The upcoming trial in California of a high-ranking operative from Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel raises questions about the state of the vaunted drug trafficking organization, and whether the one remaining capo can maintain the criminal organization's power after a series of heavy blows.
On July 11, in a San Diego courtroom, Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa, alias "El Chino Antrax," pled not guilty to federal charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine and other drugs into the US. He had been extradited to the US just a day earlier, after being arrested in Amsterdam in December 2013.
El Chino Antrax was reportedly a chief enforcer of the Sinaloa Cartel and a man with close personal ties to frontman Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, making his arrest a significant blow to the organization as well as a step in the effort to nab Guzman himself, who was detained in February in Mazatlan. The arrest of El Chino Antrax and other key cogs in the Sinaloa machinery caused sudden changes in the group's communication systems, exposing them to infiltration by the authorities.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
The Sinaloa enforcer was also reportedly a founder and leader of a Sinaloa cell called "Anthrax Virus," and he represented a younger generation of Sinaloa leaders. Unlike many of his criminal forbears, he had no background in law enforcement, nor was he a professed rancher. According to a recent New Yorker chronicle of Guzman's arrest, El Chino Antrax was a cosmopolitan technophile: he was in Amsterdam on one of his periodic European vacations when arrested, and he spent a great deal of time online chatting with other organized crime figures. Some reports speculated after his arrest that information posted on his Instagram account might have contributed to his arrest.
The trial awaiting El Chino Antrax and the downfall of other key members of the group -- including Guzman himself -- raise questions about the future of the Sinaloa Cartel. The arrest of Guzman was followed in June by reports that Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, another of the triumvirate of top Sinaloa bosses, had suffered a heart attack. Other old-time Sinaloa leaders have also disappeared from the scene, like Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was killed in December 2009 following a split with Guzman, and Ignacio Coronel, who was killed in July 2010.
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These developments over the past year appear to have lifted Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, the lone remaining Sinaloa capo, into a position of unparalleled power within the cartel, but it's not clear how much the organization that he controls resembles the one that has dominated the nation's criminal landscape for the past decade.
SEE ALSO: El Mayo Profile
With the demise of his contemporaries, both in Sinaloa and in other regions, Zambada may now be the country's most powerful drug lord, but he is taking over an organization that is in flux.
While they were allies for decades, it is not known how much overlap there was between the networks within Sinaloa that were controlled by Zambada and those controlled by his colleagues. It could be that Guzman and Esparragoza had a network of subordinates willing to respond only to them, in which case their departure could mean the fracturing of the cartel.
The Sinaloa Cartel has been plagued by reports of infighting for years, and the rumors seem to have intensified recently. Hundreds of dead bodies discovered in clandestine graves in 2011 in Durango were attributed to battles between a Chihuahua-based Sinaloa offshoot and their erstwhile bosses. More recently, the arrest of several Zambada lieutenants, including his son Serafin Zambada, led to reports of open conflict between Guzman and Zambada themselves.
It is not clear how much truth there is to the rumors, but they are a sign of tension and perhaps even decay within the organization. Moreover, with Zambada ascending months after the arrest of El Chino Antrax and Zambada's son, it is unclear who he will rely on for the organization's day-to-day operations.
Reports indicate that the organization in general and Zambada in particular were heavily reliant on El Chino Antrax, Serafin Zambada, and Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza (killed by Mexican troops in December). Replacing three key lieutenants and two kingpins in a six-month period is a tall order, sure to test the strength of any organization.