died, rolling gunfights every day, drug gangs trying to outdo the other's atrocities. Yet even in this new theater, the story is still talked about months later.
It went down in April. With a slight smirk on her young, smooth face, Anahi Beltrán stood between two federal police in black ski masks, her husband's arsenal spread out in front of her, looking like the weapons cache of some tribal warlord. But this isn't Somalia; this is Mexico. And the heavy artillery isn't being used to defend some faded ideology, but a business that tops $58 billion a year.
An M2 Browning model .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a white Ford F-150, a homemade turret welded to the frame. A .30-caliber rifle, a Barret .50-caliber rifle on a bipod, a modified AR-15, a 30-30 rifle, parts for a 37mm grenade launcher and a couple of AK-47s, along with about 9,000 rounds and a pound and a half of cocaine.
Related by blood to the leader of one of the Sinaloa cartels that dominate this region, the 20-year-old woman made the mistake of being home when Mexican federal agents descended on her home last April. Her husband, Jose Martinez, had escaped a half hour before the cops arrived, "departed the residence," in the vernacular of a Drug Enforcement agent speaking on condition of anonymity.
The arrest was an inside job between U.S. and Mexican agents. An informant leaked the couple's propensity for weapons to the Americans and they in turn reported it to the Mexican Army, who seemed mistrustful enough of its northern border forces that its leaders sent in a crew from Mexico City to make the arrest. Beltrán now sits in a prison in northern Mexico.
Positioned at the intersection of two major Mexican highways, Santa Ana is an artery for the movements of three warring cartels, one led by Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán Loéra and his rival, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, here in Sonora. The Juárez Cartel, 5 hours east, uses it too. The conflicts manifest themselves in body counts and gunfights. The two highways form a trinity of legitimate commerce, human smuggling and drug trafficking. An hour west along Highway 2, a group of killers kidnapped four people then laid siege to the headquarters of the state police, the gunmen popping up from the sunroofs of matching Yukon SUVs. Then someone took a chainsaw to the bodies of nine men now laid out in a coroner's vault, a pile of legs and arms and heads sitting to the side of the bodies, waiting for a match. One hundred miles northwest, in a sweeping vista of luminous cholla and saguaro cactus, someone else specializes in smuggling Chinese nationals.
The longitudinal Highway 15 forms the other half of this backdrop, a NAFTA super-highway that connects to Interstate 10 in Arizona, the distribution hub for most of the United State's drug habit. The pattern is clear; the dope takes to the northbound highway. The migrant smuggling moves laterally, east and west along the border. The competition is fierce, sometimes brutal. In Juárez, where Guzmán's cartel battles the staid Juárez cartel, 200 people were murdered in the month of June alone.
And always, there are the guns.
William Newell, Arizona's special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, shows a map his office has drawn up of the various cartels and the routes they take to the border. Gulf Cartel to the east, then Juárez, the Sinaloans, then the Arellanos into San Diego. A set of colored arrows, one for each cartel's piece of real estate, points north. More arrows, these for the gun routes. "It's the same," he says, "the arrows are just pointed the other way."