The dramatic capture of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman is the end of an era for Mexico’s underworld. The new normal may be an increasingly chaotic criminal terrain, and, facing a more coordinated Mexican security strategy, the next generation of criminal groups may find it impossible to replicate the empire Guzman created.
The change in the dynamics and makeup of the underworld has been coming for a long time. What were once five major cartels in the late 1990s had morphed into 80 criminal groups operating in nearly every state by late 2012.
To a certain extent, Guzman’s organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, had taken advantage of this atomization, spreading into new territory in recent years, most notably Tijuana and Juarez. Along the way, the Sinaloa Cartel could not avoid atomizing itself, thus leaving its structures greatly weakened and its leaders vulnerable.
The process occurred on many levels. In order to stave off increasingly violent rivals, groups like the Sinaloa Cartel had to create military structures. The mid-level to high-level commanders running these structures needed more money to grow and maintain their armies, something the bosses were not always willing to provide.
The only solution to this problem was to give these commanders more autonomy, thus opening up rivalries within organizations, in-fighting and eventually breakaways. This process accelerated as Mexico’s criminal economy expanded, especially as the local illegal drug market grew.
No organization could withstand these forces. The Tijuana, Juarez, Gulf, Milenio and Sinaloa Cartels have all suffered splits. Many have since split several more times since.
The vulnerability of the Sinaloa Cartel was evident beginning in 2008, when its former armed wing, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), broke off and began a bloody battle with its bosses. The BLO, it was thought, was on the verge of extinction.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles
But by 2011, the group had resurged, in part due to this new local, criminal economy. And in 2012, the BLO, the Zetas and La Linea -- two other groups who had once been armed wings of larger organizations -- did something that was unthinkable a few years ago: attacked several strongholds of Chapo’s organization in Sinaloa.
Other weaknesses became evident in recent months. Chapo’s top associate and longtime partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, had several top enforcers arrested and at least one killed. Chapo’s own father-in-law was also captured and numerous allies, operatives and businesses were coming under the US Treasury’s microscope.
The net around Chapo was clearly tightening. One US anti-narcotics official told a Mexican journalist that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had Chapo in its sights twice but that Mexican government officials balked at green-lighting the operations. Chapo was also “nearly” captured in 2012.
With the help of the DEA, authorities finally corralled him in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, a supposed stronghold of his partner El Mayo. It was a fitting end: Chapo, who is from Sinaloa, was not even safe in his own backyard.
Guzman was number 75 on a list of the 122 major targets of the Enrique Peña Nieto administration. But it was by far the biggest victory for the president in his fight against organized crime and validates his decision to make minor, rather than major adjustments to the strategy implemented by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Calderon, who governed between 2006 and 2012, has taken a lot of flack for starting this fight against the large criminal structures, which had functioned for decades with a nod and a wink from the country’s political elites. It was the right decision, even if it was not the most organized and certainly not the most well presented strategy.
Violence soared and devoured the Calderon presidency. While he had his successes, Calderon also seemed to lose sight of the most important objective: creating accountable institutions that can respond to all problems, not just large, international drug trafficking groups.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Peña Nieto has taken Calderon’s concept to another level and has tinkered with, rather than overhauled, what Calderon had begun. He has centered his strategy on lowering violence. But among the most important changes he’s made is centralizing command and control in the Interior Ministry and rethinking the way government organized its forces.
In December 2012, the newly inaugurated Peña Nieto government broke the country into regions. All of its forces -- from the Attorney General’s Office to the intelligence services to the federal police -- followed suit.
Better coordination has followed, especially between intelligence and operative branches, which is what has led to several important captures.
Peña Nieto also appears willing and able to bypass inoperative and corrupt state and municipal governments more effectively than his predecessor. This is, in part, related to his Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) disciplined approach and control over administrative and political matters. To cite just one other example aside from the Guzman capture, federal authorities have arrested over 500 suspected criminals in its operations in the embattled state of Michoacan in recent weeks.
Much of the rest of the Calderon strategy, controversial as it was, remains in place. The government continues to slowly purge the police and institute a new justice system. It is establishing a federal criminal code, which should facilitate this process.
The new administration uses the army, the Marines and the federal police in high conflict areas. It has allowed continued cooperation between the DEA and the Mexican Marines, a duo that has produced some of the most important captures and kills of suspected, high-level drug traffickers in the country and was the spear in the Guzman operation.
Mexican authorities say that their approach is more holistic but evidence of its impact across categories is scant. Violence is down, but just how much is a subject of debate. What’s more, kidnappings and extortion are at record levels.
This is part of the new criminal landscape caused by this atomization. With at least 80 criminal organizations operating throughout the country, the competition is fierce. Their objectives vary but increasingly the battleground is not the international but the national market.
Paradoxically, this is what the government wants. These are smaller organizations, with less ability, connections and capital to compromise the state. They therefore represent less of a national and more of a local threat.
They have less ability and fewer connections on an international level as well. In fact, it appears as if the days of the vertically integrated, monolithic trafficking organizations are coming to an end.
To be sure, this is not an easy road, as Colombia found out following the death of Pablo Escobar and the subsequent dismantling of numerous, large criminal organizations that followed such as the Norte del Valle Cartel and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
What's more, the Sinaloa Cartel is not dead. It still has a large, sophisticated structure spread across a huge swath of territory with a tremendous ability to penetrate governments large and small. Two of its leaders, El Mayo and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias "El Azul," are still at large and, by many accounts, it has been running smoothly without Chapo's regular input for some time.
But its power is waning. And it is difficult to imagine Guzman passing the torch to anyone from a younger generation, at least one that could successfully restore it to its former status.