Fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was apprehended in Sinaloa state in northwestern Mexico during a military operation on Friday morning, six months after he escaped from a high-security prison in central Mexico.
While the future for Guzmán is uncertain, his Sinaloa cartel is likely to remain arguably the most powerful drug-trafficking organisation in the Western Hemisphere — and in the world.
As of 2013, the DEA believed that the cartel supplied “80% of the heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine — with a street value of $3 billion — that floods the Chicago region each year.”
The DEA’s report cautions that “Mexican transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) pose the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States; no other group is currently positioned to challenge them.”
And, the DEA notes, “The Sinaloa Cartel maintains the most significant presence in the United States.”
Guzmán’s Sinaloa organisation, a multibillion-dollar operation, is “the dominant [transnational criminal organisation] along the West Coast, through the Midwest, and into the Northeast.”
Sinaloa’s position of power may have something to do with how the US has pursued the drug war.
In 2014, after a yearlong investigation, Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that US officials and members of Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel had an arrangement between 2000 and 2012 in which cartel members provided information on rival organisations to the US and, in return, they were allowed to continue operating.
The purported cooperation, some details of which were revealed by a Sinaloa cartel figure on trial in the US, reached a peak in the late 2000s, a period when the Sinaloa cartel ascended to primacy among Mexican drug-trafficking organisations.
Even if the cartel benefitted from the (long-rumoured) arrangement — gaining influence in the US and Mexico at the expense of rivals — there’s no sign the US actively supported the Sinaloa cartel, and some have argued that contact with cartel members was in-line with antinarcotics tactics.
Sinaloa’s current geographical alignment is significant. Its positions in Southern California, the Chicago region, the Northeast, as well as Florida place it within large population centres, which, according to the DEA, gives it access to “potential high density drug markets that TCOs will look to exploit through the street-level drug distribution activities of urban organised crime groups/street gangs.”
Mexican TCO operations in the US rely on networks of extended families and friends, the DEA notes in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Those family members and people they vouch for run some aspects of the trafficking operation, while “actual members of Mexican TCOs are usually sent to important US hub cities to manage stash houses containing drug shipments and bulk cash drug proceeds,” the DEA’s threat assessment adds.
Third-party distributors, like gangs and other organised crimes groups, are vital to the operations of Mexican TCOs.
According to the DEA’s drug-threat assessment, “Mexican TCOs depend on street-level gangs, many of which already have a customer base, for drug distribution.”
Among the gangs that the Sinaloa cartel has worked with, according to the assessment, are the Latin Kings, the Bloods, the Crips, MS-13, and the Sureños.
Pairing with national-level and regional gangs allows Mexican cartels to reach more customers and, importantly, lets the cartel leadership remain in Mexico — out of the reach of US law enforcement (though not all Sinaloa cartel members in the US avoid detection).
The Sinaloa cartel and the US heroin problem
The Sinaloa organisation, like other Mexican cartels, has found a growing market for heroin in the US, and has shifted much of its production and trafficking accordingly.
According to the DEA, the US heroin market was historically divided between the area west of the Mississippi River, where Mexican-produced black-tar heroin was used, and the area east of the river, where South American-produced white-powder heroin was used.
Recent research from the DEA indicates that the cartels are now producing white-powder heroin from opium cultivated in Mexico, which could allow them to wrest control of the production process away from South Americans, target new customers, and keep more of the profits from heroin sales. It costs $5,000 to make a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin in Mexico, and it can sell for up to $80,000 a kilogram on the US market.
And it’s likely that the Sinaloa cartel is driving much of that production: In 2014, it is believed that the production of opium increased 50% in Mexico, and in Guerrero state, a hotbed for heroin production, farmers and officials told The New York Times that the trade is controlled by the Sinaloa cartel — whose opium and marijuana fields in the country reportedly cover 23,000 miles, an area larger than Costa Rica.
This shift in production indicates that Mexican cartels are well versed in American drug-consumption trends.
“The cartels have a pretty good handle on the appetite in the US,” Jack Riley, the deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told The New York Times.
“They understand the prescription drug issue here, and that is one of the major reasons why you are seeing the expansion of poppy production,” Riley added.
The increase in US heroin consumption, and the partnerships Guzmán in particular has made in order to supply it, have earned the fugitive Sinaloa kingpin a nefarious distinction.
“‘El Chapo’ Guzmán is the world’s #1 drug criminal,” a DEA spokesperson told Dolia Estevez at Forbes.
“El Chapo has facilitated a lot of American deaths through the violence of people that work for him.”
Here is the full DEA report Mexican cartel activity in the US:
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