The Sinaloa Cartel, often described as the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere, is an alliance of some of Mexico’s top capos. The coalition’s members operate in concert to protect themselves, relying on connections at the highest levels and corrupting portions of the federal police and military to maintain the upper hand against rivals.
The state of Sinaloa has long been a center for contraband in Mexico, as well as a home for marijuana and poppy cultivation. Nearly all of the trafficking organizations in Mexico have their origins in the region. They were, in essence, a small group of farming families that lived in rural parts of the state. In the 1960s and 1970s, they moved from the contraband trade into drugs, particularly marijuana. One of the first to traffic marijuana in bulk was Pedro Aviles, who later brought his friend’s son, Joaquin El Chapo Loera, alias “El Chapo,” into the business.
Aviles was killed in a shootout with police in 1978. In the latter part of the 1970s, the various families branched into moving cocaine for Colombian and Central American traffickers, and shifted their operations to Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. Their leaders included Rafael Caro Quintero, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo. Working closely with the Honduran Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, the men came into contact with Colombia’s Medellin Cartel. Matta Ballesteros lived part-time in Colombia, where he operated as the main intermediary between Mexican and Colombian traffickers, particularly the Medellin and Guadalajara Cartels. They established the patterns that we see repeated today: movement of bulk shipments of cocaine via airplane and boat to Central America and Mexico, then by land routes into the United States. The boldness of the Mexican traffickers became evident when they murdered undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena in 1985.
Sinaloa Cartel Factbox
The death of Camarena was the beginning of the end of the Guadalajara Cartel. U.S. pressure forced Mexican authorities to act, and the leaders of the cartel fled. The remaining factions established bases in various parts of Mexico. The Arellano Felix brothers set up camp in Tijuana. The Carrillo Fuentes family moved to Juarez. El Chapo and his partner, Hector Luis Palma Salazar, remained in the Sinaloa area.
The battles between these organizations began almost immediately. In November 1992, El Chapo sent 40 gunmen to raid aTijuana Cartelparty in Puerto Vallarta, killing nine people. The Tijuana Cartel responded by trying to assassinate El Chapo at the Guadalajara airport in 1993, killing a Mexican Cardinal instead. El Chapo fled to Guatemala where he was arrested two weeks later. Palma Salazar was arrested in 1995.
The operations remained under the auspices of El Chapo’s brother Arturo Loera, Ramon Laija Serrano, andHector, Alfredo and Arturo Beltran Leyva. El Chapo maintained some control from prison, passing messages through his lawyers. In 2001, he escaped prison, and assumed a central leadership role in the organization. Chapo was famously recaptured, then escaped from prison, then recaptured in Mexico once again in 2016, only adding to his criminal legend.
After the breakaway of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) in 2008, El Chapo became the most visible head of the organization, although he was joined at the top table by Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul.” In February 2014, El Chapo was arrested by Mexican authorities, leaving the organization predominantly in the hands of El Azul and El Mayo. El Azul reportedly died of a heart attack in June 2014, although there are rumors that he is still alive and well.
However, the Sinaloa Cartel is not a hierarchical structure. El Chapo, El Azul and El Mayo have all maintained their own separate but cooperating organizations, while the cartel’s operations in foreign countries, and even within Mexico, are often outsourced to local partners.
The cartel’s tentacles stretch from New York City to Buenos Aires and almost every major city in between. The cartel was founded in Mexico’s Sinaloa state and now operates in 17 Mexican states, and — by some estimates — in as many as 50 countries.
Allies and Enemies
The cartel’s central bond is blood: many of its members are related by blood or by marriage. However, the cartel also often acts more like a federation than a tightly knit organization. The core of the group, the BLO, split from the rest in 2008. The Sinaloa Cartel has since created new alliances with former enemies in the Gulf Cartel and the Familia Michoacana and appears to have negotiated a pact with what remains of the Tijuana Cartel.
The Sinaloa Cartel seems to have taken its cue from Colombia’s Cali Cartel by establishing strong connections to the political and economic elite in Mexico. It has successfully penetrated government and security forces wherever it operates. It often opts for the bribe over the bullet and alliances over fighting, but it is not above organizing its forces to overrun areas that it wants to control by force.
The cartel’s most powerful contacts are in the National Action Party (PAN), which, according to some sources, help account for its growth in the last decade. The PAN’s Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon have launched numerous offensives against trafficking organizations, and some major leaders have been captured, including Osiel Cardenas Guillen, head of the Gulf Cartel, and Benjamin Arellano Felix, head of the Tijuana Cartel. So strong is the perception that the PAN favors Sinaloa that Mexican justice officials issued a press release in 2010 denying it, while the Calderon government produced a video in 2011 with the same intention. But the perception persists, even after El Chapo’s arrest in 2014, his escape from prison in 2015, and his recapture six months later.
In recent years, the Sinaloa Cartel has become embroiled in a series of violent turf wars. In 2012, the cartel emerged victorious from a bloody battle with the Juarez Cartel over control of Ciudad Juarez. However, the war with rival cartel the Zetas, who in some regions have allied themselves with the remnants of the BLO, has spread across the country and raged through the states of Sinaloa, Durango, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Jalisco, even reaching into Guatemala. The upper hand in the conflict has ebbed and flowed throughout the regions but with the Zetas an increasingly fragmented force, the Sinaloa Cartel seems poised to cement its position as the dominant force in the Mexican underworld. Nevertheless, the cartel continues to face challenges from remnants of several other drug trafficking organizations.
The Sinaloa Cartel may also face internal threats. Now that El Chapo is once again in Mexican custody, it remains to be seen whether or not he will turn on his former allies and testify against them in hopes of negotiating a deal for himself.