HomeNewsAnalysisMexico’s Sinaloa Cartel Without ‘El Chapo’

Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel Without ‘El Chapo’


The capture of Mexico’s most wanted fugitive, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, raises the question if the Sinaloa Cartel’s criminal operations will be significantly affected. In short, the answer is: probably not.

Indeed, El Chapo’s previous arrest in February 2014 brought about no demonstrable detrimental impact to the Sinaloa Cartel’s activities. On the contrary, business proceeded largely as usual. And it does not appear circumstances have changed enough for his recapture to precipitate a major breakdown of the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations. 

Nonetheless, to play devil’s advocate, the conditions of El Chapo’s detainment will be different this time around, potentially affecting the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations more negatively than during El Chapo’s previous stints in prison.

For instance, the planning and coordination needed to execute El Chapo’s famous July 2015 escape from the Altiplano maximum-security prison (where he is again being held following his January 8 arrest) suggests he was not held under the utmost stringent security. Now, however, in order to avoid another embarrassment, Mexican officials will place El Chapo under intense supervision. This may impose greater difficulties on his passing of messages and orders to criminal associates outside prison, reducing his ability to manage and maintain his criminal enterprise.

SEE ALSO: El Chapo Profile

El Chapo’s isolation from the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations would be further increased if he is extradited to the United States. At the moment, this appears likely to happen. Soon after his arrest, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República – PGR) announced it had begun extradition proceedings against El Chapo, a marked shift in Mexico’s previous opposition to such a move.

Regardless if he is extradited or not (a process that may take a year), El Chapo being back behind bars may see Mexican authorities shift their efforts to capturing other Sinaloa Cartel leaders. El Chapo has consistently been the focus of government attention on the Sinaloa Cartel, thereby allowing other key leaders to operate from the shadows and manage the organization’s criminal endeavors under less intense pressure.

This is perhaps most true of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, El Chapo’s business partner and one of the most prolific drug traffickers in the world. With El Chapo’s recapture, El Mayo will once again become the nominal head of the Sinaloa Cartel, pushing him back into the spotlight (El Mayo is the man believed to have taken the reins of the Sinaloa Cartel following El Chapo’s 2014 arrest, and he is expected to assume full control once again). But if El Mayo becomes the new top target of Mexican officials, and he were to be captured, it would remove one of the most enduring figures of the Sinaloa Cartel, potentially crippling a significant portion of its operations.

SEE ALSO: El Mayo Profile

Additionally, it is conceivable, though unlikely, for a figure such as former Sinaloa boss Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul” — who reportedly died in June 2014 of a heart attack – to re-emerge. Mexican criminals have been known to fake their death, as was the case with Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias “El Chayo,” of La Famila Michoacana, and El Azul’s death was never confirmed. This has prompted conspiracy theories he is alive and well, and possibly even an invisible power within the Sinaloa Cartel capable of managing its activities in El Chapo’s absence.

However, neither the arrest of El Mayo nor the resurrection of El Azul occurred following El Chapo’s 2014 capture; it would be a surprise if either happened now. Indeed, El Mayo has managed to avoid capture over the course of his 40-plus years in the drug business. This despite a $5 million bounty placed on his head by US officials. El Mayo’s elusiveness is credited to his discretion and business savvy, preferring to pay bribes and corrupt officials before resorting to violence. There are no indications his capture is imminent, and his previous ability to hold the Sinaloa Cartel together without El Chapo suggests he will be able to do so again.

Nor is it a given Mexican officials will keep the Sinaloa Cartel in its crosshairs and seek to further degrade its activities. El Chapo has been the cause of great international embarrassment and domestic scorn for the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, elevating his recapture to a top priority. Yet following El Chapo’s 2014 arrest, instead of seeking to further gains against the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexican officials refocused security efforts on the upstart Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG). This is consistent with the Mexican government’s alleged preference for targeting more violent groups, like the Zetas, rather than their (relatively) less violent Sinaloa Cartel competitors.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

While leading to speculation over government corruption, such target selection by Mexican officials may in part be a result of the preference for Sinaloa Cartel leaders like El Azul for bribery over violence. This, in part, relates to the overall structure of Mexico’s criminal landscape. For instance, the Sinaloa Cartel is primarily dedicated to large-scale transnational drug trafficking. This stands in contrast to groups like the Zetas and Guerreros Unidos, who engage in less sophisticated locally-focused crimes like extortion and kidnapping, drawing the ire of citizens and heightened demands for government action.

Overall, however, the Sinaloa Cartel’s demonstrated ability to withstand leadership turnover highlights the resiliency of its horizontal leadership structure. That is, the Sinaloa Cartel is better understood as a “federation” of various cooperating criminal groups and partners, rather than as a monolithic, top-down enterprise. This has enabled it to absorb personnel shocks  — such as El Chapo’s previous arrests — without the fragmentation or disintegration experienced by other Mexican criminal organizations that suffered a loss of leadership.

As El Chapo correctly states in his controversial interview with celebrity Sean Penn, the business of drug trafficking will continue unabated even after he is gone. It seems certain that, despite his renewed absence, the Sinaloa Cartel will as well.

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