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DEA on Los Chapitos: ‘The Sinaloa Cartel has never been more powerful or made more money’

Anne Milgram said the criminal organization was operating in more than 40 countries, and had become more ‘ruthless’ since it was taken over by the sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán

A military truck torched by the Sinaloa Cartel after the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, on January 7, 2023.
A military truck torched by the Sinaloa Cartel after the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, on January 7, 2023.Gladys Serrano
Elías Camhaji

Los Chapitos — the faction of the Sinaloa Cartel led by the sons of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — is richer, more powerful and more deadly than it ever was under El Chapo. That’s according to Anne Milgram, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who was a part of a 30-minute conference on the cartel on Tuesday. In her speech, Milgram spoke about the power of the Sinaloa Cartel, the changes that have taken place under Los Chapitos, the deadly effect of fentanyl in the United States and Mexico’s role in the global drug business. Since Los Chapitos took control, “the cartel has never been more powerful and has never made more money,” said the head of the DEA in a talk sponsored by the Milken Institute. According to Milgram, the White House has identified the presence of the Sinaloa Cartel in more than 40 countries.

In an earlier conversation with Nick Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, Milgram said that two cartels — the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) — were responsible for virtually all the fentanyl and methamphetamine consumed in the United States. In her talk on Tuesday, the DEA administrator said China is the epicenter of the synthetic drug supply chain, but for years Mexican cartels have been manufacturing fentanyl in the country with precursors sent from China — instead of buying the finished product. “They buy precursor chemicals from China. They ship them to Mexico. They mass produce fentanyl. They press some of that into these fake pills, and then they get it into the United States by land, by air, by sea,” said Milgram, who took office in June 2021.

“We believe Mexico needs to do more to stop the harm that we’re seeing,” Milgram said during a U.S. Senate hearing in February. But when asked if increasing the pressure on the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador would help the fight against the cartels, the DEA administrator avoided giving a concrete answer. The fentanyl crisis has heightened tensions between the U.S. and Mexico, which claims it is just a transit country for fentanyl, not a producer. With respect to China, Milgram expressed doubts that Beijing would cooperate with the U.S. to crack down on the illicit fentanyl trade.

Anne Milgram
Anne Milgram, director of the DEA, during a talk in Beverly Hills (California), on Tuesday.MIKE BLAKE (REUTERS)

During the conference on Tuesday, Milgram put the focus on Los Chapitos, who are among 28 members of the Sinaloa Cartel charged with drug trafficking by the U.S. Justice Department. “When I came in, I stepped back to say, ‘who is the most responsible for the fentanyl killing Americans?’ And the answer was, the Sinaloa Cartel,” she said. U.S. authorities have offered million-dollar rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of El Chapo’s four sons: $10 million for Ivan Guzmán Salazar, Alfredo Guzmán Salazar and Ovidio Guzmán López — who the U.S. are also pushing to extradite — and $5 million for Joaquin Guzmán López.

“They took over, and they made the cartel deadlier, more ruthless. They pioneered the manufacturing of fentanyl and the transportation distribution of it that we see today,” Milgram said on Tuesday, in reference to El Chapo’s sons. The four sons and more than 20 other members of the Sinaloa Cartel were charged on April 14 with a battery of offenses ranging from organized crime and drug trafficking to illegal possession of weapons and money laundering.

In the conference, Milgram called fentanyl “the most urgent crisis that we face today as a country” and “the greatest threat to our national security.” “What the Chapitos indictment shows is the entire fentanyl supply chain across the globe,” she said. According to Milgram, the Sinaloa Cartel began focusing on trafficking fentanyl as early as 2014, even before the recapture of El Chapo in 2016. She said that it was possible to trace the Chinese partners providing the criminal organization with the precursors for the drug, and that the DEA has identified their collaborators in the United States. She also spoke of the criminal group’s “enormous” profit margin, explaining: “It costs the cartels between 10 and 20 cents in Mexico to make a fake pill, which sells in the U.S. for between $5 and $30.”

At the end of March, the DEA announced that it had created specialized units to attack the financial and drug trafficking structures of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel — work that was aided by the agency’s 334 offices worldwide. Milgram did not say in which countries Los Chapitos were operating, but court documents indicate a Pan-American corridor stretching from Peru to Canada. The indictment against Los Chapitos also revealed that DEA agents infiltrated the leadership of the criminal group for a year-and-a-half. In this time, the officers recorded cases of racketeering, money laundering and torture techniques against rival cartel leaders. But the findings did not go down well with the López Obrador government, which claimed that the DEA operations had not been agreed upon or authorized. The Mexican president described the operation as an “abusive, arrogant interference that should not be accepted under any circumstances.” In Milgram’s speech on Tuesday, there was no mention of the diplomatic tensions with Mexico.

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