How the US is putting the squeeze on the Sinaloa Cartel

Washington closes in on the Mexican crime gang responsible for huge volumes of fentanyl trafficking

Sinaloa Cartel
A fentanyl overdose victim in San Diego, California, in November 2022.Salwan Georges (Getty Images)
Georgina Zerega

The U.S. siege on the Sinaloa Cartel continues. In Washington’s ongoing war on fentanyl, which, by 2022, had driven overdose deaths up to more than 107,000, measures are increasingly aimed at choking off production and distribution beyond America’s borders. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s pressure on one of the cartel’s four factions known as Los Chapitos, the sons of now jailed Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, initially indicated that they were preparing to launch a major operation against Sinaloa. Since then, there have been sanctions and arrests. While the cartel is fighting for turf in Mexico, resulting in the massacre of 19 people in Chiapas this week, it is being bombarded by attacks from the courts and the U.S. government. The crusade against Mexican drug traffickers intensified after a report from the DEA revealed the declining health of one of its infamous capos, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Forensics work at the site of the massacre in La Concordia, Chiapas State, Mexico, July 1.
Forensics work at the site of the massacre in La Concordia, Chiapas State, Mexico, July 1. Chiapas State Prosecutor Office (REUTERS)

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on July 1 against three people, one in Mexico and two in China, accusing them of money laundering and ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. It was said that Mexico-based Diego Acosta Ovalle helped the criminals from Mexico by “concealing and collecting drug trafficking proceeds before turning them over to cartel associates,” according to the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Meanwhile, Tong Peiji and He Jiaxuan worked out of China, laundering the proceeds through a U.S.-based organization. This latest judicial onslaught is part of a complex scenario that has now been underway for the last year and a half.

Activity against the cartel became clear in January last year with the arrest, and subsequent extradition, of Ovidio Guzmán, one of Los Chapitos who was accused of fentanyl production and trafficking. In April 2023, while Washington was processing Guzmán’s extradition, the Justice Department filed charges against 28 members of the Sinaloa Cartel, including El Chapo’s three sons: Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar and Ovidio.

As part of the DEA’s investigation into fentanyl trafficking, the 28 were accused of setting up operations to flood the U.S. with fentanyl, resulting in “streets full of drug addicts.” In September last year, following his extradition, it was revealed that Ovidio, alias El Ratón, was facing charges of drug possession with intent to distribute, conspiracy to import, manufacture and distribute drugs, conspiracy to launder money, possession of arms and membership of a criminal enterprise.

The war on Los Chapitos did not end there. In November last year, Mexican authorities arrested Néstor Isidro Pérez Salas, alias El Nini, the cartel’s security chief. A few months later, in the final leg of the Mexican elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government extradited El Nini to the U.S., where he was accused not only of drug trafficking but also of murdering Alexander Meza León, a DEA informant who had infiltrated the Sinaloa Cartel and was found dead in October 2023 along with eight other people in the state of Durango. Seven cartel members, two Mexicans and five Americans, were also sentenced at the time for smuggling thousands of fentanyl pills and several kilograms of methamphetamine and cocaine across the border into the U.S.

A DEA report released in early May describes the Sinaloa Cartel not as an organization operating under the command of one leader, as is the case with the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation, but as four criminal groups. The report identified one faction as led by ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, another by Los Chapitos, a third by Aureliano Guzmán Loera, El Chapo’s brother, alias ‘El Guano’, and a final one created by Rafael Caro Quintero, known as the Caborca Cartel. The report stated that Zambada’s physical health had deteriorated, suggesting he may no longer be fit to head his faction.

Ismael Mario Zambada acusado de tráfico de fentanilo
Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, in a file image.

The possibility that Zambada’s reign may be over has done little to dampen activity. “The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels have caused the worst drug crisis in U.S. history,” reads the DEA’s May report. U.S. authorities claimed at the time that both organizations maintained a presence in all 50 American states and insisted that the production network began in China, where the DEA is trying for leverage. Fentanyl trafficking, it says, involves a vast network of chemical exporters and producers, international shipping companies, transporters on both sides of the border, corrupt officials, tunnel builders, front companies and individuals who launder the money.

At the beginning of May, Anne Milgram, director of the DEA, complained in Congress that cooperation with the López Obrador government had been “inconsistent,” though this was denied by Mexico. The accusation indicates that the fight against Mexico’s cartels can become cannon fodder for political wrangling.

But the pressure is also increasing on China. “Combating the threat posed by Money Laundering Organizations in China is a key priority of the Treasury Department, and today we are taking action to cut off the financial flows of major money launderers who are powering the trafficking of fentanyl and other illicit drugs to the United States,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo, as he announced the new sanctions.

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