Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Friday, February 20, 2015

Life after El Chapo: kingpin's arrest spells new era in Mexican drug war

Borderland Beat posted by DD republished from the Guardian

By in Culiacán
Friday 20 February 2015 

The fortune-teller smiled as she gazed out towards the distant peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range.

“The mountains are glowing red and it will be a good harvest,” she predicted. 

The forecast was not based on second sight, however, but on conversations with local farmers looking forward to a bumper crop of marijuana – and the cash bonanza it will bring.

This is Mexico’s own golden triangle. Straddling the northern states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua, the Sierra has been a stronghold of the country’s drug trade for as long as anyone can remember. Its deep canyons and dense pine forests have harbored narcos and hidden plantations of marijuana and opium poppies for decades.

It’s a world the fortune-teller knows well: over the years, she said she had often used her gift to help local people – locating a lost kilo of opium paste or comforting the girlfriends of slain traffickers.


The arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on 22 February 2014 was hailed  by the Mexican and US authorities as the one of the biggest blows to the drug trade in decades. But a year on, the core business of Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel seems hardly affected. “As long as there are people who want the drugs this will never stop, whoever goes to prison,” the seer said.

Overall, seizures of drugs from Mexico heading into the US remain much as they were before Guzmán’s arrest. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has reported only small changes in the way the cartel operates. And after a brief burst of triumphalism in the days after Guzmán’s arrest, the Mexican government now rarely mentions the Sinaloa cartel at all.
“Chapo’s capture has not produced any major changes here,” said Ismael Bojórquez, the director of the Sinaloa investigative weekly Ríodoce.Sinaloa investigative weekly Ríodoce.  “The cartel structure continues to work just as before.” 

Not that everybody in Sinaloa accepts that view.

“Things are calm, yes, but it feels like the calm before the storm,” said a local music producer who specialises in narcocorridos – accordion-driven ballads often commissioned by traffickers to glorify their exploits. Like the psychic – and others interviewed for this article – he was wary of being identified, because his work often brings him into contact with members of the criminal underworld.
Sinaloa’s Coordinator of Public Security, who previously headed military operations in the state, insists that Chapo’s capture has not had any major impact on security over the past year. “Things not only have not got worse,” retired General Moisés Melo Garcia said, “but high impact crimes have been falling in Sinaloa, thanks to improved coordination between the federal and state forces.”
But over the past year, unease in Sinaloa has been magnified by the lack of clarity over the cartel’s reconfiguration since Guzmán’s arrest.
For all his mythical status – forged by a dramatic prison escape in 2001 and the Sinaloa cartel’s subsequent attempt to take over territories across the country from other cartels – Guzmán was not so much the boss of bosses as the highest profile figure in a triumvirate of veterans.
The other two were Juan José Esparragoza, known as El Azul (“the blue one”), who reportedly died in June and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is still at large.
Many assumed El Chapo’s arrest would prompt Zambada’s seamless succession to power, but the 67-year-old narco has apparently come under intense pressure in recent months: several close collaborators, including one of his sons, have been arrested and he has reportedly come close to capture several times.


Even in the state capital Culiacán – once his undisputed home  territory – El Mayo has appeared unable to respond to an incursion by a former protege of Chapo called Dámaso López, who is said to have made inroads into street-level dealing in the city.

The record producer noted that López appeared to be backing his ambitions with an aggressive string of promotional narcocorridos with lyrics that are becoming increasingly bellicose.
 A Mexican soldier runs in a marijuana field in Culiacán, Sinaloa state. Photograph: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
In Culiacán, some believe El Chapo could eventually be replaced by one of his sons, Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán, but others dismiss him as too inexperienced to take full control.
Analysts, law enforcement sources and cartel contacts agree generational change is contributing to the unease: traditionalists often point to the hotheaded and exhibitionist tendencies of such narco “juniors”, whose inherited power and wealth contrast with the rags-to-riches struggles of their fathers.

And then there is the wild card of Rafael Caro Quintero. A founder of the now-defunct Guadalajara cartel, Quintero spent 28 years in jail for the 1985 murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena, but was unexpectedly released in 2013 – to the disgust of the US government – and promptly disappeared. Today the aging narco is said to be hiding out somewhere in the golden triangle, intent on reimposing old school narco order in Sinaloa.

“There is no logic to what is happening,” the record producer said. “The sense I get is of an atmosphere of pending war.”

Luís agrees. He spent 10 years as one of El Chapo’s gunmen, loading drugs on to planes heading to the US as well as torturing and killing cartel members who stepped out of line.

Luis has retired and complains of nightmare flashbacks to his days as a killer, but he still keeps in contact with the few members of his old crowd who are still alive. They tell him all is not well in the cartel.

“Before all the cows went in one direction. Now there are too many cowboys,” he said, sipping a beer and fiddling with a joint. “There will always be drugs moving, for as long as it is not legal, but I see a lot of weakness, a lot of internal disputes and mistreatment of the local population and that creates problems too.”

Luis said that while the police were as accommodating as ever, new tactics being used by the federal government were causing problems.

Time was, he said, when soldiers would help cartel members load up drug shipments “for a beer and a woman”. Now, however, he said army units were rotated so often that deals with corrupt commanders had to be constantly renegotiated.
Worse still, he added, the government was increasingly depending on special operations forces, which have proved stubbornly resistant to making any deals with the cartels. Naval special operations units, working closely with the DEA, have been responsible for almost all the key arrests in Sinaloa, including Chapo’s.

María, a well-dressed middle-aged lady who spoke freely once assured of anonymity, also described considerable nervousness at the “peaceful end of the business”. A close relative of María’s trafficed cocaine independently, she said, but still depended on the cartel to keep order in the state.

People protest in support of arrested Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán, chanting ‘release him’. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
 The youngsters wanting to come in are more violent, they don’t have what it takes,” she said. “El Señor [El Mayo] is looking weak, but he is very astute and we are hoping that he has an ace up his sleeve.”

Memories are still fresh of the all-out war that erupted in Sinaloa in 2008 following a violent split between Chapo and his one-time allies in the Beltrán Leyva family, leaving many in the area particularly attuned to signs of internal tension in the cartel. Their concerns are only reinforced by events elsewhere in Mexico: hardly a day goes by in the southern state of Guerrero without reports of atrocities committed in the turf wars between splinter groups of the once-mighty Beltrán Leyva cartel.

“The Sinaloa cartel is not a good thing, but it is better than the others,” said one taxi driver in the city. “We don’t want another war.”
His immediate concern, however, was a lack of cash in Culiacán linked by many to El Chapo’s capture.

A financial adviser at a bank in the city agreed: “The Sinaloan economy depends, in large part, on these guys. It’s their cash and investments that provide the work,” he said.


He added that El Chapo’s arrest and tighter restrictions on cash transactions had led to a notable contraction in the past year, though he expected this to ease once the cartel had found new creative ways of laundering its money.

Agriculture and the tourism industry have long been favoured routes for laundering money, he said, but he expected new construction projects would become the preferred way to clean dirty money.

“In Sinaloa we are all betting on the good guys and the bad guys doing business,” he said.
Javier Valdez, a reporter at Ríodoce, specialises in stories about the way daily life in Sinaloa has become increasingly invaded by narco economics and culture. “The narcos have domesticated us,” Valdez said. “They are in our lives and we are ever more resigned to that destiny.”


The government’s failure to provide security or prosperity only adds to this sense of dependence on an underworld that relies on both barbaric violence and managerial agility to adapt to new market conditions.

The DEA’s 2014 National Threat Assessment notes a steady rise in heroin seizures on the US south-west border that reached 2,200kg (4,850lb) in 2013 – more than four times the amount intercepted in 2008.

This appears to be a response to growing US demand, but could also reflect opium paste’s portability compared with large bricks of marijuana. In Sinaloa growers in the Sierra Madre describe increased poppy production for just those reasons.

Local people with connections to the drug trade also describe a surge in the number of crystal meth labs. The DEA report notes that almost all the methamphetamine on sale in the US was produced in Mexico, with seizures on the border nearly tripling between 2009 and 2013 to reach about 11,500kg. The report also cites increasingly sophisticated techniques, which include dissolving the drug in solvents to smuggle it across the border disguised as flavoured drinks or hidden in windshield wiper reservoirs.

Meanwhile, marijuana seizures dropped suddenly in 2013. Some newspaper reports have ascribed this to the legalisation of the drug in some US states, but local producers say it has more to do with years of falling prices and greater vigilance by the army, which complicates the transport of large shipments.
All of which leads journalists such as the director of Ríodoce to conclude that the Sinaloa cartel is well on the way to completing its reformation for the post-Chapo era.

“It is a period of transition and there will always be bumps along the way,” Bojórquez said. “But this is a business group with a worldwide reach and it is looking pretty strong.”

Bojórquez speculates that the cartel’s resilience may also also owe something to backroom negotiations with Mexican politicians, who he believes are desperate to find a way to close down the drug wars, which have killed about 100,000 people around Mexico.

At least one Sinaloan politician from the governing Institutional Revolutionary party appeared to agree. “The only way to do this is for the big boys to sit down with the big boys and make a deal,” he said


  1. I don't think anyone believes the arrests or deaths of major cartel leaders or key players is going to solve or stop the drug trade. It has more to do with holding these "human stains" accountable for their crimes against humanity. When Chapo was arrested, I wasn't thinking "oh the CDS is finished," more like..okay this piece of shit will now face justice for his crimes! I do believe Chapo will eventually be extradited to the U.S., and he will no longer be of any significance!

    1. Leave him in Mexico we do not need him here.

    2. Yeah, so he can escape in the future. STFU! smaller fishes than el chapo have been extradited it has to be not different with him. Actually his extradition should be faster because he has more power than some others, in a Narco Corrupted Country!

    3. Chapo will never step foot in the US. Their AG already said it ain't happening.

    4. I assume you are including the entire corrupt political power structure which facilitates all of the madness in the group you want to hold responsible. Without their complicity it's a whole different situation. I would start with them.

    5. @ 9:12 AM. YOU got it right sir.

  2. Keep the poison coming up north los gringos y negros are falling off leaving us all the chamba time to reclaim aztlan

    1. Aztlan will never happen. We in California don't want that old school bs ideology.

    2. We welcome the reconquest here in Nuevo Mexico, the Southwest needs to secede.

    3. Aztlan welcomed in Nuevo Mexico? Think again. New Mexico is and will always be a proud state in the United States of America. Move elsewhere traitor if you wish to slander my state and country. I'm an American first, Mexican second. Very far off second at that.

    4. F that. More like, let's invade Mexico with jobs, new governments and easier education. We don't need to invade other countries with our violence and drugs. We need to be known for our intellect, our hard working ethics and our friendliness.

  3. Analysis this analysis that.. blablabla! Facts are there is more deaths in sinaloa. Chapos are running around killing each other for power struggle. Say what you say, but it's true

  4. No other cartel deserves this more than CDS. This is Karma for wanting to control the entire drug trade in Mexico. They fucked CAF, stabbed BLO in the back and unleashed a bloody war in Chihuas. Blow the whole state of Sinaloa off the face of the earth and send all them narcos to hell.

    1. All cartels are the same stop picking sides either you are on the side of the scum cartel and you are trash too or you a good citizen

    2. That seems like a very simplistic outlook on what has proved to be a very complex issue. I think the politicians and law enforcement who the ridiculous drug war going are just as culpable as the cartels.

    3. Chapo was the catalyst for the surge in violence in Mexico point blank. Were there other factors involved that made the issue more complex? Yes, but his push eastward to take over Chihuas plazas and Golfo plazas opened the gates of hell. He changed how narcos did business. The old way of doing narco business was changed forever and the citizens of Mexico have been punished at an all time high ever since.

  5. Ivan controls districution at street level in Sinaloa and Teacapan. Try to find coke at street level not sold in a pink bag b/c the guy who does is arrested or dead. Try to find a K w/o Cartoon character dash. Won't happen. Try to find a pallet w/o blue plastic in MZT or the ports N and S. It won't happen. Nothing has changed but the date.

  6. NOTHING will ever change in Mexico, Government has to give in and make deals with Cartels to stop all this. Just like in the De Gortarri era, they all new it was happening they just kept it on a low profile by paying under the table to operate.

    1. These are cartel wars idiot. That's why Mexico is violent because they have your mentality. It's like this- cahohila government protects zetas, michoacan protect ct's, jalisco government protects Cjng , sinaloa government protect chapo isidro beltranes, cds. Government created this problem because they let all those cartels grow and let them operate as long as they give them money. The cartels that are protected want more power and more TERRITORY so they kill each other daily. While the pendejos in office just watch with their hands crossed and say Mexico is safe as ever and making changes for the beter, when in reality Mexico is getting more violent! Real spit

    2. WRONG!! things are already starting to change! little by little.. but is changing! they can't afford to go back to what it was before! or those 100,000 plus deaths and disapearences will be in vain! criminal rats and narcos have been controling the gob for too long. Is time for things to change, if they want justice for all the crimes they commit everyday against the defenseless ppl. then things must change idiots!

  7. The next leaders have been in place since it got hot for chapo. It's a corporation, if one CEO goes the cartel is built with a business module. And like the article states. There is still a huge demand for drugs and the Sinaloa cartel still has it's logistics in place. One phone call away and the cartel will have inventory ready to deliver. Corruption still exist as long as the payoff is good plus SInaloa cartel has people ready to receive and distribute demand in a heart beat. It will never stop. The war on drugs is a joke. Every major city in the US has ties to Sinaloa cartel.

  8. Whar else does ivan control?

  9. Otis, Thank you for your reporting. I will be moving to area with no internet. So will not be able to view the website. Stay safe

  10. The big boys have To sit down with the big boys only way it will happen.

  11. Just remember there wouldn't be any "NARCOS", if there wasn't so much drug consumption in the good o' U.S. of A

    1. The most fucked up truth about your comment, is that the U.S. has always had a policy of letting Mexico solve its own drug related issues. However, with so much U.S. & world wide consumption causing so many problems, it's impossible to imagine a future without further world wide military Involvement on Mexican soil. It's not something that people want, but it's something that prohibition is controlling. People need a sensible drug addiction policy, but people can't agree on that policy. This is further complicated by the fact that Nebraska and Oklahoma are now suing Colorado for marijuana legalization. The U.S. can't control the drug trade in another country if it can't control drugs within its own borders. Wake the fuck up and control your own country before you try to control another, pendejos.

    2. True, but I have lived in Mexico for many years. The people here use probably equally as much. I see very drugged out people here everyday. If people here made the same money as people in the USA they would be spending more money. The prices would be higher here, and the Narco's would be making even more money. Also you have to remember the population of the USA is bigger and in reality they purchase 60% of all the products in the world I was reading. Their would be less Narco's here in Mexico if there was a better education system. A fair wage was paid and there were the same opportunities in the USA. They would still be selling even if less people consumed and paid less. they would still be criminals because they can do nothing else.

  12. I see some "persons" here that would love for mx to stay like it has been since the last revolution of Pancho Villa y sus putillas, WILD WILD WEST "style" but in this is case is more like WILD WILD SOUTH, where the biggest animals kill, kidnapp, extort and destroy entire families at will with total immunity. All from the lack of justice helped by the CORRUPTORS and their CORRUPTION. who told you that a country can prosper like that??

    At least in the US they had a justice system, that hunted those wild wild gunners down. There was a balance. But down south? is just a breading camp of wild animals.

  13. The problem is not so much consumpton, or rampant addiction to drugs, or drug trafficking, THE PROBLEM IS GREED, of the big bankers and their money laundering, they really know where to invest their and the drug traffickers money, and who to buy to keep doing business as usual...
    --oil, weapons and drugs are the biggest money makers in the world, and mexican narcs own none of it, corrupt politicans own it in mexico, mostly priistas including former president ernesto zedillo and his secretary of defense, anoter drugs and weapons trafficker...
    --Mexican narcs may move some, and a few make good money for a while, but in the end they all fall and lose most of it, AND presidential pardons are not available for them, in the US, on the other hand, there is shelter and sanctuary for foreign dignitaries of all size and colors, they will not be prosecuted because of sovereign impunity...
    --not for genocide, drugs or weapons trafficking, or for stealing and selling mexican oil, by the litro of by the kilo, or by the tanker, or by he whole state owned corporation...
    --There is no penalty for trafficking weapons to mexican cartels, the US is not ready to take on the NRA and their corrupt and corrupting influence...
    --mexico, bad, aahhhh?? I DON'T THINK SO... mexico is a victim of others' greed and of their corrupt puppets


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