By: Madison Scholar, Mexico Analyst
Analytical Question: What is the current and projected status of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico?
Sinaloa cartel kingpin Dámaso López Núñes has struck a deal with United States federal officials and might agree to testify against Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (pictured) in his upcoming trial. This important development adds to our assessment with high confidence that the Sinaloa Cartel is in decline because of the arrest of head kingpin El Chapo’, whose trial is about to begin.
Prior to joining the Sinaloa Cartel, Núñes was an attorney and prison guard (Mexico News Daily 2018). He became a close associate to El Chapo and engineered both of El Chapo’s jail escapes in 2001 and 2015 (Goudie 2018). He is thought to be one of El Chapo’s closest successors, and is reputed to know some of the Sinaloa Cartel’s greatest secrets (Goudie 2018). The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently cut a deal with him to plead guilty to conspiring to distribute cocaine as well as money laundering charges (ABC 7 2018). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), DEA, US Marshals Service, and both Mexican and Colombian law enforcement officials are currently investigating the case (Waitt 2018). Before his arrest, Núñes attempted to kill two of El Chapo’s sons, as well as Ismael ‘El Mayo’ ‘Zambada, who is the leader of one of the largest factions of the Sinaloa and a successor to El Chapo’. His rivalry with El Mayo and El Chapo’s sons started because of disagreement as to who is going to take El Chapo’s position following his arrest (Gagne 2017). This stirred up internal conflict and resulted in a spike in violence between different factions of the cartel.
Núñes was arrested in 2017 at a restaurant in Mexico City and was later expedited to the US for prosecution (Gagne 2017). Núñes was comfortable being seen in public, which suggests that he trusted corrupt officials to protect him from the law (Gagne 2017). The kingpin made his initial court appearance in Alexandria, Virginia on July 9, 2017 before US Magistrate Michael S. Nachmanoff (Waitt 2018). Núñes will face another trial in late November 2018, which may be rescheduled depending on if El Chapo’s trial is delayed again (Goudie 2018). There is a high potential for El Chapo’s trial to be delayed for a fifth time because his lawyers are unable to review all the material necessary for the trial before November 5, 2018, when the trial is scheduled to begin (Saul 2018).
Núñes allegedly had a falling out with El Chapo’s sons and is now believed to be allied against the Guzmán family, giving him a motive to testify against him in court (Gagne 2017). It is uncertain whether conflict between El Chapo’s sons and Núñes contributed to his arrest, but we asses with high confidence that it is was a contributing factor when Núñes made the decision to help authorities secure El Chapo’s imprisonment. Mexican Acting Attorney General Alberto Elias Beltran stated that Núñes might serve as a key witness to testify against El Chapo on November 5 (ABC 7 2018). The prosecution of El Chapo could be a major step towards the downfall of the Sinaloa Cartel. Without El Chapo, the cartel has been suffering from lack of organization and rising conflict over who will take leadership next. El Mayo, who had also stepped up to lead when El Chapo was arrested, is sick and will likely have to give up his role (Gagne 2017). The deal made between the federal authorities and Núñes also positively affected Mexico-US relations. The Núñes deal reflected cooperation between the Department of Justice (DOJ) units and Mexican law enforcement (Waitt 2018). The DOJ publicly thanked Mexican authorities for their assistance in the arrest and extradition, which is in turn likely to further the mission to end the Sinloa Cartel (Waitt, 2018).
We assess with high confidence that it is very likely that the Sinaloa Cartel is in decline because of the arrest of head kingpin El Chapo. Reports spanning from May 2017 to October 2018 show consistent evidence of details found in the case and offer analysis from both the Mexican and US perspectives. The question, “what is the current and projected status of the Sinaloa Cartel?” is affected because if El Chapo is kept in federal prison, the cartel will likely continue to struggle internally. The recent deal struck between the DOJ and Núñes strengthens our forecast that the Sinaloa is in decline.
ABC 7 News. “Mexico extradites Sinaloa cartel capo Damaso Lopez” ABC 7 News, 6 July 2018. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
Gagne, D. “Sinaloa Cartel Leader El Licenciado Arrested in Mexico City” Insight Crime, 2 May 2017. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
Goudie, C. and Markoff, B. “El Chapo successor pleads guilty; could spell trouble for drug lord” ACB 13 News, 1 Oct. 2018, accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
Mexico News Daily. “Prison director turned Sinaloa Cartel boss extradited to US” Mexico News Daily, 6 July 2018. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
Saul, E. “El Chapo’s lawyers request another trial delay” New York Post, 24 Oct. 2018. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
Waitt, T. “Senior Sinaloa Cartel Leader Who Turned on El Chapo Extradites to US” American Security Today, 9 July 2018. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.