Mexico appears to be turning up the heat on ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s struggling empire

In the months since former Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was turned over to US authorities, Mexico has seen spiraling violence in the territory controlled by his cartel, as rivals, underlings, and siblings compete to assume control — a battle that started in the months after Guzman’s January 2016 arrest.

In response to rippling violence, the Mexican government appears to have stepped up its efforts to capture or kill Sinaloa cartel lieutenants and members of other groups vying for control.

The most recent major apprehension came in early May, when Mexican authorities arrested Damaso Lopez Nuñez, 51, a longtime confidant of Guzman who, in recent months, is believed to have mounted a violent campaign to assume control of the Sinaloa organisation.

“(Lopez) is considered one of the main drug traffickers and generators of violence in Sinaloa and the south of the Baja California peninsula,” Omar Garcia, head of the Criminal Investigation Agency, told a news conference after the arrest on May 3.

Lopez was arrested in Anzures, an upscale area of Mexico City, while an associate, Victor Geovanny Gonzalez Sepulveda, a suspected financial operative for Lopez, was detained nearby.

In the days prior to his arrest, Lopez — a former security official who studied law and is known as “El Licenciado” or “El Lic,” a title commonly used for lawyers — was reportedly seen in hotels and restaurants around Polanco, one of the most exclusive areas in Mexico City.

Mexican officials said Lopez was seeking an “alliance with another criminal organisation,” purportedly the Jalisco New Generation cartel, a group that formed from a faction of the Sinaloa cartel and has quickly risen to the top of Mexico’s narco hierarchy.

“This arrest reduces the possibility of an alliance that the detainee was seeking with another organised crime group that operates in several states of the country,” Garcia said.

Several factions of the Sinaloa cartel — Lopez and his son, Damaso Lopez Serrano, aka “El Mini Lic,” on one side; Guzman’s sons and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada on another — as well as the Jalisco New Generation cartel and the Beltran Leyva Organisation (a one-time ally turned rival of the Sinaloa cartel) are now among those thought to be fighting for control of Sinaloa cartel territory, much of it along the country’s west coast.

The feud is believed to be related to a September 30 ambush in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, that left five Mexican soldiers dead and was reportedly an attempt by Guzman’s sons to free a captured cartel figure, which they denied at the time.

In the months since, a number of people tied to or members of each of those groups have been arrested or killed.

In mid-October, Cristan Espinoza Rueda, aka “El 300,” purportedly the top hit man for Guzman’s oldest son, Ivan, was caught in a pre-dawn raid in Culiacan with weapons only permitted for military use.

In December, Alfredo Beltran Guzman, a nephew of “El Chapo” Guzman thought to be the leader of the BLO, was arrested in Guadalajara.

In January, Mexican federal forces captured the alleged leader of the BLO in north-central Mexico, Francisco Javier Hernandez Garcia, aka “El 2000,” in Sinaloa state.

That same month, Baja California police arrested Juan Carlos Hernandez Silva, aka “El Chucky,” who was identified as a deputy in the Tijuana New Generation cartel, a hybrid organisation formed by the CJNG and remnants of the Arrellano Felix organisation to challenge the Sinaloa cartel for control of Tijuana.

In February, Mexican marines gunned down another BLO leader in Nayarit, mowing him and seven associates down with machine-gun fire from a helicopter. That same month, the sister of “El Chapo” Guzman’s first wife (and aunt of his son Ivan) was killed in Guadalajara when a group of attackers opened fire on her Mercedes Benz.

In March, Julio Oscar Ortiz Vega, aka “El Kevin,” who was reportedly freed in that September 30 ambush, was killed in a small city west of Culiacan.In early April, state police in Baja California caught Alberto “N,” aka “El Chacal,” who was tied to the Tijuana New Generation cartel.

In mid-April, Francisco Javier Zazueta Rosales — chief assassin for “El Chapo” Guzman and right-hand man of one of Guzman’s sons — was killed by the Mexican navy in Badiraguato, the Sinaloa state town where Guzman was born and his mother still lives. Zazueta, aka El Pancho Chimal, was believed to have organised the September 30 ambush.

This week, Mexican security forces in two neighbourhoods south of Mexico City arrested six people tied to Damaso Lopez Serrano. Officials told El Universal that the operations — which seized weapons like rifles and rocket launchers — were both launched in pursuit of “El Mini Lic” himself.

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A Mexican marine looks at the body of a gunman next to a vehicle after a gun fight in Culiacan, Mexico, February 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Rashide Frias)

Mexico has targeted cartel leaders throughout its 10-year-long drug war, but recent months have seen the government zero in on members of the Sinaloa cartel and its rivals specifically.

“They’re really intensifying their efforts on the Sinaloa cartel, because the Mexican government now sees the extradition of ‘Chapo’ Guzman as weakening the Sinaloa cartel,” Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider.

While the Sinaloa cartel is generally considered to be a horizontally organised operation run by groups with some degree of autonomy, Guzman’s absence as a referee for disputes, his sons’ inability to assume his role, and the declining health of Guzman’s partner, “El Mayo” Zambada, have prompted Mexican authorities to address looming instability.

“Mexico has refocused a lot of energy and efforts against the Sinaloa cartel because they feel that this a very vulnerable stage for for them, so they’re going to attack,” Vigil said.

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Mexico City appeared to be pursuing a “top-to-bottom dismantling” of cartel organisations, Vigil told Business Insider, breaking from the Kingpin Strategy that had security forces targeting the top-tier leadership, which has largely led to splintering of major cartels and in turn leading to more violence.

As with the Kingpin Strategy, increased arrests at all levels of criminal organisations may be met with greater turnover in cartel ranks, as operators rise to fill the vacancies left by those detained. Moreover, Mexican prisons have proven ill-equipped at isolating cartel members from their compatriots.

Guzman himself broke out of ostensibly high-security prisons in 2001 and 2015. A month before his killing, Sinaloa cartel member El Pancho Chimal broke out of jail with the son of “El Mayo” Zambada — both of them had obtained judicial authorization to remain in a lower-security facility.

Even inside jails, Mexican authorities seem to exercise little control. Mexican news site Milenio published video on Tuesday of a party hosted by a CJNG kingpin inside Puente Grande prison (the first jail “El Chapo” Guzman broke out of). “I’m the one who gives the orders here,” he is heard yelling. “Ask what you want, I will give it to you.”

The video prompted the state attorney general to say that the kingpin has no privileges or control within the facility. Damaso Lopez, however, doesn’t seem confident in Mexican prison authorities. According to El Universal, Lopez — recently transferred to the Chihuahua jail that until January held “El Chapo” Guzman — told officials he feared being assassinated in jail and would rather be extradited to the US.

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