There are times when an analyst or scholar must admit to being wrong about a prediction. This is one of those times. Shortly after Chapo Guzman’s second escape (Summer 2015), I predicted that the Mexican Marines (SEMAR) would kill Chapo Guzman rather than allow him to be captured and turned over to the same judicial and penal systems that allowed him to escape (twice). I predicted this based on the analogous situation of Pablo Escobar in Colombia in 1993 and the institutional frustrations that the Mexican Marines must have experienced at the difficulty of capturing him and the subsequent escape. That prediction did not pan out.
Despite an apparent firefight in which five cartel gunmen were killed and a Mexican Marine was wounded, Chapo Guzman was captured and taken into custody. The firefight should have increased the likelihood that Chapo Guzman would have been killed in the raid. The fact that he was not is a testament to the professionalism and discipline of the Mexican Marines.
The next issue will be whether or not Chapo will be extradited to the United States and how long the process could take. The U.S. government has already turned over the extradition package, which outlines the case against Guzman to the Mexican government prior to his previous escape. These highly detailed cases are not made available to the public and are usually so well-documented they inspire plea bargains and cooperation. The fear for the Mexican government is that Chapo has too much information on high-ranking corrupt officials such that his extradition to the U.S. could be highly embarrassing.
Impact on the Sinaloa Cartel
If he is not extradited this will have little impact upon the operations of the Sinaloa Cartel as a whole. Guzman can continue to run his operations from behind bars and likely has proxies who can manage his assets and trafficking routes independently in his absence. Further, Ismael Zambada García (known as El Mayo) and Juan José Esparragoza Moreno (known as El Azul) — the #2 and #3 leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel —are still at large. Following Guzman’s arrest in 2014, the DEA in Arizona noted no significant changes on the Mexican side of the border, save a changing of the leadership figures from Chapo’s to Mayo’s men. This suggests the Sinaloa Cartel as a whole will be minimally impacted by Chapo’s absence.
If, however, Guzman is immediately extradited to the United States, he could lose significant operational control over proxies, which could adversely impact internal Sinaloa cartel cohesion. It is possible sub-networks such as los Antrax or the Gente Nueva (enforcer paramilitary apparatuses) could potentially break free and into internecine conflict with the Sinaloa Cartel. Again, this is unlikely given the remaining leadership figures and the leadership succession mechanisms in place. These succession mechanisms focus largely on family members taking over operations. If Chapo begins to cooperate with DEA and U.S. Treasury to turn over assets, there could be a more significant impact upon the finances of the organization and its ability to redistribute profits internally.
Why El Mayo May Be More Important
EL Mayo has been the obvious second in command of the Sinaloa Cartel for some time. Many of El Mayo’s sons have been arrested and extradited to or captured in the U.S. This weakens his succession mechanisms and could be an indication that El Mayo’s arrest might be more significant to the Sinaloa Cartel than Chapo’s. If El Mayo is arrested after having lost too many of his sons to arrest and U.S. extradition, that could lead to more internal fragmentation within the Sinaloa Cartel network.
It is important to remember that Caro Quintero, a major Sinaloa Cartel figure, was released from prison in 2013 in what was an act of judicial corruption. He continues to play a major role in the organization, giving it increasing leadership depth and resources.
If there is division within the Sinaloa Cartel, other drug trafficking networks could sense weakness and target the Sinaloa Cartel’s front businesses, territories, assets, drug loads, etc. In this sense, the government targeting of drug trafficking organization leadership figures might not have had the desired effect of making them more manageable. Instead, as University of San Diego professor David Shirk has pointed out, it might have created more violent fragmented networks that increase overall levels of violence.
Nathan Jones is a nonresident scholar for the Baker Institute Mexico Center and Drug Policy Program. He is also an assistant professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University and the author of a forthcoming book, Mexican Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction (Georgetown University Press).
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