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The Demon Heirs of El Chapo

Like the hydra from Greek mythology, the chopping off of one of the drug cartel’s heads leaves room for many more bloodthirsty replacements.

01.10.16 5:15 AM ET

When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted Misión cumplida: lo tenemos (Mission accomplished, we got him), no one in Mexico had to ask who the “him” in question was. After fleeing what was supposedly the nation’s most secure prison in July 2015 for a second time, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of Mexico’s storied Sinaloa Cartel and the world’s most well-known drug trafficker, had been re-captured after six months on the run.

With the exception of his Sinaloa Cartel colleague Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, El Chapo is virtually the last of the old guard of Mexico’s drug trafficking monarchy to fall. Preceding him have been the likes of the Juárez Cartel’s Amado Carrillo Fuentes (who moved so much cocaine into Mexico from Colombia in the hollowed-out bodies of jets that he was called El Señor de Los Cielos, or Lord of the Skies), the Tijuana Cartel’s Arellano Félix brothers (almost all killed or imprisoned), the Gulf Cartel’s Osiel Cárdenas Guillén (currently held at the supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado), the brothers who lead the Beltrán Leyva Organization (dead or imprisoned) and virtually all of the original members of Los Zetas, a group that started out as Gulf Cartel enforcers but violently broke out on their own in early 2010.

Though cartel kingpins have been falling liking dominoes in recent years, the drug trade in Mexico has micronized rather than disappeared. Violence and insecurity, much of it linked to politics, continues to bedevil the country. 

In the violence-plagued state of Guerrero, whose Acapulco was once a playground for the idle rich, narco gangs such as Los Ardillos and Los Rojos victimize the state’s indigenous communities as they do battle with one another for lucrative drug-trafficking routes. Los Ardillos are run by a pair of criminally minded brothers, Celso and Antonio Ortega Jiménez (drug trafficking in Mexico is often a family business) from a family where a third sibling, Bernardo Ortega Jiménez, served as president of the state congress in Guerrero. Los Rojos are led by Santiago “El Carrete” Mazari Miranda, a former soldier in the Beltrán-Leyva Organization.

The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG), which began as something of a spinoff of the Sinaloa Cartel, has since emerged as a force all its own. After a spectacular September 2011 coming out—it dumped 35 corpses into rush-hour traffic in a suburb of the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz, many of them daubed with anti-Zetas slogans—the CJNG shot down a military helicopter last year. Though many of the group’s chieftains have been captured in recent years, the CJNG’s co-founder, Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes, a native of the state of Michoacán and, like so many narcos, a former police officer, remains at large.

Along Mexico’s border with the United States, after a four-year war of attrition against one another in the state of Tamaulipas that saw mass-casualty gunbattles and entire busloads of people kidnapped and killed, Los Zetas themselves and their former employers in the Gulf Cartel have seen their leadership decapitated. But their remaining cells remain active and highly lethal.

After Zetas co-founder Rogelio González Pizaña, known better as El Kelín, was released in August 2014 after serving a decade in prison, he reportedly headed back to Tamaulipas to resume his role in the drug trade, and was there murdered by current Gulf Cartel leaders when he attempted a takeover of the group’s birthplace, the city of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. 

If true, the murder of the old hand, allegedly by forces loyal to the new Matamoros plaza boss, Odon “El Cherry” Azua Cruces, is highly symbolic of the earlier generation being pushed out by the new. In a further illustration of this phenomenon, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas and across the Rio Grande from the U.S. city of McAllen, Texas, splintering factions of the Gulf Cartel now do battle with legions of sicarios (assassins) barely into their teens.

There was supposed to be a changing of the political guard in Mexico, too, after the long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) spent 12 years outside the presidency before returning under the younger, telegenic Peña Nieto. But during that interim, democracy, such as it is, settled rather more lightly across much of the country.

In the state of Veracruz, for example, the administrations of the PRI’s Fidel Herrera Beltrán and now Javier Duarte de Ochoa, which have collectively governed the state for more than a decade, have seen an ever-greater blurring of the lines between political cadres, law enforcement, and drug traffickers. A Gulf Cartel accountant even testified in a U.S. federal court that he had funneled $12 million in cartel money to Herrera Beltrán’s electoral campaign in exchange for moving narcotics freely through the state. And those who criticize the situation in Veracruz too strongly have a bad habit of turning up dead. Just ask the families of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and activist Nadia Vera Pérez, who were slain in a Mexico City apartment along with three others this past summer.

And in the border state of Tamaulipas, likewise, the PRI’s grip on power has never been dislodged.

Two years ago, the chief bodyguard for Tamaulipas Gov. Egidio Torre Cantú was arrested for involvement in the murder of state intelligence chief Salvador Haro Muñoz. Torre Cantú’s predecessor as governor, Eugenio Javier Hernández Flores, saw fit to entrust his personal security to a well-known Gulf Cartel hitman, and was indicted in the United States last year on drug-related money-laundering charges. Hernández Flores’s predecessor, Tomás Yarrington, was publicly praised by then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry but was eventually indicted both in Mexico and the United States for aiding the Gulf Cartel. He has since disappeared.

In the state of Guerrero, governed by the opposition Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD) since 2005, the investigation into the September 2014 kidnapping of 43 students from a teacher’s colleague was bungled so badly that it served to deepen citizens’ suspicion of federal and state governments, rather than assuage it

And the price to be paid by those willing to speak out remains high.

The  killing this month of Gisela Mota Ocampo, a former PRD national deputy one day after she took over at the mayor of the city of Temixco in the state of Morelos, was reminiscent to many of the murder of María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, the former mayor of the town of Tiquicheo in the state of Michoacán. 

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Gorrostieta Salazar had spoken out against the corruption and violence in her state, once telling the newspaper El País “despite my own safety and that of my family, I have a responsibility to my people, with children, women, the elderly and men who are breaking their back every day tirelessly to procure a piece of bread...It is not possible for me to cave into when I have three children whom I have to teach by example.” 

After three attempts on her life in as many years—including one that took the life of her then-husband—Gorrostieta Salazar was slain in a fourth attack in November 2012.

It is a crime, like so many in Mexico, that remains unpunished to this day.

Michael Deibert is the author of several books, the most recent In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press, 2014). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, Le Monde diplomatique, Folha de São Paulo, and the World Policy Journal, among other venues. He can be followed on Twitter at @michaelcdeibert.