The death, imprisonment and targeting of several members of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada's faction of the Sinaloa Cartel points to a disturbing possibility for Mexico's underworld: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman may be making a play for his partner's territory.
In late November 2013, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents captured El Mayo's son -- Serafin Zambada -- in Arizona. The United States had been tracking his movements for months and had captured several of his associates, who cooperated with law enforcement in the lead-up to Zambada's arrest, according to an account by Proceso.
On December 18, Mexican authorities reportedly killed Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza, alias "Macho Prieto," in Sonora state. Inzunza was El Mayo's premier lieutenant on the northern border of Mexico.
In late December, in what may have been the biggest strike against El Mayo yet, Dutch authorities apprehended Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa, alias "El Chino Anthrax."
SEE ALSO: Mexico Organized Crime News and Profiles
All of this comes just months after Mexican security forces killed Manuel Torres Felix, alias "M1," another top enforcer for El Mayo.
Other significant but previously unknown figures, such as Jose Guadalupe Tapia Quintero, are also suddenly being targeted by the United States. The US Treasury Department placed Tapia Quintero on its "kingpin" list earlier this month.
Taken together, the events are a powerful blow to El Mayo's operations and could represent major changes in the Mexican underworld.
InSight Crime Analysis
When someone says a criminal organization is protected by a political power, they accept there is a level of tolerance from the federal authorities with respect to corruption, violence, trafficking and other criminal activities. It is as if there is a protective wall, a bubble that shields them from external stimuli.
In the Mexican context, such ties have been woven from the different levels of power (from the federal to the municipal) for different criminal groups. We assume that achieving "good governance" in the Mexican context requires an agreement between these various levels of power and the criminal groups.
For nearly twelve years, two straight National Action Party (PAN) governments seemed to favor the Sinaloa Cartel criminal organization. The proof was there to see: Joaquin Guzman's escape from maximum security prison; the expansion of the Sinaloa Cartel in the south of the country (taking over Acapulco); displacing the Juarez and Tijuana Cartels from their traditional strongholds and the Amado Carillo and volatile Arellano Felix families along with them.
SEE ALSO: Juarez: After the War
During President Felipe Calderon's six years (2006-2012), two aspects are worth noting: the largest concentration of military forces was in territorial areas with a presence of enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel; and the Sinaloa Cartel had significantly less members arrested and imprisoned than its rivals. Suffice to say that no criminal organization prospers without some level of political tolerance.
But the current presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto looks different. The release of retired General Thomas Angeles (Deputy Secretary of Defense in 2005) and the dissolution of charges against another five officers who were arrested during the past administration for alleged ties to the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) -- among them three generals -- suggests the president's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) may have a new favorite. This is not too much of a surprise since it was the BLO that operated with near total impunity in the State of Mexico while Peña Nieto was governor prior to launching his bid for the presidency.
Some analysts assume that Peña Nieto cannot modify the security strategy inherited from his PAN predecessor because doing so would create a wedge between his and the Obama administration, a serious concern for a country so reliant on the United States. Continuing the current security policy (putting aside the fact that current security structures were put in place by Calderon) essentially means going after the most violent cartels and keeping the lines of communication open with Joaquin Guzman, who is considered a rational, smart and flexible player in the underworld.
In this context, how can we understand Serafin Zambada and Chino Anthrax's arrests, and the deaths of Macho Prieto and M1? These deaths and arrests certainly weaken the military structure of the Pacific Cartel (El Mayo's faction), which is the most important operation in the Sinaloa Cartel or the Federation, as it is more rightly known.
So this is less an attack on the Sinaloa Cartel and more an attack on El Mayo Zambada. Remember: Ismael Zambada Jr. is already in prison in Chicago; Zambadita Jr. (Serafin Zambada) is joining him; Macho Prieto was one of Mayo's most important military lieutenants, and while Chino Anthrax worked for both factions, he was really more important to El Mayo.
If we add to that list Ignacio Coronel, who is presumed dead; Ines Coronel, a major operator and father-in-law of Guzman Loera who was captured in April 2013; and Tapia Quintero, a deputy to El Mayo who the US Treasury put on its blacklist, it seems that Joaquin Guzman is marking his territory even further to the north and west and once again using his federal power to break an alliance, this time the one with his long time partner, El Mayo.
Maybe Chapo wants all business for himself, and if he's already pushed around other rival organizations using political power, why not make an alliance with a reluctant partner in the current government?
*David Martinez-Amador is University Professor of the course of blood rituals in secret societies, cults, sects, fraternities and mafia.