The now-jailed former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” reportedly had many children but only a select few of them, known collectively as the Chapitos, are at the center of an ongoing internal feud for control of the group’s operations against the last remaining member of the so-called “old guard,” Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo.”
While neither side has yet to exert the type of dominance that would make clear who is really in charge of the group’s criminal activities, there’s been no shortage of blood spilled as the two internal factions battle it out.
In 2021 and 2022, the Chapitos continued to gain in strength becoming among the main producers and traffickers of fentanyl and methamphetamine to the United States. They expanded their territorial control in Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California, and reinforced their earnings by profiting from illegal mining, fishing, migrant smuggling and more. They were named InSight Crime's Criminal Winners for 2022.
They suffered a blow, however, when Ovidio Guzmán López was arrested for the second time in Sinaloa on January 5, 2023, leading to a major outbreak of violence in which more than two dozen people were killed.
While El Chapo is said to have dozens of children, four of them have figured prominently into the Sinaloa Cartel’s criminal operations: Joaquín Guzmán López, Ovidio Guzmán López, Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar.
Ovidio, Iván, and Jesús Alfredo were apparently brought into the Sinaloa Cartel’s criminal operations at a young age as teenagers by their father and El Mayo in order to learn the ins and outs of the organization. Ovidio, who was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in 2012 and indicted in February 2019, has garnered the most attention in recent years.
In October 2019, Mexican security forces launched a poorly planned operation to capture Ovidio in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacán. Shortly after word of Ovidio’s detention spread, Sinaloa Cartel members responded in force, swarming the city and launching an all-out offensive to demand his release. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ultimately “ordered that the operation be stopped and that the presumed criminal be set free.”
According to the US Treasury Department, Ovidio is said to be a “key lieutenant” within the Sinaloa Cartel’s ranks.
For their part, Iván and Jésus are also thought to be important cartel operatives. In 2016, the two brothers were among a group of men abducted by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) from a restaurant in an upscale district of the Mexican tourism center, Puerto Vallarta, in Jalisco state, the CJNG’s home turf. Both sons were later released.
However, Jésus seems to have taken on an increasingly prominent role in the Sinaloa Cartel’s business. In fact, he has landed himself on the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) most wanted list, the only son to earn that distinction. In 2015, US prosecutors also indicted him alongside his father and a number of other cartel leaders on drug trafficking charges.
Jésus is also believed to play an important international role for the group. In 2016, he allegedly spent a few months in the Colombian city of Medellín under the protection of La Terraza, one of the sprawling city’s most powerful criminal gangs.
Not much is known about Joaquín, who has kept a relatively low profile in comparison to his other brothers. That said, in February 2019, the US Justice Department indicted him alongside Ovidio for conspiring to traffic cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States. The indictment itself lacked detailed specifics but US prosecutors allege the trafficking took place over the course of a decade between April 2008 and April 2018 for the Sinaloa Cartel.
In their father’s absence following his final 2016 arrest and subsequent extradition, the Chapitos have been at odds with El Mayo, as well as their uncle, Aureliano Guzmán Loera, alias “El Guano,” over control of the group’s operations.
Given that their father founded the group, the sons seem to have felt entitled to inherit what their father created. While indeed much flashier with spending drug proceeds and partying than El Mayo, the Chapitos do know the inner workings of the cartel and are looking to assume supreme control.
As a result, fierce battles between the two sides have continued for years. Most recently, in May 2020, José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa, alias “El Chino Antrax” -- once the head of the Sinaloa Cartel’s Antrax hit squad and an associate of El Mayo -- was found dead after escaping federal probation supervision in San Diego. The Chapitos are believed to be behind the slaying.
El Chino Antrax was a close associate of El Mayo, growing up with the Zambada family and alongside El Mayo’s sons in Culiacán. This long history makes it unlikely that the aging capo would have had much to gain from killing a long-time ally at a time when he could have needed him as internal tensions remain high.
In June 2020, a multi-hour shootout reportedly between the two sides outside Culiacán left 16 dead.
While the Chapitos have kept the heat up, US authorities have taken note. At the end of 2021, the US State Department announced that, in addition to facing federal drug trafficking charges, the government had upped its reward to $20 million for information that would help them in capturing the four sons. The US Treasury Department has also sanctioned the Chapitos under the so-called Kingpin Act.
Despite being in the crosshairs of US authorities, the Chapitos have only stepped up their efforts to exert dominance over the group their father once led. In February 2022, armed men - reportedly loyal to the Chapitos - riding in a convoy of dozens of vehicles laid siege on the municipality of Caborca near the US-Mexico border. For hours, the convoy occupied the city as local police were unable to repel them until morning. In the end, the attack left two dead and at least five others kidnapped.
With the help of the Salazar, a local group aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel for years, the Chapitos have sought to secure control of a key drug trafficking corridor stretching from their home base in Sinaloa, through Sonora and Baja California, and over the US-Mexico border.
Increased firepower may be helping their bid. In early March, the Mexican Army and National Guard raided four houses in Navojoa municipality in the south of Sonora state, seizing an arsenal of almost three million rounds of ammunition of varying calibers, six .50 caliber rifles, more than 150 handguns and automatic rifles, dozens of grenades and 12 bulletproof vests, among other drugs, magazines and tactical gear. This was one of the largest criminal arsenals ever seized in Mexico.
After their notoriety rose significantly through 2021 and 2022, the Chapitos suffered a blow on January 5, 2023, when Ovidio was arrested in Culiacan, the state capital of Sinaloa. According to Mexican Defense Minister Luis Crescencio Sandoval, an Army patrol came upon a convoy of six armored trucks. The occupants refused to cooperate with a check of the vehicles and opened fire on security forces. A large number of alleged Sinaloa Cartel members were arrested after the shootout, including Ovidio. At least seven soldiers were killed in this initial exchange of fire.
Following his arrest, much like in 2019, blockades were set up across the city and other parts of Sinaloa, with cartel gunmen taking shots at police and army troops and even bringing down a military helicopter. Within hours, President López Obrador sent in reinforcements to calm the situation. As of January 9, at least 29 people had been killed following Ovidio's arrest, including ten Mexican soldiers.
While Ovidio was not released this time, this action proved the rapid mobilization and response capacity of the Sinaloa Cartel on their own turf.
The Chapitos’ main business, much like their father before them, is international drug trafficking. According to various US indictments, the sons are involved in trafficking large quantities of everything from cocaine and marijuana to methamphetamine into the United States using their vast web of contacts throughout Latin America.
In particular, the group has adjusted to shifting drug markets and become ever more involved in the synthetic drug trade alongside the CJNG, especially with regards to trafficking the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. In fact, the Chapitos have expanded their activities to include the exploitation of drug rehab centers to recruit new traffickers – yet another source of continued violence with El Mayo.
In addition, the group has also looked beyond the US market and started tapping into lucrative markets in Australia.
Today, the Chapitos are among the main suppliers of fentanyl and methamphetamine into the United States. The US Justice Department issued charges against them for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in 2021 and rewards of $5 million have been announced for each of them.
The primary stomping grounds for the Chapitos are in their birthplace of Sinaloa state, the group's fiefdom in northwest Mexico along the country’s Pacific coast, especially in the capital city of Culiacán.
However, El Chapo’s sons seem to have much more sway and strength within Culiacán and other urban centers. On the other hand, El Mayo is believed to maintain a strong hold on his rural networks in the areas surrounding the capital city, which the Chapitos haven’t yet been able to seize control of.
As a whole, the Sinaloa Cartel is operational in major cities stretching from New York City to Buenos Aires and countless others in between. The group also operates in at least 17 Mexican states, and by some estimates, in as many as 50 countries.
More recently, the feud between the Chapitos and El Mayo has spread beyond its longtime center in Sinaloa to reach the states of Baja California and Sonora.
And in September 2021, reports surfaced that representatives of the Chapitos were regularly travelling to Mexico City to seek to extend their influence there. In early 2021, Mexican authorities took down the Sinaloas, a cell of the Sinaloa Cartel reportedly under the influence of the Chapitos operating in the nearby State of Mexico. But this has not stopped the Chapitos from continuing to expand into the capital, especially in the microtrafficking scene of Tepito and Tlalpan.
In 2022, they also intensified a long-running battle against the Caborca Cartel in Sonora, following the arrest of that rival group's founder, Rafael Caro Quintero.
Allies and Enemies
At the present moment, their father’s former right-hand man, El Mayo, appears to be internal enemy number one for the Chapitos. In addition, there have been reported family frictions with their uncle, El Guano, over control of drug trafficking territory and alleged extortion payments he was thought to be charging in parts of Sinaloa.
In addition, the Chapitos have battled the Beltrán Leyva Organization, the Sinaloa Cartel’s one-time ally before a 2008 split kicked off a bloody battle between the two groups. In 2016, more than 100 Beltrán Leyva members were reportedly responsible for looting El Chapo’s mother’s home in the mountains of Sinaloa, forcing her and hundreds of others from nearby communities to flee the area.
To help in their ongoing turf wars, the Chapitos have recruited allies across several states. This list includes former rivals such as Pablo Edwin Huerta Nuno, alias “El Flaquito,” formerly of the Arellano Felix Cartel in Baja California, as well as longtime associates such as Néstor Ernesto Pérez Salas, alias “has also sanctioned,” in Culiacán.
Some experts have also suggested that the CJNG has benefited from the ongoing feud between Los Chapitos and El Mayo, in turn strengthened their power and control over parts of Mexico.
But the CJNG remain a top enemy of the Chapitos as they and the Sinaloa Cartel battle for ultimate control over Mexico’s vast criminal economies. CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” even allegedly assembled a hit squad to hunt down and kill El Chapo’s sons.
Looking ahead, the Chapitos certainly have a leg up on El Mayo as far as longevity goes. The old capo is reportedly in bad health and battling diabetes. However, El Mayo’s roots in the Sinaloa Cartel run deep. The fact that the Chapitos have been unsuccessful in seizing total control of the group’s operations thus far suggests that El Mayo still has plenty of fight left in him.
However, their grip is slowly tightening. The expansion of their territory to Sonora, Baja California and Chihuahua has given them a major advantage along the US border. Their specialization in synthetic drug trafficking, alongside marijuana and cocaine, provides an ever-steady supply of cash. And their reputation, through the Chapiza movement, continues to grow.
The arrest of Ovidio in January 2023, however, poses a major question. Will the group stay united, or will fractures begin to emerge?