In the annals of the gruesome Mexican narcowars, the kidnapping of jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s son and heir apparent at the beginning of the week is, to say the least… strange.
In the dark early hours of Monday morning, heavily armed sicarios, or hitmen, abducted 29-year-old Alfredo Guzmán and five other men at a restaurant called La Leche in the Mexican resort town Puerto Vallarta, Mexican authorities said.
The interior of the upscale establishment is all white, like leche, or milk, and in a movie about the gang wars of Mexico, blood would be splattered all over the décor after an incident like this. But there was not a drop. Not a shot was fired. And the nine women who were with the kidnapped men weren’t taken, weren’t shot, weren’t hurt at all.
In the days since, authorities have concluded the kidnappers were from Mexico’s new “super cartel” known as the CJNG, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación. The cartel has spread like a flesh-eating bacteria across the Mexican underworld, challenging any gang that looked weak, even and especially, it would seem, El Chapo’s once-mighty Sinaloa Cartel since he was returned to prison in January.
Law enforcement officials noted that nobody in El Chapo’s family has filed a report on the kidnapping or asked for help from the police. But that’s no surprise. This is the kind of thing the cartels settle among themselves. And what we’ve seen of the quotidian carnage at the hands of both Sinaloa and the CJNG can be absolutely hideous.
As The Daily Beast reported in March, the CJNG isn’t just super-sized. It’s also super ruthless and hyper-violent, even by Mexican cartel standards. Back in 2011 the group slaughtered 35 members of the Zetas, a rival cartel, and dumped the bodies—including 12 women—on an interstate highway at rush hour. Commuters were confronted with a hellish scene worthy of some modern Hieronymus Bosch.
And, as we reported, that was just a warm-up act. Since 2015 the CJNG has developed a reputation for taking the fight to law enforcement, launching guerrilla-like assaults that have claimed dozens of officers’ lives. In at least one instance, they managed to shoot down a Mexican Army helicopter, killing everyone aboard.
So, given that record, what’s with this bloodless coup at La Leche?
Is it some grotesque exaction on El Chapo’s son in the offing? Or is this an inside job, and not a CNJG op at all? Could it be a ruse? In Narcolandia, no one theory necessarily excludes another; in a war of succession, the game of cartel thrones, who is loyal? Who betrays? Who knows?
In June, for instance, a large group of men reportedly attacked the house of El Chapo’s aged mother. But that wasn’t the CNJG. That appears to have been an intra-family feud between one Guzmán relative known as “El Guano,” bird shit, and another called “El Mochomito,” the little desert ant (after Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, a jailed drug lord and Chapo rival who was the Big Desert Ant). Mama wasn’t there in any case, but several people were killed at what once was the sanctum sanctorum of El Chapo (which means Shorty, in case you were wondering).
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo, which follows these stories in detail but with prudent detachment, notes that a core rivalry inside the Sinaloa Cartel appears to be between an old crony of El Chapo’s, Mayo Zambada, and El Chapo’s sons, los Chapitos, Ivan (still at large) and Alfredo, who apparently was kidnapped.
Both of the boys have had, to say the least, a presence on social media. Last year Ivan posted an Instagram image of his gold-plated AK-47 propped up against the dashboard of his Ferrari. Alfredo posted a pic of a snarling lion cub on the trunk of his Bentley.
But we know a bit more about Alfredo, up close and personal, thanks to Sean Penn’s extended Rolling Stone article in January about El Chapo in hiding. Alfredo had acted as Penn’s escort to the secret meeting place:
“He’s handsome, lean and smartly dressed,” wrote Penn, “with a wristwatch that might be of more value than the money housed by the central banks of most nation-states. He’s got one hell of a wristwatch.”
As they flew to the rendezvous with Chapo, Penn asked Alfredo how he could be sure they were not being followed or watched.
Alfredo smiled (Penn noted that he didn’t blink very often) and pointed out a red scrambler switch below the cockpit controls.
“That switch blocks ground radar,” said Alfredo, adding that the cartel had an inside man who told them when the military’s high-altitude surveillance plane has been deployed. “He has great confidence that there are no unwanted eyes on us,” Penn wrote.
As they drove deep into the jungle, two uniformed government soldiers, weapons at the ready, approached their vehicle. “Alfredo lowers his passenger window; the soldiers back away, looking embarrassed, and wave us through,” wrote Penn. “Wow. So it is, the power of a Guzmán face.”
What power that face has now is an open question.