Latin America

Mexico braces for drug violence after Sinaloa cartel chief’s capture

Profitable drug routes up for grabs now that El Chapo is behind bars

Luis Pablo Beauregard
Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán, following his arrest on Saturday.
Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán, following his arrest on Saturday.Susana Gonzalez (Bloomberg)

If there is one thing that Mexico has learned over the years in its near-eight-year battle with narco mafias, it is that once a cartel chief is taken down, a bloody war always ensues for control of the profitable drug routes that could be up for grabs.

And following Saturday’s capture of the world’s most notorious trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexican authorities are bracing for the worst. Guzmán’s arrest is certain to have left a power vacuum inside one of the most powerful drug structures in the country.

The Sinaloa cartel controls crime in five northern states – Baja California, Sonora, Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa – and its power extends across Mexico’s borders into Central America, reaching as far as the United States and South America. El Chapo is also wanted by US authorities and his extradition to the United States is being discussed.

“There is fear among government analysts that violence will break out,” said Gerardo Rodríguez, a professor in national security and terrorism studies, who predicts that the number of murders will rise as it did in the past when other cartel chiefs were arrested or killed. But he believes that the bloody retaliation won’t unfold immediately because Mexican authorities have collected a lot of evidence from computers and cellphones.

“Right now, the second- and third-tier leaders of the Pacific [also known as the Sinaloa] cartel must be keeping a very low profile,” Rodríguez said.

El Chapo is also wanted by US authorities and his extradition is being discussed by Washington

Alejandro Hope, a public security analyst with the Mexico Institute for Competition (IMCO), said the first casualties of Guzmán’s arrest would be the “traitors and stool pigeons” who will be punished. Guzmán had reportedly stepped back from the cartel’s day-to-day operations, allowing his first lieutenants, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza, to take more hands-on roles.

But with El Chapo gone, the two could split off and form their own drug “families,” Hope believes.

“The man at the top – the CEO – fell, but the two principle chiefs, El Mayo and El Azul, are still there. We are going to have to wait and see if there is going to be a struggle between them. Maybe there won’t be a need for a single leader but instead shared leadership.”

What concerns Mexican authorities the most is that other cartels will interpret Guzmán’s arrest as a severe blow that has weakened the Sinaloa cartel. This could destabilize the organization’s structures in cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana and in states such as Chihuahua and Baja California.

Both border cities have been relatively peaceful over the years. One of the reasons is that the Sinaloa cartel has tight control in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.

“With that supremacy gone there could be motive for other organizations, such as the Zetas and what is left of the Beltrán Leyva [cartel], to start a war,” Hope said.

For the moment, Sinaloa could perhaps fall into the hands of Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, “El Chapito Isidro,” known to both US and Mexican authorities as the Pacific cartel’s principal rival in the state. In January 2013, the US Treasury Department issued an advisory that accused him of allegedly trafficking heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine to the United States.

An eventual battle between El Chapito Isidro and the Sinaloa cartel for control of the state’s drug activities would be a nightmare for Mexican authorities. After Guerrero, Sinaloa is the Mexican state with the highest murder rate with 1,208 homicides registered in 2013.

“It will be weeks, months or even years before there is any fallout from Guzmán’s arrest,” Hope said, adding that his capture could also have a reverse effect – scaring off potential rivals from taking power.

“El Chapo was Mexico’s own image of the impunity that has gone on for so long; he was able to dodge authorities for 13 years. His fall from power sends out the message to the rest of the criminals: if he was captured, then maybe having a very high-profile image is not a good thing. This could contain the violence,” the analyst said.

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