When heavy floods struck Mexico’s Sinaloa state earlier this year, damaging communities and local infrastructure, help was quick to arrive. But not from the government. Residents of the small town of El Ranchito de los Angulo, not far from the Pacific Coast, were pictured by the local media receiving new mattresses, stoves and blankets packed up with caps and stickers bearing the initials JGL.
Townsfolk were filmed sending blessings to their benefactor, Joaquin Guzmán Loera, aka “El Chapo,” arguably the world’s most famous drug lord. This is the birthplace of the Sinaloa cartel he once controlled. For decades, poor country-folk have seen him and his associates as providers who buy their product and give them work compared to a government that has, in their eyes, consistently failed them. But that isn’t the only part of Guzman’s legacy that looks set to outlive him. As he faces the early stages of his trial in a maximum-security prison in New York on drug trafficking and homicide charges, business is booming for the Sinaloa cartel.
In Sinaloa, it has been mostly business as usual.
Jaime Lopez, former Mexican law enforcement official
Though no agency keeps track of the volume of the cartel’s business, Mexican authorities in August discovered 50 tons of methamphetamine, worth $5 billion, in a hidden Sinaloa lab. The cartel has added deadly fentanyl to its arsenal of products that already includes cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. Other criminal organizations have done so too, but many of the biggest fentanyl seizures in the U.S. over the past few months are linked with the Sinaloa cartel, prosecutors say. That includes 33 pounds in Boston, 144 pounds in New York and 118 pounds in Nebraska — all in 2018. In New York City, fentanyl seizures increased tenfold between 2016 and 2017, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
After El Chapo’s extradition, the U.S. has shifted its focus to the Sinaloa group’s rivals, the Jalisco New Generation cartel now viewed by Washington as one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations. That’s helped the Sinaloa cartel rebuild. The Sinaloa boys are also engineering a split within the Jalisco cartel, say experts. The Mexican and American strategy had hoped the Sinaloans — and their business — would be hurting. The reality? Au contraire.
“In Sinaloa, it has been mostly business as usual in the past few months,” says Jaime Lopez, a former Mexican law enforcement official–turned–security analyst.
With or without El Chapo, Sinaloa enjoys logistical advantages in the drug trade. The state’s fertile, mountainous lands are part of the Golden Triangle — a huge production zone for marijuana and poppy plants. Sinaloa shares a border with the U.S. and is a major transportation and route hub.
That doesn’t mean that El Chapo’s extradition left the Sinaloa cartel untouched. He was captured after going on the lam for a second time from a high-security Mexican prison in January 2016. But it was his departure to the United States a year later that detonated a struggle for power within the cartel — while he was still in the country, there was always the chance that he could escape again and return to the field.
After he was sent north, Sinaloa was for months consumed by a conflict that displaced hundreds. The internal war was eventually won by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Guzmán’s sons and brother. El Mayo is a padrino, a godfather. One of the original leaders of the Sinaloa cartel and another legendary name in the criminal underworld, he has the respect of drug-trafficking organizations around the region. El Chapo’s sons, known as “los Chapitos” (the little Chapos), have a reputation for being more bloodthirsty and arrogant than El Mayo.
Power within the organization also extends to Aureliano “El Guano” Guzmán Loera, El Chapo’s brother, and, to a lesser extent, Rafael Caro Quintero, another old-school drug trafficker who was freed from a Mexican jail in 2013 and is trying to rebuild his network. El Mayo is the glue of the group — he has the most experience, the coolest head and mitigates between all of the other power factions.
Observers who follow the criminal underworld have long argued that the days of one strongman or even one cartel are over. Fragmentation over the years — caused in part by the pursuit of the kingpin strategy supported by the U.S. that takes down major leaders of criminal groups — has led to internal power vacuums. These, in turn, detonate violence and the formation of criminal factions that, in this case, function beneath the Sinaloa cartel umbrella name. Now, Los Chapitos are in control of Culiacán, the capital city of Sinaloa, says Miguel Angel Vega, a native of Culiacán and journalist who has covered the cartels for decades, whereas El Mayo is focused on international logistics and running things in the mountains.
“The Sinaloa cartel isn’t just one person,” says Vega. “There are various criminal organizations sharing territory, and all of them are powerful.”
Initially, after El Chapo’s extradition, the expansion of the Jalisco New Generation cartel had appeared a threat to the Sinaloa group. The group has won territory in states previously controlled by Sinaloa in bloody struggles that have contributed to Mexico’s all-time-high homicide rates.
But Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who spent nearly two decades working Mexico, thinks that ultimately, the expansion of the Jalisco group will work to the Sinaloans’ advantage.
As a result of this rise in power, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has announced a renewed focus on the Jalisco group and the capture of its leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka “El Mencho.” The more eyes U.S. law enforcement has on the Jalisco boys, the fewer it will have for the Sinaloa cartel.
Meanwhile, Oseguera is on the run not only from American and Mexican law enforcement but from the members of an insurrection from his own organization led by a man called Carlos Enrique Sánchez, alias “El Cholo,” a former ally. “The Sinaloa cartel has been supporting El Cholo, which allows them to expand into other Mexican states and ports,” says Vigil. “Sinaloa is backing the challenger by providing him with money and sicarios [henchmen].”
The pressure on El Mencho is only going to increase, although he has so far avoided capture. The more focus he puts on staying free, the less he may be able to devote to running his criminal empire, which could weaken his leadership and influence within the organization and make the insurrection more likely to succeed. “You can’t run a war when you’re on the run,” Vigil points out.
El Chapo might be going down, but the Sinaloa cartel, such as it is, seems to be on the up and up.