Mexico’s drug wars

Is the end nigh for ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel?

Brother of jailed drugs kingpin faces attacks from all sides after hitting military convoy in September

With El Chapo Guzmán behind bars and facing extradition to the United States, the war for control of the so-called golden triangle in the north west of Mexico traditionally run by Guzmán’s Sinaloa drugs cartel is becoming increasingly dirty.

Aureliano Guzmán Loera.
Aureliano Guzmán Loera.

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Now Aureliano Guzmán, El Chapo’s older brother, has stepped into the breach: he is reported to have organized a deadly attack on a military convoy in Culiacán, Sinaloa, on September 30, that left five soldiers dead.

El Chapo is the fourth of 11 children and responsible for setting up the Sinaloa cartel. Aureliano, three years older, played a relatively minor role in the organization, overseeing marijuana production, but with his brother’s imprisonment and the threat from other cartels, he has come to prominence.

Mexican police say the Sinaloa cartel is made up of independent cells that work together as and when they need to. Flexible but ill-disciplined, they required constant oversight by El Chapo. With him out of the way, the cartel is in danger of falling apart and losing control over its territory and multi-million dollar drug-smuggling business, say the authorities.

El Chapo’s empire, set up over the last two decades, is under threat from rival organizations. Rafael Caro Quintero, considered Mexico’s top narco, is now in his sixties and has been living in hiding for several years. But the Mexican authorities say that he has gotten together with former allies and intends to take over the Sinaloa cartel’s territory, which he himself once ran.

Aureliano Guamán commands little respect among the ranks of the Sinaloa cartel

Then there is the cartel run by the Beltrán Leyva family, whose eldest son Edgar was killed by El Chapo in 2008. They are believed to have carried out the attack in June on Badiraguato, the town where the Guzmán clan is based. Some 150 armed men ransacked the home of El Chapo’s mother. Since then, retaliations and counter-retaliations have left more than 120 people dead.

Finally, there is the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel, which emerged around five years ago, killing 35 members of the once-deadly Zetas drugs cartel in a small town in Veracruz state, leaving their bodies along the main avenue. The Jalisco Nueva Generación was also responsible for bringing down an army helicopter last year, as well as killing 15 soldiers in an ambush on a military convoy. Its members also blocked off access to the city of Guadalajara, demanding the release of 10 of their number. The cartel is also believed to have kidnapped and then released two of El Chapo’s sons in August this year.

Until the attack on the military convoy in Culiacán, the Sinaloa cartel has largely failed to respond to the multiple threats it faces. Ismael Zambada García, considered the number two in the organization, has remained hidden. “He is the de facto leader of the cartel and the most important narco in Mexico, but nobody knows where he is,” says journalist Alejandro Hope, an expert on the drugs war in Mexico.

Whether Aureliano Guzmán will be able to hold the Sinaloa cartel together is open to question. In April last year he ordered the killing of his half-brother, Ernesto Guzmán Hidalgo, who was also the father-in-law of Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, the Sinaloa cartel’s number one enemy.

The Sinaloa cartel is in danger of falling apart and losing control over its territory

But according to Cynthia Valdez, a Sinaloa-based journalist, Aureliano commands little respect among the ranks of the Sinaloa cartel: he has tried to take over cells within the organization, and he is reputedly widely hated by the land workers who grow the marijuana the cartel trades in. With a weak power base and now locked into a war on several fronts, he faces an uncertain future.

“The situation is highly volatile and it’s going to get worse,” says Hope. Meanwhile, in response to the attack in Culiacán, Mexico’s military has sent thousands of soldiers out into the mountains of Sinaloa to find Aureliano Guzmán.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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