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A Turf War in a Previously Dreamy Coastal City Points to Splits in Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel

La Paz, in Baja California Sur, had appeared immune to Mexico's drug war, but a schism within the Sinaloa cartel after the 2014 arrest of kingpin Chapo Guzmán sparked a major turf war that intensified after he escaped from jail in July.
Iamgen por Nathaniel Janowitz

The capital of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur is named La Paz, or Peace, and it's garnered a reputation over the years for its tranquility, whale watching, and sunset dining in restaurants along the coastal boardwalk. For a long time it seemed like La Paz was immune to the drug violence that has plagued the nearby states of Sinaloa and Sonora — across the Gulf of California — or further north in the border city of Tijuana.


Not any more.

"La Paz is no longer La Paz, it lost its name after these events," said Gerardo Zúñiga Pacheco, the La Paz correspondent for the Tijuana-based weekly magazine Zeta, renowned for it's coverage of the drug war.

Zuñiga was referring to a 14 month period during which there were at least 183 murders in La Paz, culminating with 23 dead in August 2015, and 29 more in September. The city of around 200,000 people was used to a maximum of about one or two murders a month.

The problem, it appeared, lay in who controlled the transit of illegal drugs through the city which had long been in the hands of the Sinaloa cartel but had become a matter of competition following the capture of the group's leader — Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán — in February 2014. It got even worse after he escaped in July this year.

Related: In Photos: Take a Tour of the Tunnel 'Chapo' Guzman Used to Escape in Mexico

The violence in La Paz faded in October, and the city has remained at peace in November, with one side apparently winning out, at least for now. But the bloodbath made it clear to many how little of the city's ability to live up to its name has to do with law enforcement, and how much to the balances of power within the underworld.

"They were fighting for Baja California Sur because it's a springboard. Sinaloa's just over the water, and they pass drug shipments here before they go north through Tijuana," said Zúñiga, who took to wearing a bulletproof vest during the war's worst months. "The information that exists right now, and that is circulating within both the military and federal forces, is that this war has been won by the people of Mayo Zambada."


Zúñiga added that Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada — reputedly Chapo's equal within the Sinaloa cartel despite his far more discrete profile — took control of La Paz after the capture of El Chapo. But then a younger ambitious Sinaloa leader named Dámaso López Serrano, known as El Mini Lic, saw a chance to make a bid for the territory.

López, reportedly a godson of El Chapo, was said to be gaining ground within the cartel while the top capo was behind bars. His father, Dámaso López Nuñez, otherwise known as El Licenciado, reputedly became one of Chapo's most trusted lieutenants thanks to a relationship forged when he was director of security at the jail from which the capo made his first spectacular break in 2001.

But if El Mini Lic thought he could just move into La Paz he was mistaken. One of his key operatives - known as la Pantera — was killed almost as soon as he arrived in the city in July 2014 and the war between El Mayo and El Mini Lic began.

"This violence really picked up after the arrest of Chapo back in February 2014, so you've started seeing a lot of attacks between these two factions, between the local operators, for Mayo Zambada and between those loyal to the Damasos," said Reggie Thompson, a Latin America security analyst for the consultancy company Stratfor. "There's definitely the likelihood that you'll see the reverberations of this schism all up and down the supply chain for the Sinaloa cartel."


Related: 'Only Two Cartels Are Left in Mexico,' Government Official Claims

According to Thompson, the Sinaloa cartel has always operated as a loose federation of organizations under specific leaders who share information, government and police support, and trafficking routes. But Chapo was said to be the primary organizer and link between the various organizations. After his arrest this put the question of who controlled La Paz suddenly in doubt.

It is not exactly clear how Chapo's escape in July 2015 affected the war in La Paz, though it immediately preceded its bloodiest period of the turf war.

"It's difficult to say if the escape of El Chapo had an effect on the violence in La Paz. Could be a coincidence, maybe not," said Javier Valdez Cárdenas, the author of several books on violence and drug culture in Sinaloa and a reporter from the local week Rio Doce. "In fact since his escape there's been a silence. He's kept a low profile and none of his operatives and associates are allowed to talk or comment about him."

Whether Chapo's return helped quell the ambitions of the Mini Lic or not, during the frenzied months of August and September a group of assassins widely believed to be associated with El Mayo and known as the Antrax appeared to get the upper hand over those linked to the Mini Lic known as Los Pepillos and Los 28.

The high-profile arrest in September of a female assassin nicknamed La China appeared to signal that the Mini Lic was in retreat. Leaks in Mexican media suggested that  La China —  the leader of a small cell within Los 28's — told the authorities that all the decisions in the La Paz conflict were taken in the state capital of Sinaloa, Culiacan. She was arrested, she reportedly said, after being called back to Culiacan to regroup.


With the murder rate in La Paz is now back to the levels prior to the bloodbath, sunburnt tourists in board shorts walk along the water holding expensive cameras carelessly, elderly men drinking beer sing along with roaming Mariachi bands, and locals appear to be getting on with their normal lives.

Except a sense of deep disquiet still hangs over La Paz. The months of violence not only left residents with horrific stories to tell of dismembered bodies dumped on the streets and shootings in broad daylight. It also left them painfully aware that while the lid may be back on for now, the pressure below could blow it off again at any moment.

"I moved to La Paz over twenty years ago from Mexico City because I got tired of seeing dead bodies everyday on the front of the newspapers," Miguel González, a man operating a tourist stand along the boardwalk, told VICE News. Behind a curtain of dangling seashells, his voice quieted as he continued. "It's the same here now. Everyday in the papers, dead body after dead body."

The feeling of fragility is underlined by the military patrols that roam the city constantly in trucks strapped with large automatic weapons.

Sitting in a restaurant, as the sun set over La Paz's oceanfront boardwalk, Max Rodríguez, a journalist with Colectivo Pericú who has been living and reporting in La Paz since 1973 leaned across the table with his cell phone.

"Remember when the lifeless body of a child refugee washed ashore in Turkey in September and his image went around the world in a photograph? The next day something worse happened here."


On the screen was a photo of a small child kneeling in the backseat of a car, leaning his chest on the seat, most likely in fear. The entire back of his head was missing, fragments of brain were littered across the blood-soaked cushion; his eyes were closed surrounded by exit wounds left by bullets.

"Why doesn't this kind of photo impact the world?" Rodríguez said. "This is the situation of drug running everywhere, this is what drugs do."

Even the local authorities have accepted that the current return of apparent peace to La Paz could be tenuous.

Governor of Baja California Sur, Carlos Mendoza Davis, told reporters in late October that he had requested "support" from the US State Department. He said he hoped this would include an analysis of what was really going on, as well as equipment and training.

"This is a medium and long term job in which we have to strengthen our institutions," he said. It is unclear whether anything has come of this invitation.

Meanwhile, Thompson, the security analyst, said it is unlikely that the Sinaloa cartel has reestablished any real unity, even if Chapo is now back in charge following his escape.

"The cartel was far more unified several years ago. I don't believe we're going back to that," he said. "La Paz has seen the brunt of all this activity, but there's just simply a lot of turf wars going on across territories that the Sinaloa cartel operates in."

Related: El Chapo's Alleged Escape Team is Jailed, but the Drug Lord Avoids Recapture

Follow Nethaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz