July 13, 2007 / 3:58 PM / 12 years ago

Pushing tourism in a drug stronghold

CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Sinaloa, the northern Mexican state that spawned the country’s most fearsome drug cartel, hopes to lure tourists to rustic cabins in a rugged area infamous for opium fields and violent kingpins.

Generations of farmers have grown opium and marijuana in the hilly and remote Badiraguato region, a stronghold for powerful drug gangs and the birthplace of Mexico’s top capo and most-wanted man, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

But Sinaloa’s tourism minister Antonio Ibarra said renting out mountain cabins could wean some of the local population off illicit activities.

“Every well-paid job we create gives people an alternative, a decent life,” he told Reuters on Thursday.

Few outsiders venture outside the state capital of Culiacan, but Ibarra said the “El Perico” cabins, in a pine forested mountain area known for its rich wildlife, could attract adventure tourists who like outdoor activities.

The Sinaloa cartel, led by Guzman, is considered the world’s top cocaine smuggling network, with activities that extend from coca fields in Peru to the streets of New York.

The cartel has strong links to Badiraguato, part of a region known as Mexico’s “golden triangle” for its opium output and rugged terrain, which makes it hard for security forces to capture drug shipments.

Since the start of last year, some 3,500 people have been killed in vicious turf wars between Mexico’s half dozen drug gangs, much of it between the Sinaloa, Gulf and Tijuana cartels. In Sinaloa alone, about 600 people die each year in drug-related violence.

Ibarra said the bloodshed should not affect tourism because the cartels were fighting each other, not the public.

“This is not terrorism, it’s drug trafficking,” he said. “The security problem is between them.”

The El Perico project is part of a state-wide scheme to boost Sinaloa’s tourism potential. The state already has some well-known tourist attractions, including the dramatic Copper Canyon train ride and beach resort Mazatlan.

Ibarra said Badiraguato was a small part of the plan, which includes developing the coastline near Mazatlan and attracting conventions to state capital Culiacan.

Businessmen in the state say a recent government assault on the drug cartels using thousands of soldiers in crime hotspots like Sinaloa will increase security and help boost tourism.

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