Guns found in previous failed operation against "El Fantasma"

A Mexican investigative news outlet questions whether a recently-arrested top Sinaloa Cartel hitman was handed over by cartel bosses, perhaps in order to uphold a pact to keep violence in the area at a minimum.

RioDoce, which covers news in Mexico's Sinaloa state, reports that the recent capture of Jonathan Salas Aviles, alias "El Fantasma" ("The Ghost"), may have come about thanks to an agreement with the Sinaloa Cartel. El Fantasma is accused of working as a hitman and bodyguard for the Sinaloa Cartel, and earned his nickname thanks to the precautions he took to protect his identity, according to the report. 

He had previously evaded capture by authorities twice, including one incident in which he was mistakenly reported to have been killed by the security forces. When he was arrested in Februrary, 200 soldiers and three marine helicopters participated in the operation, trapping him in a house 30 minutes south of Sinaloa capital Culiacan.

RioDoce theorizes that the operation -- in which not a single shot was fired -- was actually a surrender negotiated by the Sinaloa Cartel. The publication argues that Sinaloa Cartel leaders Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia viewed El Fantasma as a risky employee, as he was being tracked by military intelligence. El Fantasma also had a reputation as a violent and volatile gunman, who terrorized the locals in the small towns outside of Culiacan, beating up civilians and municipal police officers and interrupting private parties while brandishing weapons. Such behavior meant El Mayo received plenty of complaints from local communities about El Fantasma, RioDoce asserts.

However, even if El Chapo and El Mayo stopped seeing their top gunman as an asset to the Sinaloa Cartel, this may not have been their only motive for giving him up. A previous report by RioDoce cited a military intelligence document as saying that the Sinaloa Cartel had committed to keeping violent actions in Sinaloa to a minimum, pledging to launch attacks only in response to rivals the Beltran Leyva Organization and the group run by drug trafficker Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, alias "Chapito Isidro."

If such an agreement with the authorities is indeed in place, this would also help explain why the Sinaloa Cartel would be so willing to surrender El Fantasma: in order to respect this pact and keep Sinaloa state relatively peaceful.

InSight Crime Analysis

RioDoce's reporting feeds into suspicions that have long surrounded the Sinaloa Cartel: that President Felipe Calderon's administration had some kind of agreement with the criminal organization, allowing the cartel's leaders to operate in peace, while focusing on pursuing its rivals. Calderon's administration always strongly denied such assertions, though some observers -- including NPR, in a 2010 report -- found evidence that, at times, the government appeared to favor the Sinaloa Cartel.

The July 2012 military intelligence report seen by RioDoce may further support such theories. According to RioDoce, at no point did the report -- which included a list of recommendations for Calderon and his security cabinet -- mention taking armed action against the Sinaloa Cartel. Instead, the report recommended focusing efforts against smaller criminal organizations like Chapito Isidro's, dubbed "satellite cells." These smaller groups are responsible for much of the violence of Mexico, and thus merit particular attention, the briefing reportedly added.

Some of RioDoce's interpretations deserve questioning. It is possible that El Fantasma was captured without a single shot fired simply because the security force operation was too overwhelming -- and too quick -- for him to react. Additionally, the July 2012 military briefing was only a list of recommendations: it would be difficult to prove whether the Calderon administration actually decided to follow them, and start pursuing the "satellite" criminal groups at the expense of the larger cartels. And, going by RioDoce's reporting, the intelligence briefing does not explicitly state whether the Sinaloa Cartel negotiated its alleged pledge with the military, another branch of the government, or a rival criminal group, casting some doubt on the nature of the pact.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of precedent for the Sinaloa Cartel giving up operatives deemed too risky to keep on board. Beltran Leyva Organization leader Alfredo Beltran, captured in 2008, is just one example. It would not be surprising if El Chapo and El Mayo decided to surrender El Fantasma despite his many years of service. However, the question of whether they did so in order to comply with a non-violence pact with the authorities is more difficult to answer.