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Fentanyl, murder, and military-grade weapons: The US charges against Ovidio Guzmán

The Department of Justice indictments reveal some of the atrocities committed by the Sinaloa Cartel, which include kidnappings, torture, and the bribery of officials

Ovidio Guzmán
Ovidio Guzmán on the plane in which he was extradited to the United States, on September 15, 2023.

Brutal punishments, executions, and a country “flooded” with fentanyl: the U.S. indictments offer a small window into the atrocities committed over the years by the Sinaloa Cartel. One of its leaders, Ovidio Guzmán, now faces several charges carrying life sentences. The son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was extradited last Friday, pleaded not guilty to all charges on Monday in a Chicago court. The case also involves his three brothers, who formed the branch of the criminal organization known as “Los Chapitos”: Iván Archivaldo, Jesús Alfredo and Joaquín. “The Mouse,” Ovidio Guzmán is also known, faces five charges in Illinois relating to drug trafficking, money laundering, weapons possession and belonging to a criminal enterprise. He also has six charges pending in New York including fentanyl importation conspiracy, fentanyl distribution conspiracy, and the possession of machineguns and destructive devices, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The New York indictment, which includes 28 defendants, from hitmen to Chinese fentanyl precursor chemical distributors, is perhaps the most detailed. The document recounts over multiple pages how Ovidio Guzmán produced fentanyl addicts by mixing the drug with prescription drugs. He was even aware, prosecutors say, that the wrong combination could kill the user. The DOJ also lays out how El Chapo’s sons imposed their authority by means of homicides, threats, kidnappings, and torture. The indictment notes that they allegedly threw their victims alive into the cages of the tigers they kept. To maintain their power, Los Chapitos acquired military-grade weapons and sowed the Sinaloa highlands with a network of clandestine laboratories capable of producing around 100,000 fentanyl pills a day.

United States Fentanyl
Alleged members of the Sinaloa Cartel place methamphetamine in capsules, in Culiacán, pn April 4, 2022.ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI (REUTERS)

Drug-trafficking by land, air and sea

The Chicago indictment points to the Sinaloa Cartel as a transnational drug trafficking organization run by El Chapo and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. The former’s sons took their father’s place after he was captured in 2016 and extradited to the U.S. the following year. According to the Attorney General’s Office, the Sinaloa Cartel coordinated the movement of “large shipments” of drugs from Central and South America into Mexico, and then across the U.S. border. They did this “generally in shipments of hundreds or thousands of kilograms at a time” for later distribution in the United States. Among the substances the indictment mentions are cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine.

To move the drugs to Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel used cargo planes, private planes, submarines, semi-submersible vessels, shipping containers, cargo ships, boats, buses, trains, trucks, automobiles, and international transportation systems. The substances were then stored in safe houses located along the border, specifically in Tijuana and Mexicali, in the State of Baja California. The next step was to smuggle the drugs into the United States, in vehicles or tunnels, through which they were taken to the southern region of California. From there, they were distributed throughout the country.

At many points, the drug traffickers would deliver the drugs without asking for payment at the time, according to the indictment. They would ask for it later so they could move the money more easily. They used various mechanisms to launder the incoming money, including cryptocurrencies, cash trafficking, bank deposits, wire transfers, currency exchange, and alternative systems, such as the acquisition of objects like cars, planes, or helicopters that were bought in one place and moved to another. To avoid attracting the attention of the authorities, the criminals used satellite phones and coded languages, the document adds.

Los Chapitos, according to the indictment, gained control of the Sinaloa Cartel by intimidating and meting violence out against a faction led by another capo, Dámaso López Nuñez, who is currently in prison in the United States on drug trafficking convictions. In order to expand their power and evade the authorities, El Chapo’s sons bought weapons, bribed public officials and incited violence, including killing, kidnapping and assaulting other rival drug traffickers and members of their own organization, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says.

The second charge the four brothers face is that of being part of a criminal enterprise. In this case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says the four brothers held leadership and supervisory positions, as well as earning “substantial income” from their activities: the U.S. authorities were able to trace around $10 million over a 12-month period. The indictment also details exactly the volume of drugs they moved and on what dates.

The indictment also states that Los Chapitos participated with their father and El Mayo Zambada in the October 2010 murder of Israel Rincón Martínez, also known as “El Guacho,” a hitman who had tried and failed to kill Iván Archivaldo Guzmán. In revenge, the Sinaloa Cartel tortured him to death. That murder was also discussed in the trial against El Chapo in New York. Prosecutors also say they participated in the death of Jesús Antonio Muñoz Parra, the father of one of Dámaso López Nuñez’s underbosses; Mario Nungaray Bobadilla, who allegedly was López Nuñez’s nephew; and a man named Geovanni Hurtado Vicente.

Fentanilo
Dozens of kilograms of fentanyl seized near Ensenada (Baja California), in October 2022.The Washington Post (The Washington Post via Getty Im)

Trafficking in fentanyl

The fentanyl trafficking charges are also part of the New York indictment, according to which Ovidio Guzmán, along with Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo, led “the largest, most violent and most prolific” fentanyl trafficking operation in the world. Fentanyl is manufactured in Mexico, but the necessary precursor chemicals were “procured principally from China” and transported through Mexico City International Airport. The official estimate is that Los Chapitos operate in 45 countries around the world, including in major cities such as Buenos Aires and New York.

Authorities state that this branch of the Sinaloa Cartel has been developing fentanyl production since 2014. “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,” Anne Milgram, head of the DEA, said last April. Milgram described fentanyl as “the most urgent crisis that we face today as a country” and “the greatest threat to our national security.” The indictment notes that: “Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49 […] Between 2019 and 2021, fatal overdoses increased by approximately 94%, with an estimated 196 Americans dying each day from fentanyl.”

The boss of the ‘sicarios’

A further indictment unsealed in the District of Columbia names Néstor Isidro Pérez Salas, alias “Nini,” who allegedly heads up “Los Ninis,” a group of young men and teenagers who work as hitmen for the Sinaloa Cartel and provide security for Los Chapitos.

“From at least 2012 until February 2021, Perez Salas allegedly conspired to distribute and manufacture cocaine and methamphetamine for unlawful importation into the United States, used a firearm in furtherance of the alleged drug-trafficking offense, and killed, attempted to kill, threatened, and caused bodily injury to another to intimidate a government witness and informant,” a Justice Department release states. Pérez Salas allegedly operated under orders from Los Chapitos.

The Ninis were responsible for “cleaning up” in other Mexican states, such as Coahuila, Sonora, Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, the indictment states. They even operate the payment of taxes on other products that are not related to drug trafficking, such as “beer, toilet paper and electronics,” the document states. The indictment in New York points to the torture and murder in 2017 of three members of the Los Zetas criminal organization, under orders from El Chapo’s two eldest sons, in addition to the murder that same year of two agents from the Federal Attorney General’s Office. One of them, according to Reuters, was tortured with a corkscrew and then had “hot chillis” applied to his wounds. Both were shot in the head.

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