Saturday, March 15, 2014

Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman-The Rise of a Drug Lord


Feared drug lord Rafael Caro-Quintero, released from a Mexican prison in 2013 after serving only twenty-eight years of a 40 year sentence for drug trafficking and the 1985 murder of U.S. DEA Agent Enrique Camarena, as well as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera, head kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, were both born deep in the hills of Mexico’s “Golden Triangle”.

In the mid-1970s, when "Operation Condor" was launched, 10,000 Mexican soldiers were sent to a region dubbed the Golden Triangle where the mountainous areas of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua meet.  The operation began in 1975 under intense pressure from President Richard Nixon's Administration that started the U.S. “War on Drugs”.  It is rumored that American advisors and DEA agents directly participated on the ground and that American pilots took part in the spraying of chemical defoliants on illegal crops.

The commander of the operation was hated General Jose Hernandez-Toledo who had taken part seven years earlier in a violent massacre of college students in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square. To many people, Operation Condor was just an extension of other Latin American cold war counterinsurgency tactics that had successfully liquidated rural guerrilla movements like “El Partido de los Pobres” led by Genaro Vasquez and Lucio Cabañas in the Mexican state of Guerrero in the early 1970s.

The brutal repression tactics used by the Mexican Army in the Golden Triangle left a legacy of violence and hatred for authority and the Mexican federal government that continues to this very day.  Although widely touted as being successful in objectives of destroying vast quantities of drugs on the ground, the operation was seen as a overall failure in that the flow of drugs into the U.S. was not stopped.  Most of the traffickers became rich and were able to leave the region while the rural poor left behind suffered greatly.

It also solidified Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) in the area and throughout all of Mexico.  While the concentration of the crackdown was on the Golden Triangle area, Mexican DTOs were forced to move their operations to other regions and the DTOs carved Mexico up into "Plazas".

Mexican drug lords began appearing as soon as drugs in the U.S. were first outlawed in the early 1900s.  To the traffickers it was a matter of supply and demand and a good way to make a living. 

The life and death of Jesus Malverde has not been historically verified, but according to local legend in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, he was a “Robin Hood” type of bandit who was hanged by the authorities in 1909.  This was just prior to the Mexican Revolution of 1910.  Since Malverde's “death,” he has been considered a hero to Sinaloa's poor highland residents; many of whom earn a living through drug trafficking.  It is from many legends like Malverde and real life drug traffickers like Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman that current Mexican drug lords have tried to portray themselves not as villains but as heroes to the people.  Local musicians even played "Narco-Corridos", popular folk songs of homage to people like them.

The outlaw image caused Malverde to be adopted as the patron saint of the region's drug trafficking business and he was dubbed a “Narco-Santo.”  Malverde even has a shrine in Culiacan, Mexico, that attracts thousands of people each year.  The Catholic Church does not recognize him as a saint but many of the people do.  Narco-traffickers also often pray to Malverde for safe passage of their load (narcotics) to the U.S.  In addition, many drug traffickers pray to the image of La Santisima Muerte. This translates into English as “The Saint of Death”.  Statues, alters, and other paraphernalia relating to this image are increasingly found in Mexico and in the U.S. 

To understand this fairly new phenomenon read Tony Kail’s book, “Santa Muerte: Mexico's Mysterious Saint of Death”.

The greatly feared Sinaloan Cartel was run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and Hector “El Guero” Palma-Salazar who was arrested June 1995, in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, at the home of a police commander.  Over 30 federal police officers were also arrested for providing him protection.  Palma-Salazar was extradited, placed into federal custody, and put on trial in the U.S. for drug trafficking charges.  He was confined at the U.S. Supermax-ADX prison in Florence, CO, with a maximum release date of July 16, 2016.  Meanwhile, “El Chapo” was arrested in 1993, but escaped in 2001 from a Mexican prison in a laundry cart with inside help.  This was just before he was about to be extradited to the U.S.

Once freed, Chapo grew his drug trafficking organization into the best in the world! 

After 13 productive years of being on the run, Chapo was captured  in early 2014 by Special Forces of the Mexican Navy in the bustling seaside resort city of Mazatlan.  He was caught while asleep in the early morning hours of a modest high-rise condo with his wife, a young former beauty queen named Emma Coronel-Aispuro. 

So what does this mean for Mexican DTOs and drug trafficking into the United States?

The Sinaloa Cartel is characterized by many strategic alliances.  Legions of young people would rather die in Mexico fighting for Chapo than, as early 1900s  Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said, “living on their knees”.  Foreign criminal groups like Mexican-American street gangs  run drugs via Sinaloa's distribution hubs in Chicago and Los Angeles as well as other U.S cities. When one such large network was taken down in the “Windy City”, violence soared up as Latino and Black gangs fought over the decreased supply and increased drug demand.

Inside U.S. penal systems and out on the streets, prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia (EME) have  influence on neighborhoods such as Florencia 13 near South Central L.A., telling street gangs to become more organized, and bring less heat from the police over such little things as putting graffiti on neighborhood walls.  While law enforcement noticed a decrease in such vandalism, they noticed an increase in Sinaloan Cowboys, as well as homages to Jesus Malverde, and alters to La Santa Muerte. 

While the Cartel has been known to kill if need be, it has preferred to buy power brokers off, than "wack them" thus creating fewer enemies.  As far as their drug dealing rivals; however, they will use whatever resources at their deposal.  The Cartel also wisely does not get involved in the leadership of its business partners so what affects their "headquarters" does not necessarily affect "subsidiaries" and visa-versa because there is little top to bottom control.

In comparison, other organizations like Zetas, a group forged by former Mexican military renegades, have less that binds them together so their leaders must act stronger and employ more discipline to keep all of the pieces together.  They are more of a top to bottom group so when there is change or disputes at the top it creates a lot of chaos and confusion throughout the entire organization because there are no automatic methods of succession. The pieces are more prone to seek independence from each other.

This is not how the Sinaloa Cartel is set up, while there are leaders, they are more like businessmen at the top, the real strength of the organization is in its horizontal make-up working for a common cause: Making lots of money!

Even with his capture, Chapo still has a large and loyal army.  Sinaloan cells like "Los Antrax" did his bidding before his arrest and continue to do so.  His partner Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada is still on the loose even though he has given interviews to the press. His son Vicente Zambada-Niebla was captured in April, 2009.

Speaking on the advice of his father, Vicente claimed he was previously given immunity from U.S. officials. After being extradited to Chicago in February 2010, Zambada-Niebla argued that he was  "immune from arrest or prosecution" because he actively provided information to U.S. federal agents. He also alleged that failed ATF “Operation Fast and Furious” was part of an agreement to finance and arm the Cartel in exchange for information used to take down its rivals.  It was previously widely rumored in Mexico, and even among some American sources, that between the years 2000 and 2012, Mexican and U.S. governments had an arrangement with the Cartel that allowed the organization to smuggle billions of dollars of drugs while the Sinaloans provided information on rivals.

Both Mexican and U.S. government officials rejected that claim, and while those alarming rumors have yet to be verified, court documents showed a close parallel between the rise of the Sinaloa Cartel's dominance in Mexico and the DEA's frequent contact with a known top Sinaloa lawyer.

For now, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman appears set to remain in Mexico's highest-security prison for the foreseeable future as the government will likely put off his U.S. extradition for as long as possible in a move that could bolster President Enrique Pena-Nieto's nationalist credentials. It also shines a bright spotlight on the country's weak judicial system. Experts say Pena-Nieto's administration, and those of his predecessors, have proven unable to match bold arrests like Guzman's with complex long-term investigations and wide-spread prosecutions of deep-rooted crime syndicates. Criminal cases stall, Cartels continued to operate, while there is victory in one corner there are set-backs in another. In 2013, one of Guzman's closest allies, Rafael Caro-Quintero, was freed from prison where he was known to be running drugs from behind bars with prison body guards surrounding him.

But the capture of Chapo poses more problems than him just continuing business as usual.

A greater risk to the Mexican government and other power brokers will become more apparent if Chapo, playing his cards as master of Mexican politics, starts speaking to authorities about embarrassing events, exposing wide spread corruption that protected his organization both inside and outside of Mexico. More than problems with the Cartel, this could wreak havoc within the political and business classes that desperately need to protect themselves from his testimony.

The Mexican government says with increased security there is no way that Guzman can repeat the 2001 escape that let him roam western Mexico for 13 years as he moved literally hundreds of billions of dollars of cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin around the world. Most experts believe Guzman will not be able to operate out in the open as freely as he did before, but he will continue to work covertly to avoid detection with insulated sub-cells loyal to him but not directly controlled by him. 

While other Mexican DTOs may see his capture as a venerable time to try and take over some of Chapo’s territories, the flow of drugs will continue…

Read more about Mexican Drug Cartels in “Varrio Warfare: Violence in the Latino Community”

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