San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Drug trafficking

Sinaloa drug cartel lives on despite 'CEO' El Chapo's capture

MEXICO CITY – The recapture of kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was a boost to the Mexican government, but his Sinaloa drug cartel lives on despite the loss of its “CEO,” analysts say.

The gang, whose empire stretches around the world, will retain its supply of cocaine from South America, keep feeding addicts in the United States and fill its coffers full of cash.

“The capture won’t have a significant impact other than a moral victory,” Mike Vigil, a former international operations chief at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told AFP. “It’s going to continue to function. It’s not even going to skip a beat.”

To make a real dent, the government should go after the cartel’s assets, bank accounts and properties while cleaning up the corruption that has aided the criminal enterprise, the former law enforcement official said.

“The infrastructure has been developed through decades, and the fact of the matter is that just because they get rid of the CEO doesn’t mean that it’s going to collapse,” he said.

While the 58-year-old Guzmán now faces the prospect of being extradited to the United States, the cartel has another veteran leader ready to step in, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is in his late 60s.

Guzmán’s sons are active in the cartel, but Zambada — a man who never spent a night behind bars — is seen as the natural successor who has the respect of his peers.

Drug lord’s view

Guzmán himself told U.S. actor Sean Penn in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine that the business would go on without him.

“The day that I don’t exist, it won’t reduce drug trafficking,” Guzmán said in a video, answering questions that Penn sent to him months before his capture. The pair also met in a secretive, sitdown interview.

Raúl Benítez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the cartel continued to operate normally during the 17 months that Guzmán was incarcerated until his escape on July 11.

“It’s not destroyed. It is weakened, but it can rebuild because it has ‘Mayo’ Zambada,” Benítez said.

While he was in prison, Guzmán told Penn, his business did not change. “Nothing has decreased. Nothing has increased,” he said.

Benítez said some rivals could now seek to seize on Guzmán’s capture to gain terrain.

“The ones who must be happy are the Gulf cartel, because they are their main competitors,” the expert said.

The Sinaloa cartel dominates Mexico’s Pacific region while their rivals operate along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The two gangs have fought bloody turf wars over control of the drug trade to the United States over the years, though the Gulf cartel has been weakened by the capture or deaths of its own leaders.

The sewer system in Los Mochis, Sinaloa State, Mexico, on Jan. 10, 2016, where Mexican kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán tried to escape during a military operation that resulted in his recapture.

Héctor Guerrero/AFP

‘More work to be done’

Gustavo Fondevila, a security expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, said the Sinaloa cartel will avoid the fragmentation or infighting seen in other groups whose leaders have been arrested or killed.

“It’s not a cartel that has internal problems,” Fondevila said.

“This doesn’t diminish the work of the security agencies. Catching ‘El Chapo’ was very important because you can’t let a character like that on the loose,” he said.

A federal official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, told AFP that Guzmán’s arrest was an “unprecedented success” for federal forces. But, the official conceded, “there’s always more work to be done against organized crime.”

 

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