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

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

The power of Colombia's elites is founded upon one of the most unequal divisions of land in the world. As of the early 21st century, one percent of landowners own more than half the country's agricultural land.1  Under Spanish rule, Colombia's agriculture was organized on the hacienda...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras is currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs and corrupt security forces, among other actors. Violence is the focal point for the international aid...

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Organized crime and the violence associated with it is the preeminent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean today. The region is currently home to six of the most violent countries in the world that are not at war. Four of those countries are in Central America...

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

In a new report based on extensive field research, InSight Crime and the Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa have traced how Honduras' two largest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, are evolving, and how their current modus operandi has resulted in staggering levels of violence...

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Transnational organized crime likes opportunities and little resistance. Bolivia currently provides both and finds itself at the heart of a new criminal dynamic that threatens national and citizen security in this landlocked Andean nation.

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

As Guatemala's Congress gears up to select new Supreme Court Justices and appellate court judges, InSight Crime is investigating how organized crime influences the selection process. This story details the interests of one particular political bloc vying for control over the courts and what's at stake: millions...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," have won.

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Faced with the government's failure to rein in the criminals, communities across crime-besieged Mexico have been trying for years to organize effective civic resistance. Michoacan's vigilantes express the most extreme response by society to date, but other efforts have been less belligerent. In battle-torn cities along the...

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

If Uruguay's proposal to regulate the production, sale and distribution of marijuana is properly implemented and overcomes political and economic hurdles, it could be the most important drug regulation experiment in decades.