Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán went before a US judge on Friday, his second appearance in a US court since his sudden extradition hours before Donald Trump’s inauguration.
He was taken to the Brooklyn court from a high-security lockup in Manhattan with a heavy police escort, and when his American lawyers complained about the harsh conditions faced in jail — a complaint lodged by his Mexican attorneys as well — Judge Brian Cogan was unreceptive.
“They’re taking extra security measures,” Cogan said. “I think we all know the reasons for that.”
Guzmán will likely remain confined to a cell in New York for 23 hours a day in the weeks and months ahead, as his case winds through the court system. Events in Mexico, where he leaves behind one of the most powerful and expansive cartels ever assembled, will grind on without him as well.
Even as Guzmán spent the last year languishing in Mexican jails, his cartel maintained its preeminence in the country’s criminal underworld.
During Guzmán’s first stint in jail in the 1990s, he was able to maintain close contact with his compatriots, more or less running the cartel from behind bars.
In the years since, the Sinaloa cartel has developed a reputation for organizational resiliency, often functioning like a confederation of allied factions, rather than as a traditional top-down, hierarchical cartel.
“The Sinaloa cartel operates pretty much in terms of a horizontal structure,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider late last year. “They’re pretty much like a Walmart or a global corporation like McDonalds in that the authority moves through the entire organisation, the decision-making capability.”
“And ‘Chapo’ Guzmán, when he was apprehended … [it] had no impact whatsoever on the Sinaloa cartel. Plus, they have a strong bench,” said Vigil, author of “Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel.”
That doesn’t mean the Sinaloa cartel has been without challengers, however.
The ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel, or CJNG, formed in 2010 by a breakaway faction of the Sinaloa cartel in southwest Mexico, has only gained power and territory in recent years.
“During the course of the past three years, the New Generation cartel has been the most rapidly growing cartel in Mexico,” ranking right beside the Sinaloa cartel as the two most powerful cartels in Mexico, Vigil said.
“However, the Sinaloa cartel still remains powerful regardless of the incarceration of ‘Chapo’ Guzman in Juarez,” where the kingpin was held before his transfer to the US, Vigil told Business Insider late last year. “But now the Jalisco New Generation cartel is on the verge of becoming the most powerful cartel in Mexico.”
Throughout the CJNG’s short life, the cartel has punctuated its expansion with brutal acts of violence.
In late 2011, when the group, still reportedly aligned with Guzmán, forged east into the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, it dumped 35 seminude bodies, some with signs of torture, on a roadway in the state’s eponymous port city.
The dead were reportedly members of the Zetas cartel, and at the time, the CJNG went by the name MataZetas, or Zetas killers, as part of their campaign to force the Zetas cartel out of Veracruz.
In mid-2015, the CJNG made clear its ability and intention to challenge Mexican authorities, when members of the group set up roadblocks throughout Jalisco state and shot down an army Black Hawk helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing eight Mexican soldiers and a federal police officer.
In addition to its east-west expansion, the CJNG has also demonstrated its north-south ambitions, taking on the Sinaloa cartel in Quintana Roo, a tourist mecca in Mexico’s southeast, and in Tijuana, the major border crossing linking northwest Mexico to Southern California.
“They have not only extended their reach from the Pacific side of Mexico to the Caribbean side, but are now operating in at least 17 of the Mexican states, if not more,” Vigil told Business Insider in January.
“And they have taken over some of the primary routes, drug routes into the United States, and I’m talking the Tijuana-San Diego corridor, which is the most important one along the 2,000-mile border.”
“They’re clearly moving into Michoacan,” David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider.
“The question is how much control they’re establishing in Guerrero and Nayarit, and other places where the Templarios and Michoacanistas used to be,” Shirk added, referring to the Knights Templar and La Familia Michoacana, two cartels active in southwest Mexico in recent years.
Alongside territorial expansion has come a broader business portfolio for the CJNG.
“They now have the most diversified portfolio and … the most profit-generating portfolio of any cartel probably ever in Mexico,” Vigil told Business Insider, “in that they conduct extortion. They conduct kidnappings [and] theft of mineral resources, to include minerals and petroleum.”
In addition to that, Vigil said, the CJNG has expanded into human trafficking, working with coyotes, or people smugglers, to prey on migrants traversing Mexico from Central America, holding them for ransom or selling them into the sex trade.
For now, violent conflict between the Sinaloa cartel and the CJNG has remained localised, occurring mainly in parts of northwest and southeast Mexico, as well as in areas on the Pacific coast, where CJNG went so far as to kidnap at least one of Guzmán’s sons.
While the Sinaloa cartel — active in 17 Mexican states and up to 50 countries, from Asia to South America to Eastern Europe — maintains its primacy, that status is not assured going forward, as it deals with both the external challenge from the CJNG as well as potential internal conflicts — namely the apparent competition between Guzmán’s partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is about the same age as Guzmán, and members of the Guzmán family — brewing in Guzmán’s absence.
“I think it’s still too soon to tell” what the balance of power is in the cartel world, Shirk said. “Clearly Zambada’s not a young man, and how power is going to be managed within Sinaloa I think is very much a mystery.”
“I think the capture of Chapo Guzman tells us a lot about how little we know about who really ran the show and how it operated as an organisation,” he added.
In the near term, Vigil said, the status quo looks set to endure, as the Sinaloa cartel hasn’t “been able to expand and whereas the Jalisco New Generation cartel has already shown its propensity for violence, and they have become a truly intimidating force to government officials, to journalists, and through the power of intimidation they are gaining ground.”
“And I would say if nothing changes within the next six months,” he said, “they will be the most powerful drug cartel, without doubt.”
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