Prison for ‘El Chapo’ won’t end Sinaloa cartel violence, smuggling

Prison for ‘El Chapo’ won’t end Sinaloa cartel violence, smuggling
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With the trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera now in the hands of the jury, it is important to reflect on what the trial does and does not portend for the years ahead.

It is significant that Guzman did not plead guilty and agree to cooperate with U.S. authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence. When other cartel figures did so —  including his sworn enemies, the brothers Benjamín, Eduardo and Francisco Arellano Félix of the Arellano Felix Organization (also known as the Tijuana cartel) — the information they provided authorities resulted in significant damage to their group.

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Though Guzman had a reputation for passing information to the authorities to damage his enemies, he refused to do so when it could harm his friends and family. He apparently has decided to pay whatever price is required to protect his sons, Ivan Archivaldo and Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, often referred to as Los Chapitos, or the Little Chapos, and his longtime confederate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, who currently run the Sinaloa cartel.

Not cooperating means that Guzman is likely to receive a stiff sentence, perhaps life in prison. Gulf Cartel founder Juan Garcia Abrego likewise refused to cooperate and, upon his conviction in 1996, received 11 life sentences. Any intelligence seized at the time of Guzman’s January 2016 arrest clearly is stale by now, and Guzman is refusing to provide fresh information that could assist authorities in their effort to dismantle the robust organization he helped found.

And it is robust. Despite Guzman’s arrest and extradition, the Sinaloa cartel’s transnational logistics network continues to thrive. The organization did experience several fractures prior to his arrest, such as the 2008 split with the Beltran Leyva Organization and the 2014 departure of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), but Sinaloa survived these schisms.

In addition to internal challenges, external enemies have sought to take advantage of Guzman’s arrest and extradition. The CJNG, for example, is a Sinaloa cartel splinter that rapidly has grown to become one of the largest, most aggressive organized crime groups in Mexico. They are battling the Sinaloa cartel for control of smuggling operations, and these battles explain the dramatic escalation of cartel-related violence in Tijuana and Juarez over the past two years. Both organizations have the resources to continue the battle for supremacy in these major smuggling posts, and we expect the violence in those areas to continue for the foreseeable future.

One factor providing these organizations with the means to continue their protracted war is the growing popularity of synthetic drugs in the lucrative U.S. drug market. The profit margins Mexican drug traffickers are making on fentanyl and methamphetamine are far more lucrative than the cocaine and heroin these drugs are replacing, although cartels certainly will continue to manufacture and smuggle all of the above. Indeed, even after Guzman’s extradition, the Sinaloa cartel has continued to manufacture methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl on an industrial scale and to traffic tons of South American cocaine.

Guzman’s defense team attempted to use this continued success to convince the jury that he was merely a figurehead, a stooge of the true mastermind of the cartel — Zambada — and that he was not one of the top leaders of the cartel. Of course, such claims clearly were belied by much of the prosecution evidence, including recorded phone conversations and witness testimony. For the people of Sinaloa and the cartel, Guzman clearly was “El Señor,” or the boss.

However, it is important to remember that Guzman spent years behind bars or on the run while leading his organization. This would not have been possible unless he had a talented team of mid-level managers able to keep drug production and smuggling operations running smoothly. This resilience means that the cartel, one of Mexico’s most active narcotics producing and trafficking organization, will continue to ply its deadly trade. On Jan. 26, U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors discovered 254 pounds of fentanyl and 395 pounds of methamphetamine hidden in a secret compartment of a tractor-trailer at the Nogales point of entry. This was the largest seizure of fentanyl in history, and appears to have belonged to the Sinaloa cartel.

In the end, removing one man — even an important leader — from the battlefield will have little impact on the powerful economics that drive the narcotics trade. As long as Americans are willing to pay premium prices for illegal drugs, someone will follow in Guzman’s footsteps and find a way to produce them, smuggle them and reap the unfathomable profits they generate.    

Scott Stewart supervises the analysis of terrorism and security issues for Stratfor. He previously was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years. He was the lead investigator assigned to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, led a team of American agents assisting the Argentine investigation of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and was involved in investigations following attacks by the Iraqi intelligence service during the first Gulf War.