Heirs To El Chapo: Who Will Be Sinaloa Drug Cartel's Next Boss?

Its long-time leader awaits sentencing in the U.S, but the international drug empire Mexico's Joaquin Guzman helped build is going strong. Who will be the next kingpin?

Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman under arrest
Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman under arrest

BUENOS AIRES — Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the 61-year-old crime boss from Mexico, will probably spend the rest of his life in jail after a New York jury found him guilty on 10 charges of drug trafficking, possession of arms and money-laundering. But the Sinaloa Cartel he ran is still a huge, globe-stretching business. And it has heirs.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) believes the cartel is now being led by Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, 70, who is said to prefer negotiations, business acumen and long-term planning over violence. Next in line are El Chapo's two sons — Iván and Alfredo Guzmán — who are presumed to be in charge of weapons, logistics and small-scale drug sales.

The cartel is present in 17 Mexican states and dominates three of them: Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango — the so-called "Golden Triangle" in the north. And as sector expert Scott Stewart writes in the Washington-based website The Hill, it continues to be the chief supplier of synthetic drugs (fentanyl and methamphetamine) and more traditional drugs (heroin and cocaine) to the United States. He observes that as recently as Jan. 26, U.S. border patrol officers found 115 kilograms of fentanyl (the largest such haul in U.S. history) and 179 kilograms of methamphetamine in Nogales, Arizona.

To understand the cartel's international ties, one only need consider that a kilogram of fentanyl is bought in China for $9,000. It is then cut into pills in Mexican laboratories with a 1% purity level and sold in the United States at much higher prices than cocaine or heroin. The head of the New York DEA, Ray Donovan, believes the Sinaloa cartel has been the leading player in synthetic drugs since 2010.

He's thought to be hiding in the mountains of the Golden Triangle.

The Sinaloa Cartel works as a federation of 120 clans or "little cartels' that act with considerable autonomy and are difficult to track. A former head of DEA international operations, Mike Vigil, considers it the world's most powerful cartel still, with a well-paid and obliging network of port officials, policemen, gunmen and frontmen. It has even inspired its own musical genre — the narcocorrido (drug ballads) — sung by Mexican groups like Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Los Tigres del Norte.

The cartel is known to have been formed in 1989 and has had three bosses, Guzmán, Juan José Esparragoza Moreno (who may have died), and the veteran among them, Ismael Zambada. The DEA believes Zambada is the current leader.

He reputedly acts like an "old style" gang boss and is thought to be respected still by younger leaders. He has eluded arrest so far and is thought to be hiding in the mountains of the Golden Triangle. His son, Vicente Zambada, is held in the United States and testified at the Guzmán trial.

Next in the hierarchy are Iván and Alfredo Guzmán, known in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, as "Los Chapitos' (the little Chapos). The journalist and head of the Sinaloa weekly Riodoce, Ismael Bohórquez, describes their tasks as organizing low-level drug sales and cartel logistics, and assuring arms supplies.

After their father's arrest, there were several, failed pretenders to his throne. One was Dámaso López Núñez, aka "El Licenciado" (the graduate), a former security chief for the Puente Grande cartel in the western state of Jalisco who facilitated Guzmán's flight from jail in 2001.

López was seen as El Chapo's right-hand man when the latter was extradited to the United States, but was himself arrested in 2017 and testified at the New York trial. His son, Dámaso López Serrano, sought to wrest power from Guzmán's sons, but after his father's arrest, surrendered to U.S. authorities.

The cartel faces two threats now, one of which relates to its work in clandestine labs. Fentanyl is killing numerous users, mainly due to poor mixing. While some pills contain just small doses of the drug, others are loaded to the point of being lethal.

The other threat is from a rival group known as Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG, in Spanish), made up of former Sinaloa cartel gunmen who split away in 2014. Both cartels now want to control the synthetic drugs market. CJNG's boss is the notoriously violent Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, better known as "El Mencho." The U.S. Justice Department is offering $10 million for his capture.

According to official U.S. figures, CJNG controls 100 clandestine labs in Mexico and sends five tons of cocaine and five tons of methamphetamine to the United States every month. One of its favored bases is Tijuana, in the state of Baja California, though its presence has spread to Texas and California inside the United States.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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