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Sinaloa Cartel Succession in Mexico: More Political Intrigue than Violence

  • Written by David C. Martínez-Amador and Steven Dudley*
  • Thursday, 27 February 2014
Young 'Chapo' vs old 'Chapo' photo analysis by Mexico govt Young 'Chapo' vs old 'Chapo' photo analysis by Mexico govt

Succession in the Sinaloa Cartel does not necessarily mean more violence. Indeed, the arrest of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman could present more problems for his political and business accomplices than within his own criminal organization.

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Beyond the names being mentioned as new heads of the cartel (such as Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Damaso Lopez, alias "El Mini Lic"), it is important to keep in mind that succession in the underworld depends on the way an organization is structured. The Sinaloa Cartel is, first and foremost, a confederation of criminal organizations based on regional culture, and deep, shared blood ties that have been generated during decades of endogenous practice. Its top leadership is firm but horizontal in nature; it works as a sort of "board of directors."

The Sinaloa Cartel is also characterized by strategic alliances in the best sense of the word. Foreign criminal groups from Mexican-American gangs in the prison system in the United States or in the neighborhoods of Chicago to the traditional "transportista" organizations in Central America are partners. And the cartel does not get involved in the leadership of its partners. So what affects the cartel "headquarters" does not necessarily affect the "subsidiaries" because there is no fragmentation on the edges when there is turnover at the top.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Chapo

In comparison, other organizations like the Zetas -- a group that was forged by former military cadres -- have less that bind them to the leaders who must therefore be stronger and employ more discipline to keep the pieces together. In other words, they are more likely to fragment and divide because their organization is so dependent on having strong leadership at the 'headquarters.' When there is change or disputes at the top, this generates imbalance throughout the organization because there are no institutionalized mechanisms of succession, and the pieces are more prone to seek independence.

Such is the case for this "garrison" turned cartel. The rivalry between the leaders of the Zetas -- Miguel Angel Treviño, alias "Z40," and Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z3" -- fragmented them, and the once powerful paramilitary organization has become, at least in Mexico, a group severely limited in capabilities that survives more because of extortion, kidnapping and hired killings than because of its transportation business.

This same structural weakness has been transferred from the Zetas in Mexico to their subsidiaries in Guatemala and Honduras. This is in part because groups like the Zetas are less likely to outsource and feel the need to undertake their own recruiting and training of personnel, practically creating from scratch the organization with which they will work outside of Mexico. This means that what happens in Mexico affects these subsidiaries far more.

To be sure, in the case of the Sinaloa Cartel, the process runs the risk of a slow succession, and that can lead to violence, but mostly affects the home state of Sinaloa and other strongholds in Mexico more than partners abroad since organizations in Central America and in particular in Guatemala (the Mendoza clan and the remaining structure Juan Chamale, to name a few) are more independent.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Sinaloa Cartel

Now these partners have two options: 1) hold on to or move their merchandise more slowly to the border while they await their marching orders; 2) sell these goods to other Mexican organizations. When power vacuums happen, everyone will "hang on to their ticket" because they do not know who to give it to, but they also do not seek a fight.

The point is that the leadership succession in the Sinaloa Cartel is, above all, an economic and not a military question. It requires quick decisions to generate stability among partners and subsidiaries throughout the continent, but it does not require a complete overhaul of the organization.

What's more, we must consider the possibility that Guzman -- who was the public face of a multinational company -- voluntarily surrendered (we would not be the first to note this possibility) or was simply expendable.

Not a single bullet was fired during his capture, and there was no violence after his arrest (there have been some symbolic protests). In other words, it is possible that the process of succession had occurred some time ago. Remember, the Sinaloa Cartel has always been an incredibly good negotiator of power and placed its emphasis on the "business" side of the relationship.

In reality, the risk that comes with Guzman's arrest may become more apparent when he starts speaking to authorities, exposing the wide net of corruption and complicity that protected him and his organization both inside and outside of Mexico. More than succession within the cartel, this process could wreak havoc within the political and business classes that desperately need to protect themselves from his testimony.

This is why he will probably never be extradited to any country outside of Mexico. Indeed, given his status as chancellor of the regional drug trafficking industry, Guzman could be the most important and powerful political blackmailer in history. Even now, as he enters custody, you have to wonder who has the keys to that jail.

*Martínez-Amador is a university professor who teaches about blood rituals in secret societies, cults, sects, fraternities and the mafia. Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime.

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