For a glimpse into the complicated history of the drug trade in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, look no further than the local baseball team.
The jaunty red logo of the Tomateros – half-tomato, half-baseball – is a proud reflection of the state’s most important export. Sinaloa produces 30 percent of all of Mexico’s tomatoes, according to the nation’s agriculture ministry – nearly 870,00 tons last year. But that’s not all the campesinos are growing in the lush mountain ranges off the Pacific coast.
In the same region where covered greenhouses sprout ripe tomatoes, fields of marijuana and opium poppies are also being cultivated for export.
Mexico produces nearly half of all the heroin found in the United States, according to the DEA’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment. And business is booming, as U.S. consumers hooked on prescription opioids increasingly seek out the illegal variety. Opium paste seizures in Mexico skyrocketed 500 percent between 2013 and last year, according to recent news reports. Controlling much of the commerce is the world’s most wanted international criminal: Sinaloa native Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who recently escaped prison (for the second time) through a high-tech tunnel that led right into the shower stall of his jail cell.
The results of the illegal business have been deadly on both sides of the border.
The results of the illegal business have been deadly on both sides of the border. Heroin overdoses doubled between 2011 and 2013 in the United States. Turf wars between rival cartels, traffickers, and government forces killed more than 57,000 people in the past 32 months, according to an investigation published in the Mexican magazine Proceso last month.
The Tomateros, though, were not always called the Tomateros. The evolution of their identity as a team mirrors the transformation of the state.
Founded in 1945, the team’s first name was the Tacuarineros, after an important Pacific rail line of the same name. El Tren Tacuarinero departed from Altata port, passing through Sinaloa’s capital Culiacán, and crossed the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to Durango, a vertex of the Golden Triangle. The train got its unusual name from a local corn and beef lard bread (known as tacarin in the local Cáhita dialect), hawked by vendors to passengers and railway workers. As one of Mexico’s central trade arteries, the major turn-of-the century infrastructure project was built like many others: by waves of Chinese laborers.
The evolution of their identity as a team mirrors the transformation of the state.
With the Chinese immigrants came Sinaloa’s first opium poppies. In the 1940s, opium output rose dramatically. The reason? One widely-touted conspiracy theory was that the U.S. government became an official customer. As Ioan Grillo reveals in his lucid chronicle of the drug trade El Narco, the story is that the U.S. army – cut off from Turkish opium supplies by Japan and Germany in World War II – was desperate for the stuff, in order to treat wounded soldiers. So they cut a deal with Mexico to start mass production of poppy plants. It’s official history, according to Mexico’s Defense Department, but the U.S. denied there was any such deal, and historians have struggled to find evidence to confirm it, says Grillo.
Regardless of who was doing the buying, the delicate red flowers flourished. Farmers across the state took up the work of extracting dark brown paste from the poppy pods, the main ingredient in heroin. Known as gomeros (a reference to the poppies’ prized opium gum), the job became so commonplace that the Tacuarineros changed their name to the Gomeros, at least in the 1949-1950 baseball season.
It was originally a derisive term for the peasants that harvested the illicit plants, but journalists started using the term to write about baseball, calling the team the Gomeros.
A headline about the Gomeros appeared on the front page of the local paper La Voz de Sinaloa on January 16, 1950, along with an article about the the team’s loss to Hermosillo. But that game was not the norm for the Gomeros. In 1950, they won the regional championship.
The Tacuarineros (aka the Gomeros, aka the Tomateros) have won 15 regional titles and two Caribbean Series throughout their history, all as colorful as the state that they (and El Chapo) call home.