MEXICO CITY — The Sinaloa drug cartel lost its leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, at the height of its power, when the organization had won bloody battles for supremacy over its rivals and established shipping routes around the globe.
Over the past few years, Sinaloa gunmen have vanquished the once-mighty cartels of Tijuana and Juarez and dominated the entire western half of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Now Mexican officials are bracing for how the country’s most powerful drug cartel will react to the capture of its capo.
“As the cartel reorganizes, some of its leaders will attempt to take advantage of the shuffle to reposition themselves higher,” said Martin Barron Cruz, a security expert at Mexico’s National Institute of Criminal Sciences. “If they’re blocked, it could produce a schism.”
Those types of schisms have meant terrible violence throughout the history of Mexico’s drug business, as new cartels have sprouted from the feuds of once-close partners. Rival mobsters could also try to stress-test the Sinaloa cartel’s ability to retain control of its territory.
The organizational prowess of Guzman’s cartel—these are the guys who build ventilated tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border ), and run submarines filled with cocaine up from Colombia—has convinced some experts that Guzman has already planned for this day. The presumed new leader is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a longtime partner who ran the cartel during Guzman’s earlier incarceration from 1993 to 2001, when he escaped.
“There is a very clear line of succession,” said Jorge Chabat, a security analyst in Mexico City. “I don’t see others fighting for the leadership of the cartel.”
“I also don’t see other criminal organizations with the capacity to challenge the control of the Sinaloa cartel,” he added.
Sinaloa’s cause has also been helped by what has been the Mexican government’s most pressing security problem in recent months. In the western state of Michoacan, the heart of the methamphetamine belt, armed citizen militias have risen up against Sinaloa rivals, The Knights Templar cartel. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the vigilantes’ government-backed offensive, analyst say, has been the Sinaloa-aligned gangsters of nearby Jalisco. They are thought to be the source of at least some of the weapons used by the militias.
Along the eastern border with Texas and Mexico’s Gulf Coast, Guzman’s bitter rivals, Los Zetas, remain the country’s most dreaded crime syndicate, controlling trafficking routes down into Central America. But both of the Zetas’ top leaders have been toppled in the past 18 months by Mexican Navy commandos working with U.S. agents, and many believe the group has been significantly weakened.
“All the leaders are in flux, that makes us believe there may not be violence from a great confrontation,” said Monica Serrano, a professor of political science at the Colegio de Mexico, a private university in Mexico City.
If anything, drug war observers say, the 13 years that Guzman had managed to evade capture since sneaking out of prison were an unusually long time for a cartel boss to stay at the top, allowing his organization to groom future leaders. Compared to other groups dominated by hotheaded gunslingers in their 20s and 30s, Sinaloa retains mature, well-connected traffickers with webs of contacts in the global narcotics trade.
Guzman’s longtime partner, Zambada, now in his 60s, remains at large, and will presumably take over. Below Zambada are other senior figures, like Juan Jose Esparragoza, an ex-cop nicknamed “El Azul,” i.e., The Blue Man.
According to Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, “the Sinaloa organization will continue to function much as before.”
“It is even speculated that Guzman had become more of a figurehead in recent years and was not responsible for managing the business side,” Wood said. “However, if the Mexican government goes after the number two, Zambada, then that could cause a significant disruption in the operations of the cartel.”
Though many of Mexico’s top drug bosses have been killed or caught in recent years, heroin smuggling into the United States has soared, much of it produced in Sinaloa-controlled areas of the Sierra Madre mountains. Local peasant farmers continue to harvest industrial quantities of marijuana there too, growing it so cheaply that the giant bonfires built with U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican military seizures barely make a dent.
In the first year since Peña Nieto took power, his administration reported a 16 percent drop in homicides, though kidnappings and extortion have increased.
And while Mexican marines have emerged as the country’s most reliable U.S. partners for capture-and-kill operations against cartel leaders, skeptics note that mafia rule is seldom replaced by a modern criminal justice system.
Instead, larger and more traditional smuggling groups like Sinaloa have tended to fragment as their leaders go down. They represent less of a threat to the state, analysts say, but they often produce more violence, and rely on more on high-impact crimes like extortion and kidnapping, lacking the smuggling connections to subsist solely on drug profits.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, in comments to the military on Monday, praised the coordination of the security forces for capturing Guzman, but warned that the country should not “fall into triumphalism.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.