CARTEL CHRONICLES is an ongoing series of dispatches from the front lines of the drug war in Latin America.
As Mexican drug lord Joaquin "el Chapo" Guzmán was condemned to life in prison in a New York courtroom last week, fresh conflict was brewing back in his home state between factions of the criminal organization he led, the Sinaloa Cartel.
Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, who allegedly co-founded the cartel, is believed to be working to oust his former partner's sons, Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, who are said to currently control some of the operation.
Sources working in the mountains of Sinaloa told VICE that, amid the chaos, gunmen aligned with "Los Chapitos"—the little Shorties, as Guzmán's sons are known—are now questioning their loyalties and defecting to work for Zambada.
"There is an exodus of gatilleros [gunmen] from the Chapitos side—they are either leaving Culiacan [Sinaloa's capital] or trying to change sides and go over to El Mayo's, because there is talk of an internal fight between the two," said one source, who asked not to be named for his own protection.
Following the extradition of Guzmán to the U.S. in early 2017, Los Chapitos reportedly took over part of his drug-trafficking organization, and were originally aligned with El Mayo—the last old school capo to remain at large in the Sinaloan mountains. He has never done time in a jail cell.
Up until now, El Mayo has had the back of El Chapo's older sons—though it's worth noting that Mayo's brother testified against Guzmán at trial.
El Mayo appeared to support the Chapo boys during an internal power struggle against Dámaso López Núñez, also known as "el Licenciado" (a term of respect in Mexican Spanish that refers to someone with a university degree), Guzmán's former right-hand man. For his part, López has denied trying to kill Los Chapitos and El Mayo in a shootout in Culiacan in February 2017 while they were on their way to a meeting, but is reported to have teamed up with the cartel's arch-enemy, Nemesio "El Mencho" Cervantes, head of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, to eliminate them.
López was captured by the Mexican authorities in the midst of the stand-off with Los Chapitos and eventually extradited last July to the United States, where he testified against Guzmán. His son, Dámaso López Serrano, also known as "Mini Lic," is believed by observers in Mexico to have ordered the killing of the prominent Sinaloan journalist Javier Valdez in May 2017. (López senior has denied that he or his son were involved and instead laid the blame at the feet of Los Chapitos.)
El Mayo has actually helped Guzmán's sons get out of tight fixes in the past. Jesus and Ivan traveled to the Mexican seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco in June 2016, despite it being a known stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel's biggest rival. They were promptly kidnapped, along with their companions, from a restaurant called La Leche by what local media suggested were likely envoys of "El Mencho." It was El Mayo who intervened on their behalf and eventually negotiated their release, observers said.
"El Mayo had to intervene because of his friendship with El Chapo, but he didn't like at all the fact that they behaved that way and there must have been a lot of tension and arguments around that," said Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst in Mexico City.
Los Chapitos have had other broncas—Mexican Spanish for problems or disagreements. They reportedly went to war with their father's brother, their uncle, Aureliano Guzmán Loera, alias "El Guano," over drug turf and the fact that Guano was trying to charge extortion in parts of Sinaloa. And when another rival cartel—the Beltran Leyva Organization, also known as the BLO—appeared to be responsible for 150 armed men looting the house of El Chapo's mother in the tiny village of La Tuna in Badiraguato, Sinaloa, in June 2016, Los Chapitos were certainly not happy.
"They have a lot of arguments and fights and open flanks and that's the last thing El Mayo wants," said Guerrero.
Both have long been on the radar of U.S. law enforcement. Jesús Alfredo, 36, is on the DEA's most wanted list, and both he and Iván Archivaldo, 25, already face charges in the U.S. Iván has also done time, spending three years in Mexico's maximum-security Puente Grande prison on drug-trafficking related charges (the first prison that his father escaped from during his time in Mexico—he escaped from maximum security prisons twice) before being released in 2008. The brothers have been reported to have a hand in armed wings in Sinaloa under names such as Las Ranas and Los Chimales.
Two younger Guzman sons, Joaquín Guzmán López and Ovidio Guzmán López, also face indictments on charges of drug-trafficking in the U.S. But it is their older brothers who are proving to be a headache for El Mayo.
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations at the DEA who spent nearly two decades working in Mexico, was scathing in his opinion of the two embattled Guzmán sons, calling them "dumber than rocks." Their reputation for being impetuous, excessively violent, and lacking in the surgical strategical abilities of their father, may have soured things between them and El Mayo.
“El Mayo must be thinking, 'I am not going to end up in prison because of mistakes made by these guys,'… and trying to figure out how to unhook himself from Chapo's sons and who is going to end up with what," said Guerrero.
Any weakness within the leadership of the Sinaloans can only strengthen the rival organization overseen by El Mencho, which has grown exponentially over the last decade to emerge as the greatest threat to the Sinaloa Cartel's territorial and criminal dominance. When he was still U.S Attorney General last year, Jeff Sessions put the cartel firmly in the cross hairs of law enforcement and unsealed 15 indictments against alleged members of the criminal syndicate.
Resentments between the Zambada and Guzmán clans have been fed by the trial of El Chapo in the United States, but also that of El Mayo's son Vicente, who testified against the legendary drug lord in order to bring down his own sentence for drug trafficking charges. It worked, and Zambada was given 15 years in prison in May by a judge in Chicago thanks to his "extraordinary and unprecedented" cooperation.
With credit for time served—and if he behaves himself—"Vicentillo," as he is also known, could be out of prison and back in Mexico in less than five years. No doubt El Mayo would rather have his own son, rather than those of a former and now effectively defunct partner, by his side.
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