The upcoming trial of Mexico’s former top drug kingpin El Chapo in the United States is being hailed as a major win against organized crime, but has the arrest really helped weaken one of the most powerful cartels in the region? Evidence suggests it hasn’t.
The trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo” -- the former head of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization, the Sinaloa Cartel -- is scheduled to begin on November 5 in a Brooklyn courthouse in New York state.
US prosecutors charged the former kingpin in a 17-count indictment with leading a criminal enterprise over the span of some 20 years, conspiring to traffic cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana internationally, in addition to conspiring to commit several murders of individuals that "posed a threat" to the Sinaloa Cartel, among other criminal charges. Six of the drug-related charges have since been dropped in an effort to “optimize” the case and “accelerate” its resolution, according to El Universal.
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US authorities claim that under El Chapo’s command, the Sinaloa Cartel earned some $14 billion in illicit proceeds from the drug trade. They are asking for the forfeiture of this money, but prosecutors have reportedly yet to find even a single dollar.
The kingpin’s attorneys claim there’s evidence suggesting his client was nothing more than a middle manager for the cartel, according to a report from Vice News.
Mexican authorities arrested El Chapo for the third and final time on January 8, 2016 in the coastal town of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa state. Nearly six months earlier, the former drug lord had used an elaborate tunnel to escape (for a second time) from the maximum security Altiplano prison after being arrested in February 2014.
One year later, El Chapo was extradited to the United States where he now sits in isolation for 23 hours a day at a maximum security prison in the city of Brooklyn.
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The arrest of El Chapo has put the efficacy of the Mexican government’s so-called kingpin strategy -- a policy of arresting or killing the leaders of Mexico’s violent cartels supported heavily by the United States government -- on stark display.
The reality on the ground suggests that this method of tackling organized crime has done little to weaken one of the country’s most infamous criminal organizations: the Sinaloa Cartel.
The main reason is that the Sinaloa Cartel has a horizontal structure with decision-making authority spread throughout the organization, as opposed to a vertical structure with just one or a few key members calling the shots.
“The notion that one man does and controls everything is a fallacy,” said Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego’s Center for US-Mexican studies. “He [El Chapo] wasn’t making all the decisions on how to traffic drugs, how to launder money and how to run the criminal organization on his own.”
While El Chapo was on the run evading authorities, Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo” -- one of the cartel’s last remaining capos from the old guard -- maintained the cartel’s structure and continues to do so today in the drug lord’s absence.
Although El Chapo’s fall generated some uncertainty that led to violent internal disputes regarding who would assume leadership over the cartel -- primarily among El Chapo’s sons and his former right-hand man, Dámaso López Núñez, alias “El Licenciado” -- the Sinaloa Cartel has managed to weather the storm and remain on top in the long-term.
“The Sinaloa Cartel is very good in terms of its organizational capacity,” said Amalia Pulido Gómez, a post-doctoral fellow at the College of Mexico in Mexico City. “They have a huge capacity to renew their organization even without El Chapo. They have other regional leaders with the capacity to adapt, reduce uncertainty and solve internal disputes.”
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Indeed, without El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel has hardly faltered despite the arrest of some of the group’s top leaders and some other important members.
In August 2018, authorities seized approximately 50 metric tons of methamphetamine -- almost certainly the largest such haul in the country’s history -- in the western state of Sinaloa that was allegedly linked to the cartel, suggesting that the group is still a major player in the drug trade and is adapting its operations to meet growing demand for synthetic drugs.
In addition, a highly sophisticated “narco-tunnel” that was recently dismantled along the US-Mexico border had all the markings of the Sinaloa Cartel: solar panels to run electrical, lighting and ventilation systems, sump pumps to drain the tunnel of water, as well as a railway system. A tunnel this sophisticated, worth millions of dollars, suggests that the Sinaloa Cartel still earns enough to make up for the high costs of construction, even when the tunnel is destroyed before it can be used.
But beyond the Sinaloa Cartel’s continued presence in Mexico, the group also continues to maintain a presence outside of the country. In February 2018, authorities in Colombia issued an alert about the influence of the group in financing the criminal activities of ex-FARC mafia groups -- networks of former fighters from the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The group also continues to use Colombian export companies in trade-based money laundering schemes to wash their criminal proceeds in El Chapo’s absence.
“El Chapo created an extraordinary criminal organization that was designed to carry on even in his absence,” Mike Vigil, the former Chief of International Operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told InSight Crime. “It’s a global organization that operates in more than 40 countries.”
The kingpin strategy makes for flashy headlines and perp walks that captivate onlookers. But if El Chapo’s arrest and extradition to the United States has made one thing about the Sinaloa Cartel clear, it’s that authorities are going to have to take a drastically different approach to take down one of the strongest criminal organizations that Mexico has ever seen.
Photo: Elizabeth Williams/AP