The Chapitos are winning the internal war for the Sinaloa Cartel. It's not the same group El Chapo once ran. The Chapitos may only control part of the territory and criminal economies their father oversaw, but they do so with their own capitalist flair.
Dominating Mexico's synthetic drug trade; expansion along the US-Mexico border into Sonora, Chihuahua, and Baja California; profiting from illegal fishing, mining, migrant smuggling, and more; and a social media following that can verge on the fanatical.
The Chapitos understand a core rule of business: Diversification is the key to wealth.
Doing It Their Way
The video is quite funny. Filmed from inside a car, it shows a Mexican police officer in full body armor knocking on the window. The man sitting in the passenger seat opens it and shouts out: "Holy Shit! (a la verga!) A Power Ranger!" He continues, "We are the Chapiza, viejo." While the police officer's eyes are obscured by a mask, he raises a placating hand and says, "We're all good, thanks, everything's fine," and walks off.
The consequences are sinister. The mere mention of La Chapiza made a police officer walk away and leave potential criminals alone after being ridiculed.
Yet this is but a small demonstration of the cult of personality and influence developed by the Chapitos, a collective name for the sons of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo."
The Prodigal Sons
Since their father's fall and extradition to the United States in 2017, the Chapitos sought to reshape the Sinaloa Cartel in their own image. The first real test of their strength, one which they passed with flying colors, was what became known as the Culiacanazo. In October 2019, Mexican troops surrounded the house of Ovidio Guzmán López in Culiacán, the capital of Mexico's northwestern state of Sinaloa. They captured him momentarily, and the mobilization against the armed forces that would follow was instant. Hundreds of men were deployed across the city, complete with armored vehicles, heavy weaponry, and rocket launchers. Army soldiers were taken hostage. Chapitos gunmen even took control of a housing complex for military families.
On the order of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), Ovidio was quickly released.
This became a banner event for the Chapitos. Parties were organized to celebrate the anniversary of when they made the government back down in shame. On social networks, messages mocking AMLO abounded.
This was a microcosm that describes how the Chapitos operate: violence, opportunism, and PR.
In December 2021, the US government increased its reward to $20 million for information that would help them capture the four sons: Ovidio and Joaquín Guzmán López, Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar. They were also collectively sanctioned by the US Treasury Department under the so-called Kingpin Act.
They more than earned that designation in 2022. This year, the Chapitos proved their ability to stand on their own two feet, dominating much of the fentanyl and methamphetamine trade in central and northern Mexico, ruthlessly taking advantage of weaknesses in opponents, and making strategic moves to expand.
First, they have established their own kind of criminal governance in the parts of Sinaloa they control, including the capital, Culiacán, and parts of Sonora and Chihuahua. It differs widely from their father's way of doing business.
"If people needed help [under El Chapo], they got help. If somebody had a health problem and they found out about it, they would get them help. And from that feeling of protection came a sense of governance," explained Marcos Vizcarra, a Mexican journalist with extensive experience covering organized crime.
But loyalty to territory or people is not the Chapitos' way.
"They have created a super-capitalist environment," said Vizcarra. "They only see production; they only see a labor force and nothing else."
That focus is evident in seizures of synthetic drug laboratories in Mexico. From May to June 2022, Mexican security forces seized 72 clandestine sites where primarily methamphetamine was produced, according to Defense Minister Luis Crescencio Sandoval. Sixty-five of these were in Sinaloa, including in the municipalities of Cosalá, Culiacán, Elota, and Badiraguato, all of which have strong connections to the Chapitos.
Local criminal economies also provide a steady source of income to finance their expansion. "The Chapitos have mainly focused on the synthetics market, although the Culiacán [marijuana] market has been a steady source of revenue for them," said Luis Chaparro, a Mexican crime journalist who has written about the Chapitos for VICE News.
He added that the Chapitos also have revenue from the illegal trade of totoaba, a fish whose bladder is in high demand in Asia and has been fished perilously close to extinction in Mexico, as well as the acquisition of government construction contracts in Sinaloa, Sonora, Durango, and Chihuahua.
According to Vizcarra, the Chapitos have also established a tight grip on microtrafficking in their territory, forcing drug dealers to work for them and punishing customers who dare buy from sellers not associated with them.
The Chapitos don't seem to engage in extortion. There are no reported regular payments. Instead, they rely on enforced business practices.
"You have to adapt to their methods, their prices, their hours. Adapt, and you can sell. If you don't work with them, you'll be eliminated," said Vizcarra.
The Wayward Sons
But the Guzmán boys have not been content to stay on their home turf. This year has seen them take the upper hand in a drawn-out fight with the Caborca Cartel, a group that controls crucial drug routes through the northern state of Sonora.
In February 2022, armed men loyal to the Chapitos riding in a convoy of dozens of vehicles laid siege on the municipality of Caborca near the US-Mexico border. For hours, the convoy occupied the city as local police were unable to repel them until morning.
This proved their ability to strike at the heart of Caborca. A few months later, luck would also be on their side when Rafael Caro Quintero, the alleged Caborca Cartel founder and one of the most-wanted men in the United States, was arrested in mid-July.
The Chapitos struck at once. In the days after the arrest, around two dozen people were killed in Caborca and nearby towns.
"A large part of the police contacts, the circles of protection which the Caborca Cartel could rely on, were directly tied to Caro Quintero. We will have to see how many of those local police chiefs and regional police commanders remain loyal or change sides [to the Chapitos]," Mexican security analyst, David Saucedo, told El Universal at the time.
Another target for them has been Mexico City, long spared the worst of the country's cartel excesses. In July, 14 men reported to be envoys from the Chapitos were arrested in the capital. They wore badges with a cartoon rat, long interpreted as a symbol of Ovidio Guzmán, who is known as "El Ratón."
This was seemingly the continuation of a years-long campaign to enter the capital, capitalizing on a weakened Unión Tepito, Mexico City's largest gang. Antonio Nieto, author of Cartel Chilango, a book on organized crime in the capital, reported on a series of alleged meetings between Chapitos envoys and Mexican police starting in 2020. During these meets, it was promised that police officers would not be targeted if the Chapitos were left alone to expand their business. Coincidentally or not, shortly after these meetings took place, raids targeting the Unión Tepito brought the group to its knees.
And finally, in Chihuahua, an ironclad alliance with the Salazar, a dangerous local gang, has allowed the Chapitos to indirectly control cocaine and synthetic drug trafficking through that state to the US border.
The Chapitos have not taken the Sinaloa Cartel altogether. Factions remain loyal to their father's old business partner, Ismael Zambada García, alias "El Mayo," and their uncle, Aureliano Guzmán Loera, alias "El Guano."
However, they have carved out their own highly profitable place in Mexico's criminal world through both alliances and brute force.
This is where the Chapitos shine. They're the cool kids on social media and among their cult following. The hashtag #Chapiza is a veritable brand for the brothers. They gave insights into one of Mexico's most interesting criminal economies, poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle, a drug production epicenter where the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango converge. La Chapiza is a term used to refer to personnel, usually gunmen, associated with the Chapitos.
The videos allegedly show Sinaloa Cartel traffickers patrolling the area and feature their lifestyles and daily work, their weapons, interactions with uniformed security forces, as well as the use of small planes to move drugs. Conversations recorded in the videos suggest the group has criminal alliances in countries such as Colombia and Panama.
The videos show the respect and fear being associated with the Chapitos can inspire. The aforementioned Power Ranger incident got nearly five million views. Parades of Chapiza convoys have reached hundreds of thousands of views. A narco-corrido (song glorifying Mexican criminals) named Somos La Chapiza (We Are the Chapiza) serves as a soundtrack to numerous other videos on TikTok.
The Chapiza brand has even moved from being a hashtag to being on narcomantas (banners threatening rivals). The full impact of the Chapiza brand offline is up for debate. "La Chapiza is a brand mostly made viral on social media, but with little significance on the streets," said Chaparro. Others may even have tried to cash in on the craze. "Groups that are infighting within the Sinaloa Cartel have used it and even asked others to stop using it," he added.
Still, while the allure of the narco-lifestyle is nothing new. and numerous traffickers have had social media presences, the Chapitos in 2022 became essentially a more hip cartel, brasher and more desirable.
They sell methamphetamine, fentanyl, and cocaine. But they also sell a lifestyle. They're narco-influencers.
For their capitalist business-savvy, their aggressive expansion, their sense of public relations, the Chapitos are InSight Crime's Criminal Winner for 2022.