Why The Capture Of 'El Chapo' Guzman Won't Stop His Cartel

Organized crime expert Steven Dudley discusses the future of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
What differentiates Guzmán from his cohorts is the mystique and mythology that surrounds him, InSight Crime'
What differentiates Guzmán from his cohorts is the mystique and mythology that surrounds him, InSight Crime's Steven Dudley says. Losing the drug lord's brand name could impact the Sinaloa cartel.

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Steven Dudley, the co-founder of Insight Crime, about El Chapo and the Mexican drug war.

For over two decades, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera has presided over one of the largest drug cartels in Mexico, the Sinaloa cartel.

Mexican Marines arrested Guzmán last week, six months after he broke out of a maximum security prison for the second time. He is now facing possible extradition to the U.S.

The Sinaloa cartel emerged as one of the major traffickers of drugs like cocaine and heroin to the U.S. in the 1990s. Recent data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration suggests that the cartel remains the main player controlling the drug trade in most U.S. states.

Prior to his arrest, Guzmán played down his personal role in the flow of drugs into the U.S. in a controversial interview with Hollywood actor Sean Penn, published by Rolling Stone magazine on Saturday. "The day I don't exist, it's not going to decrease in any way at all," the drug lord said. "Drug trafficking does not depend on just one person." 

Despite his outsize reputation, experts say El Chapo is likely right on that front -- the Sinaloa cartel can continue without him.

The WorldPost spoke to Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, a group that tracks organized crime in Latin America, about how Guzmán's capture is likely to impact the Sinaloa cartel and Mexico's drug war.

Under Guzmán's leadership, the Sinaloa cartel grew into one of the largest drug operations in the world. How did he make it so powerful?

It’s important to note that the Sinaloa cartel is really a number of different organizations with a number of different people at the top. We often think of this very vertical structure and El Chapo making all the decisions, when in fact it’s run much more like a franchise, and there are different pieces of the organization that operate semi-independently throughout the distribution chain.

Having said that, El Chapo and his close cohorts were able to create this massive enterprise. Probably their biggest success is that they focused on what they did best -- transporting illegal narcotics and later, mass production and transport of illegal narcotics. This is what has set them apart from many of the other organizations that, in an effort to protect themselves and become wealthier, diversified their revenue streams, getting into things like kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, piracy and prostitution rings.

This often got them into trouble. Diversification causes organizations to fragment. Competing interests emerge, and the lower levels of the organization become less in need of the bosses. This has happened to many criminal organizations over the years, not just in Mexico. But the Sinaloa cartel remained focused on moving the illegal narcotics, and they have done it for three decades or more.

El Chapo does still have an incredible amount of power and leverage.

The horizontal structure of the Sinaloa cartel was also a critical part of how they’re able to function for decades in many different countries. The way the distribution chain works, you have to depend on numerous local contractors along the way.

The Sinaloa cartel made more of an effort to understand and align themselves with local affiliates, because they have understood for a long time that those from the area were often the best partners. So they will contract out the Hondurans in the Honduran phase of the chain, Guatemalans for the Guatemalan phase of the chain. This has been something that has differentiated the Sinaloa cartel from their cohorts, who have often tried to usurp or fight the locals, rather than try and incorporate them into their distribution chain.

Will Guzmán’s recapture affect the Sinaloa cartel’s operations very much?

It doesn’t seem as if it would, because this is an operation that is not necessarily dependent on any one figure. There are still a couple of [people from] Sinaloa cartel’s sort-of "board of directors" who are still operational.

Certainly, El Chapo was the most visible of the people at the top. The thing that differentiates El Chapo from even his own cohorts is the mystique and mythology that runs around him. That mythology works to his advantage in terms of making business contacts, ensuring that people get paid and being able to enter into agreements with local or national law enforcement officials. So El Chapo’s brand name does mean something -- and the loss of that, if he doesn’t escape again and he doesn’t remain operational from jail, could impact the Sinaloa cartel somewhat. But overall, it won’t impact them greatly.

A journalist walks through the tunnel Guzmán used last July to escape from prison. The drug lord's riva
A journalist walks through the tunnel Guzmán used last July to escape from prison. The drug lord's rivals may try to take advantage of his absence, according to InSight Crime's Steven Dudley.

There were numerous reports that Guzmán did still control some of the cartel's operations when he was imprisoned previously. Do you anticipate this being the case this time around as well?

I think it’s going to be much harder for him to control things from prison this time around. I think that the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was sufficiently embarrassed by his last escape that they will make sure this time it’s much harder for him to be operational and much harder for him to escape.

El Chapo does still have an incredible amount of power and leverage. Over a multi-decade career in criminal activities, what he has in his pocket is information, and information about officials. He knows so much about people’s dark secrets, the skeletons in their closet. And in a place like Mexico, he can use that to his advantage -- to secure certain privileges or access, or to make sure certain people don’t find out about an escape tunnel.

Information is power. You can see this playing out many ways. Maybe El Chapo will put most of his leverage toward avoiding extradition, for example.

What he has in his pocket is information .. He knows so much about people's dark secrets, the skeletons in their closet.

Does his arrest change the game for rival cartels?

There is a possibility that some of the rivals in specific areas where the Sinaloa cartel was strongest may try to take advantage of his absence. But the local franchises of the Sinaloa cartel are not dependent on El Chapo in a way that you might think. They have their own means of protecting themselves and their own political contacts.

If his capture was going to leave a vacuum that others would try to fill, we would have expected to see this happen last year when he was in jail. Our only real indicator is the levels of violent homicides in these areas, and we didn’t see the rise in violence that we expected when El Chapo was in jail last year.

And what about the Mexican authorities? Will they shift strategy?

The great advantage of them having El Chapo in jail is that now they can dedicate these highly specialized intelligence structures and special forces to other larger, arguably more dangerous groups.

The Sinaloa cartel is incredibly violent, but there are more violent organizations that are still operational and that desperately need the attention of authorities. For example, there’s an area in the northeast of the country that is under a constant blanket of violence and criminal organization activity, dominated by two big names, which is the Gulf cartel and the Zetas.

A Mexican federal police officer stands guard near the prison where Guzmán was readmitted on Jan. 9, 20
A Mexican federal police officer stands guard near the prison where Guzmán was readmitted on Jan. 9, 2016. 

They’re running into a situation that is very difficult to control, because all of these organizations, Sinaloa included, are fragmenting. Five to 10 years ago, there were between five and seven very large brand-name structures like the Sinaloa cartel. Now they’re facing between 80 and 100 much smaller organizations that are much more sustainable because they gather their revenues from local criminal activities, local theft and resale, contraband rings and local drug peddling.

Certainly, there’s great value to going after the leadership of the cartels. You have to illustrate that there’s no one who is above the law -- that’s incredibly important to any country that’s trying to build rule of law. But there’s a danger of becoming complacent once you eliminate these larger structures, when the real fight is still ahead.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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