Will El Chapo Rule From Prison?

A joint U.S.-Mexico security operation ended a 13-year manhunt for El Chapo, the head of the feared Sinaloa cartel.

The manhunt is over. In a joint overnight Mexico-U.S. security operation on February 21, ‘El Chapo’, the titular head of the Sinaloa Federation, was arrested on his home turf in Mazatlán. As a result of this high value arrest, one of the most iconic narcos of modern times—who became a legend after his escape in a laundry basket from a high-security Mexican prison in 2001—is back in custody.

Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ (‘Shorty’) Guzmán Loera came to power during the rise of Mexico’s cartels as they transitioned from bit players to global titans of crime. El Chapo forged a powerful presence in Sinaloa. During his 13 years on the run he eluded capture through the targeted application of bribes and co-option of police, elected officials, and government bureaucrats. Guzmán essentially leveraged violence, political influence, and financial prowess to gain power and market share.

Starting under the umbrella of the Guadalajara Cartel, El Chapo challenged his contemporary capos and sought to expand his own empire. The aspiring drug lord was successful. Using targeted violence—including beheadings and hanging corpses from bridges—he built a reputation for resolve. Combined with business acumen and a near-mythical persona as a local folk hero and social bandit much like “Robin Hood,” this resolve allowed him free range of Sinaloa and the Federation’s Pacific territorial holdings. As narcocorridos extolled his prowess, he built his business empire. Starting with marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, he rounded out to include methamphetamines, and allowed local cells (effectively franchises) to branch out beyond the narco base to include human trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping.

The resulting network is a multinational enterprise with franchises and allies linking together to maximize profit and elude government interference. El Chapo’s boys partnered with groups as diverse as Los Rasteros and Los Urbenos in Colombia (to move coca) to the 14K and Sun Yee On triads in China (to move meth). Sinaloa’s reach is reputed to extend from the Southern Cone of Argentina through Latin America (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru) to Europe and Australasia. Guzman’s faction used aircraft, submarines and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, go-fast boats, pangas, buses, rail cars, and autos to move drugs across the Mexican border to places like Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, BC, and Chicago.

It is in Chicago where we see the brutal reality of Sinaloa’s inter-penetration with American gangs. In Chicago, Sinaloa is linked to the Gangster Disciples. Of the $65 billion annual illicit pharma trade in the U.S. (cocaine, heroin, and other narcotics), at least half flows through Sinaloa’s hands, making the cartel more lucrative than the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with annual revenues topping $3 billion. Prior to his recent capture, Guzmán was widely believed to be a “business genius.” Indeed, the former head of CISEN (the Mexican intelligence service) Guillermo Valdes lauded Chapo’s business acumen, strategic vision, and organizational leadership skills. These skills led Guzmán to be listed on Forbes’ World’s Most Powerful List since 2009 and also resulted in his estimated net worth of over $1 billion. They also resulted in two U.S. indictments for heroin and cocaine trafficking in Chicago (2008) and El Paso (2012). Perhaps the ultimate infamous compliment was found in the Chicago Crime Commission’s listing of Chapo as “Public Enemy No. One,” a distinction shared only with legendary gangster Al Capone.

Capturing El Chapo is a major victory for the Mexican security services and the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto. After the bloody battle for Cuidad Juárez it was widely touted that Sinaloa had won the Mexican drug war. This perception was reinforced after the arrest of Chapo’s principal rival, Miguel Ángel Treviño, head of Los Zetas, in July 2013. After 13 years on the run, Chapo was finally cornered in Mazatlán where he was arrested during a deliberate take-down by Mexican and U.S. authorities. For Mexico it was SEMAR (marines) together with Federal Police; the U.S. was represented by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration).

The arrest placed Guzmán in custody before dawn (around 6:40 am), captured without a shot. Chapo was quickly transported by helicopter to an underground cell at Altiplano prison (Centro Federal de Readaptación Social Número 1) awaiting prosecution by the PGR (Procurador General de la República) or extradition to the United States. While Mexican officials acknowledged U.S. participation, the extent of U.S. support has been downplayed. Recent media reports claim that U.S. signals or communications intelligence (SIGINT/COMINT) played a role in finding Chapo by monitoring and tracking mobile phone usage among his inner circle. Certainly fear of capture led Chapo to leave his network of safe houses in Cuiliacán to hide in Mazatlán.

In the weeks leading up to his capture, law enforcement authorities appear to have been hot on his trail. Arrests and murders of Sinaloa leadership were closing the sights on Chapo himself. Key operatives in the ‘El Mayo” wing led by Ismael Zambada Garcia (aligned with Chapo) were increasingly under the gun. Recent arrests included the son of Chapo’s partner Zambada, and the death of one of Zambada’s lieutenants in Sonora via helicopter gunship during a raging four-hour gun battle in December.

As noteworthy as the arrest of a legendary gangster is for press and government officials, El Chapo’s detainment is unlikely to severely damage the Sinaloa Federation’s operations in the short-term. First, Sinaloa was not totally under the control of El Chapo. Guzmán was a key player and the most notable public face of the cartel, but the Sinaloa Federation (and its core cartel) are networked entities. That is, they are a federation of cells led by individual capos. Guzmán was a member of a ruling triumvirate comprised of himself along with ‘El Mayo’ Zambada and Juan Jose ‘El Azul’ Esparragaza Moreno.

Chapo may have led strategy and the transnational business plan, but actual operations, logistics, and enforcement were shared responsibilities. Zambada himself may be in the prime position now, as it has been long suspected that he leads day-to-day operations while Chapo was the symbolic figurehead. Indeed, during Chapo’s first stint in jail, Zambada kept Sinaloa viable.

Certainly Sinaloa will change as a result of Chapo’s capture. But capture itself is not enough to decimate the enterprise. And it’s likely that Chapo will attempt to retain control while in custody. He would not be the first crime boss to run a mafia from prison. Indeed, prison may offer a safety and refuge from rivals that exceed that found on the outside. Corrupt guards allow criminal enterprises great freedom of movement in many prisons worldwide and this has historically been the case in Mexico. As a consequence, custody may not erode his power. He can possibly wield control from inside through a cadre of loyal lieutenants in the field.

On the other hand, his lieutenants, vassals and allies may see opportunity to gain personal power, and choose this opportunity to revolt and seize control of parts of Chapo’s narco empire. Factions may rise and battle internally for primacy. These may be the up and coming younger members, waiting for their turn as ‘El Chapo’ and ‘El Mayo’ are viewed as relics. External competitors may also seek to attack Chapo’s factions to gain relative power. These rivals include Los Zetas, Los Mazatlecos (enforcers for the Beltrán Leyva Organization), and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. Contested areas are likely to include Baja California, Sonora, Durango, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa itself.

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Capturing kingpins is an important part of building state credibility. In the past year the Mexican security services have captured “El Tio” of the Knights Templar (Dionisio Loya Plancante), “Z-40” of Los Zetas (Miguel Ángel Treviño), and now ‘El Chapo.’ Government and police resolve is important, but without penetrating the corrupt web of co-opted officials that sustain narco-power, these victories will be fleeting. Indeed, some observers in the US and on the web are already speculating about Chapo’s next escape. In order to solidify the momentum gained by this arrest, steps to interrupt corrupt penetration of state structures, and swift prosecution, are essential to building trust in the rule of law.