Authorities in Mexico recently seized an historic amount of high-powered weapons and ammunition in a northern border state, laying bare the true firepower of one faction of the Sinaloa Cartel as it tries to solidify its control over the group.
On March 1 and 2, the Mexican Army and National Guard raided four houses in Navojoa municipality in the south of Sonora state, which sits along the US-Mexico border. Intelligence gathered by authorities suggested the properties were actually safe houses used to store drugs and weapons, according to a Defense Ministry press release.
Inside, officials uncovered an arsenal. The items seized included almost three million rounds of ammunition of varying calibers, six .50 caliber rifles, more than 150 handguns and automatic rifles, dozens of grenades and 12 bulletproof vests, among other drugs, magazines and tactical gear.
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Authorities said the drugs and weapons belonged to the Salazar, a local group operating in Sonora and connected to the Chapitos, a breakaway faction of the Sinaloa Cartel headed by the sons of the jailed former kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.”
The Salazar’s roots date back to the 1990s, when Adán Salazar Zamorano, alias “Don Adán,” founded the group in Chihuahua. He went on to work for the Sinaloa Cartel in Sonora before being arrested in 2011, but the Salazar maintain a strong presence there alongside the Chapitos, especially in Navojoa near the state’s southern border with Sinaloa.
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The extent of weapons recently seized by Mexican security forces is a clear representation of the power of the Salazar - and by extension the Chapitos - as they try and make clear who truly controls the Sinaloa Cartel in El Chapo's absence.
To be sure, authorities confiscated more weapons in this single operation than the Mexican Army seized between January and March of 2021 in the entire state of Sonora, when just 122 firearms - mainly rifles - were recovered, according to official data compiled by Stop US Arms to Mexico, a project that seeks to reduce illegal weapons trafficking into Mexico.
What’s more, it’s highly likely the Salazar didn’t have all of their weapons stashed in these four houses alone, suggesting the true firepower of the factions operating under the Chapitos is much greater. These weapons don’t just allow such groups to safeguard their criminal operations, but also to fortify their position amid an ongoing power struggle.
A number of criminal groups are currently driving violence in Sonora, including the so-called Caborca Cartel, which is tied to the infamous drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero, as well as the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG). But within the Sinaloa Cartel, ongoing tensions between the Chapitos and Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo," have led to routine displays of violence.
Just last month, a convoy of armed men reportedly loyal to the Chapitos sowed terror through the municipality of Caborca near the US-Mexico border. The hours-long attack left two dead and at least five others kidnapped, according to local officials, several of whom were later located alive.
But as the Chapitos continue their battles in the states of Sonora - which saw a record number of homicides in 2021 - and Baja California, US authorities have included them among their priority targets. Late last year, the State Department announced that, in addition to facing federal drug trafficking charges, the US government is now offering up to $20 million for help in arresting them.