Media in Mexico have released details from the testimony of one of arrested drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s closest employees, which offer insight into the notorious kingpin’s final days of freedom and the inner workings of his organization.
The new disclosures, reported by Excelsior and other media outlets, are based on the declarations while in custody of Carlos Manuel Hoo Ramirez, El Chapo’s bodyguard and “personal secretary.” However, his account has yet to be independently corroborated.
Hoo Ramirez, alias “El Condor,” was standing guard outside El Chapo’s room when the drug lord was arrested in Mazatlan in late February.
According to Hoo Ramirez, El Chapo had spent the past three years living primarily in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa.
His testimony paints a picture of El Chapo as beset by violent personal feuds, which cost thousands of lives and restricted the kingpin’s own movements and ability to operate freely. It also includes details of El Chapo’s private life, especially his relationships with women.
Hoo Ramirez’s declarations also describe how El Chapo’s organization trafficked drugs into the United States and how it branched out into new criminal areas, capitalizing on revenue opportunities found in Mexico’s growing domestic drug market.
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The testimony from Hoo Ramirez offers a window into a number of elements of El Chapo’s organization, and offers some clues about the future of the Sinaloa Cartel. For instance, he describes Nogales as the key border-crossing used by the Sinaloa Cartel for marijuana trafficking, a historically important and often overlooked element of their operations.
Hoo Ramirez also talks about El Chapo’s control over Culiacan’s “tienditas,” or small stores that double as drug retail points. According to his secretary, El Chapo forced these vendors to align with his organization, which typically meant buying their drugs from the cartel and likely paying a quota for the right to operate.
The growth of such tienditas is both a product and a cause of Mexico’s growing levels of drug consumption. They have emerged as an increasingly important source of revenue for even international trafficking groups like El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Profile
Local drug sales are also a major source of violence in Mexico. Compared to drug trafficking, retail sales represent a newer, more rapidly growing industry with a larger number of independent actors who compete directly with one another. As a result, there are more potential rivalries in Mexico today than there were a decade ago, which lends itself to greater violence. The desire of well-armed larger groups to control the tienditas — Guzman’s actions mimic those of his counterparts in other parts of Mexico — adds further fuel to the fire.
Another striking element of the account is that El Chapo had ongoing feuds with a large number of his counterparts, including several operating inside Sinaloa, the state that he theoretically dominated. Hoo Ramirez mentioned longstanding rivals like the Beltran Leyvas and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, as well as more recently emerging enemies, such as Manuel Torres, alias “M1,” who had previously been described as a top enforcer for El Chapo. This is in addition to reports that El Chapo and his longtime partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada had been at odds in recent months.
As a result, much of the state was off-limits to El Chapo’s organization. According to Hoo Ramirez, Guzman’s subordinates were unable to operate in northern Sinaloa cities like Guasave, Choix, Ahome and El Fuerte; in the coastal city of Navolato; or in the southern part of the state that borders Nayarit. In this sense, Hoo Ramirez’s account offers another indication that, notwithstanding his notoriety, Guzman was not the omnipotent criminal mastermind he was often characterized as being.
SEE ALSO: El Chapo Profile
Hoo Ramirez’s statements also further discredit the idea that El Chapo was the face of a more peaceful brand of drug trafficking — his group was not known for the wanton brutality of the Zetas nor for the heavy reliance on extortion and kidnapping seen in other organizations, but the list of feuds he was involved in was larger than that of any other group in Mexico. His organization engaged in high-profile wars in Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas, five of the most violence-riddled northern states. Far from being an old-school businessman who deserved the tacit support of the presidency, Guzman may have been the nation’s foremost generator of violence.
It is hard to predict, based on Hoo Ramirez’s testimony, the precise impact of El Chapo’s arrest. The typical expectation following the demise of a kingpin of El Chapo’s stature would be a wave of violence, as subordinates and rivals fall into conflict in their rush to take over his market share. That may wind up being the case here, and certainly Guzman had no shortage of ambitious subordinates and rivals eagerly awaiting his downfall. Meanwhile, according to comments attributed to one of his sons that appeared in a media outlet in Argentina, those close to Guzman are ready to continue to fight his battles.
There are also some elements of the El Chapo case that offer hope for a more positive turn of events. One is that Guzman leaves behind two partners who have a similar stature to him: El Mayo Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza, alias “El Azul.” Such figures are likely as capable of keeping the troops in line as El Chapo was.
Secondly, much of the violence surrounding the Sinaloa Cartel in recent years was linked to personal feuds cultivated by El Chapo himself, both with other organizations and within his own. El Chapo and Arturo Beltran Leyva clashed because the latter blamed the former for the arrest of his brother, sparking an enmity that resulted in hundreds or even thousands of deaths. According to arrested capo Edgar Valdes Villarreal, alias “La Barbie,” El Chapo’s dislike of the Juarez Cartel’s Juan Pablo Ledezma sparked the war in Juarez that began in 2008 and ended up killing some 10,000 people.
Consequently, if Zambada and Esparragoza succeed in smoothing over some of the personal enmity that El Chapo reportedly inspired, rather than making a mad dash to take over his network, we may instead see a calming of the waters.
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