Conviction of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman signals uncertain future for Sinaloa cartel

El ChapoBy: Ryan Lawrence, Analyst, Latin America Section
Analytical Question: Which is the most powerful Mexican drug cartel?

Following his third and most recent arrest by Mexican authorities and his subsequent extradition to the United States, guilty verdicts were recently announced in the trial of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. While this individual conviction is significant for US and Mexican authorities, it is unclear whether the removal of Guzmán from the leadership of the Sinaloa cartel will significantly impact the group’s operational capacity or stability in the near term.

After more than a decade on the run, Guzmán, the most prominent figure in the Sinaloa cartel, was captured for a second time in February of 2014 and placed in a Mexican maximum-security prison. However, his incarceration did not last long: in July of 2015, he escaped for a second time, utilizing a mile-long tunnel that led from the floor of his cell’s shower to a nearby construction site (Beittel 2018:14). Guzmán was rearrested for a third time on January 8, 2016 following a shootout with Mexican marines and was eventually extradited to the US on January 19, 2017, to stand trial. Guzmán’s two initial escapes from Mexican prisons likely contributed to the Mexican government’s decision to extradite him to the US (Beittel 2018:14).

During the trial, Guzmán’s lawyers attempted unsuccessfully to argue that he was not the head of the Sinaloa organization and was only following orders from the true leader, Guzmán’s longtime associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Guzmán’s trial was held in Brooklyn, New York, and lasted for 11 weeks, with a final verdict announced on Tuesday, February 12, 2019. Guzmán was convicted on several counts including distribution of cocaine and heroin, illegal firearms possession and money laundering. The testimonies of Guzmán’s former associates revealed several highly sophisticated smuggling and financial operations of the Sinaloa cartel, including the practices of smuggling cocaine and heroin in fake jalapeno cans, behind hidden walls on train cars and inside concealed vehicle compartments that pass through official US entry points (Drug Enforcement Administration 2019). Also at the forefront of the trial was the rampant corruption plaguing all levels of Mexico’s government; this included an alleged $100 million bribe paid to then-President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012 (Anon. 2019).

While Guzmán’s conviction may indicate a decline in the status of the Sinaloa cartel, it is worth noting that the group still retains control of substantial territory and drug trafficking routes in Mexico, in addition to maintaining the most expansive influence of any cartel in the US as well as internationally (Drug Enforcement Administration 2018:97; Knierim 2018:6). The Sinaloa cartel is also renowned for its horizontal and decentralized leadership structure, which allows it to remain adaptable and competitive in an ever-changing cartel landscape (Beittel 2018:14). Furthermore, it is widely believed that Zambada, who led the Sinaloa cartel during Guzmán’s previous prison sentences, continues to serve as its leader (Beittel 2018:14). However, other recent developments indicate further complications for the Sinaloa cartel in light of increased organizational balkanization caused by the competition for leadership. There is also a significant challenge to Sinaloa posed by the rising and territorially aggressive Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) (Beittel 2018:14; Knierim 2018:6).

Given this development, it can be stated with a very high degree of confidence that clashes for territorial control among Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels, primarily the Sinaloa cartel and CJNG, will continue, further fueling the violence that currently grips the country. Additionally, it can be stated with a moderate degree of confidence that Guzmán’s conviction and incarceration will have a negligible impact on the Sinaloa Cartel’s operational apparatus. Finally, it can be stated with a moderate degree of confidence that the Sinaloa cartel will remain Mexico’s dominant drug cartel in the near term. This is due to the significant intelligence gaps involved in predicting the current and future status of the Sinaloa cartel’s leadership structure, internal cohesion and the lack of real-time, reliable information regarding the status of drug cartel territorial control and drug trafficking routes.

Bibliography of References Cited

Anonymous (2019) “El Chapo ‘Paid $100m Bribe to Former Mexican President Peña Nieto’”, BBC, 15 January, accessed on 5 March 2019.
Beittel, J.S. (2018) Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations, Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC, United States.
Knierim, P.E. (2018) Narcos: Transnational Cartels and Border Security, United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Springfield, VA, United States.
US Drug Enforcement Administration (2018) “National Drug Threat Assessment”. United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Springfield, VA, United States.
US Drug Enforcement Administration (2019) “Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Sinaloa Cartel Leader, Convicted of Running a Continuing Criminal Enterprise and Other Drug Related Charges”, United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Springfield, VA, United States, accessed on 5 March 2019.