Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” heads the Sinaloa Cartel. Along with his now captured and convicted partner, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” El Mayo is one of the most storied drug traffickers in Mexican history.
Originally a farmer from the western state of Sinaloa, El Mayo started working with the Juarez Cartel in the 1980s and 1990s. After the death of the head of the Juarez Cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” El Mayo created his own organization.
With the slow demise of the Tijuana Cartel, El Mayo has sought to expand his routes through the northwestern states of Sonora and Baja California. He also controls much of the heroin production and shipment from Mexico into the United States.
In 2004, the US government offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
In recent years, El Mayo has suffered the loss of several key members of his inner circle. Authorities have arrested his brother, two sons and a nephew. One of his sons, Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayito,” was extradited to the United States in 2010. In 2012, El Mayo’s alleged right-hand man, Manuel Torres Felix, alias “El M-1” or “El Ondeado," was killed in a shootout with the military.
Some analysts surmised that El Mayo might be easing into the shadows, or even retiring, after he appeared on the front cover of the Mexican investigative news magazine Proceso in 2010. However, El Mayo survived a February 2017 attack reportedly carried out by Dámaso “Licenciado” López Núñez, another Sinaloa Cartel leader. The ambush also targeted two of El Chapo’s sons, suggesting an internal struggle for power following the drug boss’s capture and extradition to the United States earlier that year.
However, Licenciado was arrested soon after in Mexico City in May. Then Licenciado’s son, Damáso López Serrano, alias “Mini Lic,” later turned himself in to US authorities July. This left El Mayo at the top of the Sinaloa Cartel to oversee the group’s operations and watch over El Chapo’s sons, known collectively as “Los Chapitos,” who are now the next target for US authorities.
In contrast, El Mayo's sons have either all been arrested and jailed in the United States or seem to be lying low.
El Mayo is getting older and is rumored to be in bad health and battling diabetes. For now, however, he is the last remaining member of the Sinaloa Cartel’s old guard, and will likely continue to run the show while he is still able.
Following the extradition of El Chapo to the United States in January 2017 and the May 2017 arrest of Licenciado, some consider El Mayo to have claimed the top spot in one of the world’s most powerful criminal organizations. El Mayo oversees much of Mexico’s heroin production, largely bound for the booming market in the United States. And the Sinaloa Cartel is still a dominant player in the international cocaine trade.
El Mayo is originally from Sinaloa, and he is believed to operate out of the mountainous regions in Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua -- the so-called “Golden Triangle" of drug production in Mexico, and a longtime Sinaloa Cartel stronghold. However, El Mayo’s influence is thought to extend throughout much of Mexico, and the Sinaloa Cartel has a presence in almost every major city in the Western Hemisphere.
Allies and Enemies
El Mayo has made and broken many alliances with other drug trafficking organizations. His partnership with El Chapo has been cited as a major reason why the Sinaloa Cartel is the strongest in the hemisphere.
El Mayo has also used his connections in the Mexican government to push his influence steadily north toward the US border and south toward Cancún, leaving a trail of imprisoned and dead colleagues in his wake.
More recently, as Mexico’s criminal landscape succumbs to increased fragmentation, El Mayo is reportedly leading a campaign in part through the use of narco-banners to align belligerent groups that otherwise risk being captured or killed.
Even before El Chapo’s extradition in 2017, El Mayo was a major figure within the Sinaloa Cartel, and perhaps even of equal stature with his former boss on the operational side. With El Chapo out of the picture and internal power struggles roiling the organization, El Mayo will likely play an important role in the cartel’s future, despite a power play by Los Chapitos.
El Mayo has proven himself remarkably adept at evading arrest. His deep connections in government and the local population in Sinaloa have helped him spend over 40 years in the drug trafficking business without ever seeing the inside of a jail cell. At this point, it appears that El Mayo’s deteriorating health may get to him before authorities do.