By Jeremy Kryt
TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico — You arrive in the plaza of this dusty little town by taxi, already sweating in the noonday heat, on your way to the hideout of a mysterious armed group called Los Viagras.
Then the taxi pulls away, and you’re left standing there alone.
This nameless village looks to be little more than a string of tin-roofed huts and makeshift cock-fighting pits about 30 minutes from the market town called Apatzingán, in the western state of Michoacán.
The townsfolk are all farmers, most of whom work in the nearby lime and mango orchards. These campesinos stare at you standing in the cloud of dust left by your departing taxi not with unfriendliness so much as utter disbelief.
Soon, however, your Viagras handler arrives, rattling through the plaza in a beige Nissan Sentra with a bullet-cracked windshield.
“You have to give me your cell phone,” the handler says, by way of greeting, “so you can’t be tracked.” So you agree to turn it over and then, phone-less, you’re driven out into the sun-roasted fields of the campo.
Tierra Caliente, where this meeting takes place, is on the State Department watch list for U.S. citizens. And with good reason. Several Americans have been killed in or near the region, including the much publicized case of a motorcycle tourist mistaken for a DEA agent. Another hapless yanqui was found tortured and burned to death in Tierra Caliente just a few weeks ago.
In other words, gringo: You’ve been warned.
It’s the last Saturday in February, and you’re about to meet Viagras leader Nicolás Sierra Santana—aka “El Gordo,” or The Fat One. Since the capture of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, back in January, El Gordo has become one of the most wanted men in Mexico.
Under him, the Viagras have grown so much that even other outlaws complain about their methods.
The regional district attorney has outstanding arrest orders out for Gordo Sierra, charging him with multiple counts of homicide, robbery, extortion, and kidnapping. One of the group’s top sicarios, or assassins, was busted by a joint task force in early February, after allegedly committing dozens of murders on his boss’s behalf.
And yet, during two weeks spent trying to track El Gordo down, you’ve heard many conflicting tales about the Viagras and their jefe. In fact, many locals reject that very idea that The Fat One is a criminal at all.