Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman

Mexico's crime lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is tightening his grip on the production of cocaine and other illicit drugs throughout the Andean region, according to Mexico's leading news magazine.

Citing Colombian academics and analysts, Proceso says the recent disintegration and weakening of Colombia's major trafficking organizations has given Chapo, who is a leader in Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, an opening to increase his dominance in the region.

"All the Colombian narco-traffickers want to do deals with him. They seek him, propose business," Pablo Ignacio Reyes, a crime expert at Colombia's National University told the magazine. "At this time El Chapo is trafficker number one. And his partners here say that in Mexico he is the god of gods, and the Sinaloa Cartel is the strongest there is."

[See InSight Crime's Sinaloa Cartel profile]

A yet to be published study by Reyes and other Colombia experts likens the organization Guzman has forged to a holding company akin to McDonald's with franchises and branches across the Americas. They emphasize the presence of representatives of Guzman on the Peru-Ecuador border and in the Colombian Pacific port of Buenaventura, from which many cocaine shipments are launched.

The cocaine business increasingly has become a buyer's market since the mid-1990s, when Colombian gangs began paying Mexico's smuggling groups with powder rather than in a simple fee per kilo trafficked. Mexican traffickers' advantages have only increased since the successes of the Colombian government's US-supported effort against the traditional Colombian crime families -- and the leftist guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary bands that have replaced them.

Guzman and his Sinaloa Cartel cohorts have taken advantage of this power vacuum and established a strong presence throughout the Andean region. The question is just how far down the food chain they reach now that Colombia's large trafficking organizations are either dismantled or severely weakened by the arrests of top leaders and gang infighting. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Every large Mexican smuggling organization has established links with Colombian suppliers that have endured the multiple arrests aimed at breaking the supply chain. But the Sinaloans seemed to have reached further than their counterparts.

To begin with, the Sinaloa Cartel has direct ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the hemisphere's largest insurgency. It's not clear at what point, or for what price they are making these transactions, but the FARC has access to coca fields and processing labs. The rebels also trade weapons for cocaine, most often in Ecuador, making it a win-win for both organizations. 

Sinaloa, and other Mexican cartels, also undoubtedly have connections to the so-called "criminal bands," or BACRIM, as they are known in Colombia. The BACRIM emerged following the demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups over the last decade. But most BACRIM obtain control of the cocaine a little further up the food chain.

Sinaloa's success in Colombia may be short-lived. The cartel's chief rivals, the Zetas, have in recent years transformed from being the lethal muscle of the Gulf Cartel into drug traffickers in their own right. The Mexican Navy's killing last fall of Zetas co-founder and strongman Heriberto Lazcano, El Lazca, seems to yet have done little to dilute the gang's power.

Formed as hired guns for the experienced smugglers of the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas have always padded their income by taxing smugglers in towns they control and with extortion, kidnapping and other rackets that most severely plague the Mexican public.

Since breaking with their Gulf paymasters in 2010, they have tried to become more active in drug smuggling. It has not been easy. Upon his capture 18 months ago, top Zeta boss Jesus Enrique Rejon, alias "El Mamito," told interrogators that the gang still lacked solid contacts with Colombian cocaine suppliers, forcing them to use middlemen in Guatemala and Honduras. US officials have confirmed that the Zetas have lacked a good supply line for the Colombian powder.

Still, they have positioned themselves well. Though they've apparently lost control of the key port of Veracruz, the Zetas still hold sway along the Yucatan and southern Gulf of Mexico coasts, prime smuggling routes. They have allied themselves with two traditional cocaine smuggling operations that have longstanding ties in the Andes: the Beltran Leyva Organization and remnants of the Juarez Cartel. And some reports out of Colombia now suggest the Zetas are forging links with Colombia's most powerful BACRIM, the Urabeños, which primarily ships the drug through the Caribbean.

For now, Guzman and the loosely knitted Sinaloa Cartel have the advantage. They've been the least impacted of Mexican gangs by the military-led crackdown that began six years ago under former President Felipe Calderon. While other trafficking syndicates have been either dismantled or decapitated, Guzman and his allies have largely survived intact.

US and Mexican law enforcement officials have traced Sinaloa operatives in Europe, Africa and Asia, either selling merchandise or buying raw materials. El Chapo's apparent victory in the bloody five year struggle for control of the key Ciudad Juarez-El Paso smuggling corridor can only add to that market power. But he still faces tough competition with the Zetas and their allies for smuggling routes downstream from El Paso along the Rio Grande.

The Mexican government's underworld targets have tended to shift with every new six-year presidential administration. With most of the Sinaloan gangsters' income generated by the drug trade, Guzman and his minions have tended to be somewhat less violent -- and far less threatening to everyday Mexicans -- than have the Zetas and other groups. That might give the Sinaloans respite from whatever is coming under President Enrique Peña Nieto, who, since his December inauguration, has vowed to reduce the violence.

But Peña warned in a Monday night address to the nation that ending the gangster slaughter that's claimed more than 60,000 lives will take considerable time. He may decide that taking down Guzman may prove the best way to show more immediate results.

In short, even as the drug trade endures, its practitioners do not. Guzman may be the Mexican underworld's current "god of gods," such lords of the past whisper from their graves or prison cells that such power is fleeting at best.

Investigations

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