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?
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.