Step away from the well-trod paths of sun-pinkened American and Canadian tourists here on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and the real Mazatlan emerges.
Down a street marked by a convenience store — what Mexican corner isn’t? — there are a few modest homes, a nail parlor and, suddenly, an abandoned field.
In that slightly overgrown field on a recent afternoon, there was, incongruously, a line of snare drums. Minutes later, in walked men with sousaphones.
Then the clarinets.
Finally the trombones.
And for the next several hours, eight musical bands played to almost no one in that sun-scorched field.
This resort is one of the main cities in the state of Sinaloa, cradle of Mexican drug trafficking. Questions are asked at one’s own risk; they go evaded or unanswered in a form maddening to those seeking precision.
Who sponsored this odd, open-air concert? Why were these bands here in this scruffy field?
Someone spoke of a wedding. Someone said a woman from Culiacan, capital of the state and headquarters of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, ordered up the bands.
“You can’t say anything,” said Erick Mena, who runs a small shrimp shack on one side of the field and was cautiously amused at the abrupt appearance of the musical feast. He was chopping cucumbers and tomatoes and squeezing lime on coral-colored shrimp. “You learn to live that way.”
Tourism remained relatively strong for years in Mazatlan despite its location in Sinaloa. Visitors and expatriate residents, who have meticulously restored the historic downtown with its graceful homes and plazas, have a knack for ignoring the bad and living in a Pacific-breeze state of denial.
Recently, however, here as in much of Mexico, tourism began suffering. Fewer visit Mazatlan, a city of about 400,000; fewer cruise ships dock at its ports.
It is also where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s top fugitive drug lords and head of the Sinaloa cartel, was captured in February, just before the city’s annual Carnival, in a condominium about 2 1/2 miles from this musical field.
Guzman was tracked — thanks largely to his use of a smartphone and the attention of U.S. sleuths — to the Miramar seaside apartment complex after spending much time in Culiacan, eluding authorities through a network of tunnels and sewers.
At the time, Mazatlan Mayor Carlos Felton said he was shocked that the notorious trafficker was living in the city. An “isolated incident,” he insisted.
Denial is contagious. Currently, federal security forces appear to be zooming in on Mazatlan and Culiacan to pursue the last major Sinaloa cartel leader, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Two of his sons and several top lieutenants have been arrested; the sons are in custody in the United States.
Yet in conversations with some of the expat residents of Mazatlan, they will insist the town is as peaceful as could be. Point to the nightly news showing a shootout half a block from their oasis homes, and there is a collective, quiet “Oh yeah, right.”
Back at the open-air concert, at which it seemed no one wanted to acknowledge being there, the musicians were belting out jaunty corridos, nortenos and other regional tunes. The tradition of these kinds of percussion and wind bands goes back more than a century in Sinaloa and may have been influenced by the many European immigrants who arrived in Mexico at this port.
Of course, the music more recently has taken a darker turn. Many corridos, for example, are salutes to drug traffickers, extolling murder and the fast life. Others simply pay homage to the city. Before long, the bands broke into “Corrido de Mazatlan":
“Here even the poor man feels like a millionaire
“Here life is lived without crying.”