The Sinaloa Cartel’s ‘El Mayo,’ Mexico’s Last True Capo

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At the start of the fourth month of Mexico’s new government, two feared capos have emerged as the new kings of drug trafficking: the Sinaloa Cartel’s Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” and the leader of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho.”

After the fall of the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.” El Mayo established himself at the top of the cartel’s leadership. However, other versions claim El Mayo has always been the group’s true leader. The evidence so far suggests that he will hold this place for the foreseeable future, at least during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador while he seems untouchable and it’s necessary to reestablish order among the country’s criminal groups.

For his part, El Mencho has positioned himself as the head of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). He wields control in 10 states and he appears untouchable within the organization he founded in 2008, which was initially linked to the Sinaloa Cartel before the two groups parted ways.

*This article was originally published by Sin Embargo. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

Recently, various “narcomantas,” or banners displaying threatening messages, appeared in the coastal state of Sinaloa that were attributed to El Mayo. In one of them, the message was very clear, a warning to more violent cartels: “Either line up or I’ll line you up.”

The eloquent message indicates that El Mayo will be a very powerful man during the government of López Obrador. He is a necessary capo for the government due to the control he wields nationally and internationally over organized crime dynamics. He also has wide influence throughout Latin America, where the Sinaloa Cartel has imposed its reach.

El Mayo is the last powerful boss of the old guard. All the others have either died or are in prison. Until 1997, the master of drug trafficking was Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias the “Lord of the Skies,” the head of the once powerful Juárez Cartel that was founded by Pablo Acosta Villarreal, alias “El Zorro de Ojinaga.”

His subsequent bosses were Rafael Aguilar Guajardo — who was assassinated in Cancún in the eastern state of Quintana Roo in 1993. Carrillo Fuentes then assumed control. After his death, his brother, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Viceroy,” took command. El Viceroy was later arrested in the city of Torreón in northern Coahuila state.

The main Juárez Cartel members were El Mayo, the Carrillo Fuentes brothers and Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul” — arguably one of the best at negotiating with rival groups — who supposedly died four years ago from a heart attack after a car crash.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The Beltrán Leyva brothers were also part of the powerful Juárez Cartel — Arturo was the most violent and intrepid — along with Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, alias “Nacho.” After the supposed death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, it took four years for this team of capos and criminals to come together again to form the Sinaloa Cartel, founded by El Chapo.

It was in 2001, at the beginning of Vicente Fox’s presidency, when authorities conspired to release El Chapo from jail in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes. Under Fox, the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) was interested in having a single criminal group take control of organized crime and “aligning” the belligerent cartels, including the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas and the Familia Michoacana, among others.

The idea of creating a so-called “drug trafficking federation” then took shape. El Azul worked hard to create this federation, but was never able to achieve his goal. The main consequence was the Sinaloa Cartel becoming the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. Today it has links to some 50 countries worldwide.

The desire to create this criminal mega-structure has remained an old project, but it could very well crystallize under the current government. President Andres Manuel López Obrador has vowed not to pursue the heads of Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations, possibly because he needs them to impose order and establish new controls in Mexico’s criminal landscape. He also needs them because drug trafficking is a mainstay of the national economy.

There are currently two powerful bosses, but one stands out more than the other because of his intelligence and the fine management skills he has shown in operating his business apparently without unnecessary violence. One of them is CJNG leader El Mencho, but the one who stands out other is Sinaloa Cartel leader El Mayo, considered to be the last boss of the old guard.

El Mayo started in the drug trafficking business in the 1970s. He used to be a furniture store employee. He has the longest drug trafficking tenure of today’s traffickers, having been a mainstay in the business for more than 40 years. He is seemingly untouchable, unpunished and now more essential than ever for López Obrador given the urgency of bringing order to and pacifying Mexico.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

El Mayo and El Azul agreed on one idea: that drug trafficking is a business that does not need to cause much violence. It seems that this idea, lost for years due to brutal fighting between rivals, might be able to materialize during López Obrador’s tenure.

López Obrador’s administration is the only one to openly state that it will no go after top drug lords. The president has also proposed amnesty for some criminals. This scenario is more than favorable for organized crime groups operating in Mexico. It’s an agreement between the Mexican government and the mafia, a pax mafiosa. 

López Obrador needs to guarantee governability, but he isn’t willing to wear himself out while doing so. “The capos take charge of the capos,” the president seems to say as he’s imbued with attending to the most urgent social needs.

In a sense, El Mayo’s message in the “narcomanta” posted in Sinaloa and other states seems to show the Sinaloa Cartel chief asking other cartels to be square with him, which seems like a big change in the rules of organized crime in Mexico.

El Mayo is, without a doubt, the government’s capo. He’s already doing his job: aligning belligerent groups that otherwise risk being captured or killed. The message could not be more clear: “Either line up or I’ll line you up.” The message was addressed to all the cartels — 14 in total — that operate in Mexico and a good part of the American continent.

There is currently no other boss with as much criminal and political power as El Mayo. No one else could guarantee the federal government that they could establish order in the country. No other figure has the size and control to align Mexico’s rival criminal groups. El Mayo doesn’t play at being powerful. He exerts his power and there are no gaps in his position: others will have to adjust to the new rules,  one way or another.

Some capos have enjoyed power and influence throughout several administrations. With former President Carlos Salinas (1988-1994), the king was Juan García Ábrego. For former President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), it was Amado Carrillo Fuentes. During the administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón (2000-2006 and 2006-2012, respectively), El Chapo from the Sinaloa Cartel was the most powerful criminal leader.

Under Enrique Peña Nieto, the Sinaloa Cartel enjoyed some years of impunity, but El Chapo was ultimately captured, extradited to the United States and later convicted of a series of crimes that carry a mandatory minimum life sentence in jail. The strength of El Mencho’s CJNG has boomed. But with López Obrador, El Mayo is without a doubt the top dog.

No government in the world has the capacity to pacify such a large and decomposed country without alliances between organized crime groups. On one occasion, El Azul said that “social peace” did not depend on the government, but on the agreements reached by the cartels and their capos.

This is starting to make sense.

*This article was originally published by Sin Embargo. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

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