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Meet the Up-and-Coming Narcos Who Could Be Worse Than El Chapo

In the bastion of the Sinaloa cartel fears are growing that the recapture of El Chapo, and the demise of the old-guard leaders, could give the more impulsive generation of narcojuniors free rein.

by Duncan Tucker
Feb 26 2016, 9:00pm

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There was a time, the story goes, when if a local collided with a drug trafficker's car on the streets of Culiacán — a bastion of the infamous Sinaloa cartel — the narco was likely to hop out to check that everything was ok.

"They'd say: 'If you have any problems call this doctor and I'll pay,'" says journalist Javier Valdez, who specializes in delving into the entrails of drug trafficking culture in Sinaloa. "Not anymore. Now they'll get out of the car with a pistol. Not only will they not pay you; they'll beat you, threaten you, or kill you."

Such tales of shifting mafia etiquette are part of the legend of the underworld in Sinaloa but, close observers like Valdez say, there is also truth to the idea that the newer generations rising up within the Sinaloa drug trafficking scene are more violent and impulsive. And none more so than the one emerging to take control right now.

'There's no reason to think that things will get better. They'll either stay the same or get worse.'

Many in Sinaloa today fear that the recapture in January of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the Sinaloa cartel's highest profile leader and one of the last of its so-called elder statesmen, could accelerate this transition to rule by the so-called narcojuniors.

Few in Culiacán dispute Chapo's status as a ruthless and bloodthirsty operator, but many credit his generation of Sinaloa traffickers with ensuring the cartel is still considered less wholeheartedly exploitative and sadistic than some other Mexican groups, such as the Knights Templar or the Zetas. While the point is often overstated, the Sinaloa cartel leadership has traditionally limited the expansion of side-rackets, such as extortion and kidnapping, at least on its home turf.

"The government lauds Chapo's arrest as if it were the end of drug trafficking or the end of the Sinaloa cartel," says Valdez, who writes for the Sinaloa investigative weekly Rio Doce and whose most recent book is titled Los Morros del Narco, or Narco Youth. "But there's no reason to think things will get better. They'll either stay the same, or get worse."

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

At first glance, Culiacán appears little different from any other mid-size Mexican city, yet it is dotted with reminders of its status as the bastion of what is still the nation's most powerful criminal organization. The hills on the edge of the city are lined with opulent mansions, while a few abandoned houses riddled with dozens of bullet holes stand as a reminder of what happens when all is not well within the cartel.

Many of those holes date from a terrible battle between Chapo and his former allies from the Beltrán Leyva organization that, at the time, residents of Culiacán described as a civil war. It led to a sharp spike in the level of violence across the state from 2008 to 2010, as well as spin off conflicts in other parts of the country where the two groups held sway. Chapo won that war and the Beltrán Leyva group fell apart.

Related: Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, Friend Turned Foe of El Chapo, Pleads Guilty to Drug Trafficking

At other times the cartel has prospered because Chapo and his peers have maintained strong relationships with the impoverished communities where they grew up, Valdez says. The writer also emphasized that such leaders have often shown themselves to be been smart enough to know when to negotiate with enemies, including rival cartels, politicians, state security forces, and even the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA. This may not be the case, he says, with their more impetuous offspring.

"This generation does not have this sense of belonging, they're more violent, more dangerous," Valdez warns. "Their ascendency could put the stability of the cartel at risk."

Adrián López, director of the local Noroeste newspaper, says that each generation of Sinaloan capos has proven more violent than the last in part because of transformations in the drug trade.

He points out that in the 1970s and early 1980s there were only one or two major Mexican cartels operating as couriers for Colombian suppliers. The subsequent "globalization of the business," he argues, has brought with it more conflict because of the emergence of over a dozen more complex organizations all fighting for control of the territory and the trade.

Related: Chapo's Return to Prison: The Hunt, the Biopic, and a Weakness for Tunnels

This more competitive environment meant that Chapo's generation was already more ruthless and violent than its predecessor, López says, dispensing with old "moral codes," such as not targeting a rival's family members.

This was evident in the war between Chapo and the Beltrán Leyva family that included killings of close relatives on both sides. But López warns that the increasing fragmentation of the cartel landscape, and the ascendancy of younger leaders, means the situation in Sinaloa is likely to further deteriorate.

While the number of killings in Sinaloa has declined almost every year since the conflict peaked in 2010, the violence has not subsided to pre-2008 levels. The Sinaloa Attorney General's Office reported that there were 6,638 murders in the state between the beginning of 2011, when current governor Mario López Valdez took office, and the end of January this year. This surpassed the 6,626 murders recorded under his predecessor, with 11 months of his term still remaining.

How the next few years plays out, locals say, may well depend on which leaders prove to have the biggest influence on the direction of the cartel now that Chapo is back behind bars with the Mexican government saying it wants to extradite him to the United States.

The most frequently cited figure is Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada — a more discrete character who is is believed to have never been arrested throughout a career that spans five decades.

'We're worried that Chapo Guzmán's sons will assume power. They have a reputation for being more irresponsible and more violent.'

López stresses that El Mayo is not only very powerful, he's also respected. Many residents of Culiacán, where he is traditionally particularly strong, consider him to be the "the true boss" of the cartel.

Yet El Mayo is 68 years old, either ten or six years older than Chapo's whose date of birth is disputed. Moreover, the question of his legacy has been complicated in recent years by the capture of three of his sons — Vicente, Serafín and Ismael — and a wave of assassinations and arrests targeting the Ántrax hit squad, which served as his children's bodyguards and enforcers.

The third veteran is Juan José "El Azul" Esparragoza, an even lower profile leader renowned as a shrewd negotiator and capable underworld peacemaker.

Reports that El Azul had died of a heart attack circulated in 2014. His family held memorial services in Culiacán but the Mexican authorities were unable to confirm the news. Several local reporters and academics told VICE News they suspect Azul faked his death in order to slip into retirement.

Related: Why Chapo's Capture Won't Stop the Flow of Weed, Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin

Then there is Rafael Caro Quintero.

The 63-year-old is a godfather-type figure who was imprisoned in 1989 for the murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in 1985. Caro Quintero was released from prison on a technicality in 2013 and is thought to be hiding out in the mountains of Sinaloa — back in the business.

One story that circulates widely in Culiacán is that Mayo and Caro Quintero worked together to keep a lid on youthful tempestuousness when Chapo was in prison between February 2014 and his spectacular escape from maximum-security jail through a tunnel last July.

There is also 49-year-old Dámaso López Nuñez, who is believed to have assumed a powerful role within the cartel after allegedly using his position as a prison official to aid Chapo's first jailbreak in 2001.

Related: Mexico Says It Wants to Extradite Chapo and Predicts a Long Legal Battle With His Lawyers

While such figures could oversee a degree of continuity in the way the cartel operates, López expresses concern that the younger candidates to succeed Chapo will break existing pacts and cause instability in the region.

"What worries us in Sinaloa is that we're going to see violent readjustments, we're worried that Chapo Guzmán's sons will assume power," he says. "They have a reputation for being more irresponsible and more violent."

José Luis Montenegro, the author of a book title Narcojuniors, says that Chapo has already handed power to his oldest son, Iván, who is 35. Two other sons, 29-year-old Alfredo and 25-year-old Ovidio, are also heavily involved in running the family business.

Iván once served three years in prison for money laundering before a judge overturned his conviction in 2008. A psychological profile compiled after his arrest in 2005 noted his capacity for "psychological violence toward persons that he does not consider on his socio-economic level."

Montenegro says that Iván and Alfredo — who are known for flaunting their sports cars, gold-plated firearms and exotic pets on social media accounts widely accepted to be genuine — "are absolutely determined to cling onto power." He cites another of Chapo's sons, whom he refused to name, as the source of his information, and adds that all the attention that Chapo's celebrity has drawn to the cartel in recent years has caused a rupture between his family and the more lower-key Mayo.

Watch the VICE News documentary: Cashing in on El Chapo

José Carlos Cisneros, an academic from Culiacán who has studied the drug trade, has also been made aware of a rift between Mayo and Chapo's sons in the context of the lack of clear definition of cartel leadership. He thinks this is likely to become more evident in coming months.

Much depends, he adds, on whether Chapo is extradited or manages to re-establish effective communication from within a Mexican jail. If Chapo is extradited, he predicts a spike in the level of violence, as different factions vie for control at home, while rival gangs step up their game in plazas in dispute outside of Sinaloa.

'They're impulsive kids who throw tantrums and lack the maturity to handle the power they have.'

On the streets of Culiacán, some already say that they are adapting their lives to take account of the style of the prepotent younger gangsters.

"You change your daily routine to avoid areas where you can get into trouble with these people, because they're very intolerant," says Francisco Cuamea, a reporter with Noroeste. "They pointed a gun at me one time just because I asked my neighbor to turn his music down."

Cuamea added that many fatal shootings stem from drunken arguments over girls.

"They're impulsive kids who throw tantrums and lack the maturity to handle the power they have," he says. "There's a saying here that goes: 'Thank God he didn't give scorpions wings'. Well these guys are scorpions with wings. And their wings are guns, money, and power."

Related: El Chapo Really Liked to Visit His Mom in the Mountains, Locals Say

A local restaurant owner, who asked not to be identified for fear for his safety, tells how his youngest son was killed in a car crash as he was caught up in a high-speed chase after the shooting of a local drug trafficker's son.

"I really like to go out but I don't do it because I'm scared," he says, noting that armed robberies and carjackings have also become increasingly commonplace in Culiacán in recent years. "I almost never go out at night but the kids from here see [violent crime] as kind of normal. People have grown accustomed to it."

Tomás Guevara, a professor of psychology at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, believes such incidents could eventually weaken the cartel's position by chipping away at their "true power" which he says depends on the strength of their relationship with the local population.

'The narco juniors are people who were born in mansions, who never wanted for anything.'

Narcojuniors, he says, are straining this relationship by such things as defying the cartel's ban on extortion and kidnapping within Sinaloa.

"They didn't grow up with the people, they didn't come from the poorest areas," he says. "The narcojuniors are people who were born in mansions, who never wanted for anything. They have a completely different perspective of life. That's why they're more bloodthirsty and less scrupulous."

He adds that this problem is compounded by the cartel increasingly targeting younger recruits to fill its ranks by offering them the promise of wealth, women, and power, in a context of few legitimate employment opportunities. He argues that it is further reinforced by narcocorridos — popular ballads that glorify the narco lifestyle — and general narco-culture that has become so pervasive in recent years that it is now common for young schoolchildren to tell their teachers they want to be cartel hi tmen when they grow up.

"They think hit men are guys who get whatever they want, that they can seduce the girl they want and buy whatever car they want," Guevara said. "As long as this image of hit men prevails young people will keep being prisoners of this culture."

Related: El Chapo's Beauty Queen Wife Says She Fears for His Life

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker