It’s Always Sunny in Sinaloa

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

On Saturday, February 22nd, an elite force of Marines in the Mexican city of Mazatlan arrested El Chapo. Joaquin Guzmán-Loera, AKA El Chapo, is a key leader within the Sinaloa Federation, the largest and most entrepreneurially innovative drug trafficking organizations currently operating in Mexico. His arrest is a major coup for the Mexican and US law enforcement against one of the most powerful non-state armed groups in Latin America. Guzmán’s arrest is also a coup for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, and will likely mute recent criticism of the President’s record in combatting drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán was born in the rural town of Badiraguato, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Like many in the older generation of Mexican drug traffickers, Chapo was introduced to the trade through family connections. He started with the Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s, acting mainly as a logistician and manager. With the breakup of the cartel in 1989, Chapo gained control over a small smuggling plaza in the northern state of Sonora. Chapo proved to be both a charming yet brutal tactician. Partnering with traffickers such as Ignacio Coronel Villareal and Ismael Zambada Garcia, Chapo created the organization that would come to be known as the Sinaloa Federation. Also during this time he engaged in a bloody conflict with Tijuana’s Arellano Félix cartel. In one of the most notorious and bloody spasms of the conflict, a Catholic Cardinal was gunned down at the Guadalajara airport, after reportedly being mistaken for El Chapo. The assassination proved too much for the Mexican government to ignore, and after a short but intense manhunt El Chapo was taken into custody in Guatemala. He spent the next eight years managing his organization from prison, before escaping in 2001.

For the last decade, El Chapo has played an intimate role Mexico’s drug war. His forces initiated the conflict in 2005, when they invaded the border city of Nuevo Laredo, aiming to eject the weakened Gulf Cartel. The multi-year battle that followed was far more violent and paramilitarized than previous drug trafficking disputes in Mexico, with hundreds of gunmen deployed by both sides. While Chapo’s Sinaloa Federation is widely seen has having lost the battle for Nuevo Laredo, it did not dent his expansionist tendencies. In 2008 his forces invaded Ciudad Juarez, another border city that served as a vital conduit for drugs heading north. Chapo’s battle with the Carrillo-Fuentes DTO was bloody, with 3,115 murders in 2010 alone, and barbaric, defined by torture, decapitation, and group massacres. The Sinaloa Federation won the battle for Ciudad Juarez, positioning the cartel as one of the most powerful in Mexico. El Chapo also sought to expand his territory outside of Mexico, dispatching operatives to Central and South America, Europe, Africa, and East Asia. Despite his lack of formal education, Joaquin Guzmán-Loera oversaw the creation of a sprawling multinational illicit organization, with financial interests in a host of illicit and licit activities.

Chapo Guzmán’s arrest is clearly a major victory for President Peña Nieto. The President came to office promising to lessen the drug violence, and roll back the highly militarized strategies of his predecessor. Unsurprisingly, these promises have proven difficult to achieve. While violence has abated in some areas of the country, other areas, such as Michoacán, have become far more complex and dangerous. El Chapo’s capture is an important symbolic win for the President, squelching concerns raised by some in the U.S. and Mexico that Peña Nieto’s strategy is weak on organized crime. It will also squash persistent rumors that the Mexican Government has been purposefully soft on the Sinaloa Federation, instead targeting groups such as the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas DTOs.

However, while Chapo Guzmán’s arrest is a win for the President, it is unlikely to be a game changer for the country for several reasons. First, it is unlikely to significantly hobble the Sinaloa Federation. Mexican drug trafficking organizations in general, and the Sinaloa Federation specifically, are resilient and adaptive entities. The elimination of a leader rarely leads to the disintegration of the organization, though it may prompt a violent contention for power amongst key lieutenants. Occasionally these schisms have lead to one or more factions breaking away from the original cartel, and forming their own drug trafficking organization. Chapo was one of several key leaders in the loose confederation of drug cartels that constitute the Sinaloa Federation. It is likely that one of the remaining leaders in the group, such as Ismael Zambada Garcia, will either directly take over Chapo’s faction or intercede in the succession process to minimize violence and instability. Second, Mexico’s drug conflict is a multi-sided fight between DTOs, and is not predominately a fight between individual DTOs and the Government. In Mexico, successes by the Government against a cartel often prompt more violence, as rival cartels seek to capitalize on the momentary weakness of their adversary. The coming months are likely to be bloody.

Nonetheless, President Peña Nieto and those in the Mexican and U.S. Law Enforcement communities should be commended for finding and arresting Chapo Guzmán. While his detention may not be a game changer for Mexico, it is a demonstration that drug trafficking and murder have repercussions, even for one of the world’s richest men.