What's Going to Happen to the Sinaloa Cartel Now That 'El Chapo' Is Free?

We asked Malcolm Beith, author of a biography called 'The Last Narco', about how Mexico's biggest organized crime ring works, and the odd of its ruthless kingpin quietly retiring now that he's free again.

by Allie Conti
Jul 20 2015, 7:00pm

El Chapo after his most recent arrest in 2014. Photo via Flickr user Day Donaldson

On Friday, Mexican Attorney General Arely Gómez González announced that seven prison workers had been arrested in connection with the escape of El Chapo—the world's most notorious living drug lord and leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

The July 11 jailbreak is an unbelievable coda to an already nuts tale. El Chapo (born Joaquin Guzman Loera) grew up poor and illiterate but managed to become one of the shrewdest and most feared men in the world by building a smuggling empire based around a series of tunnels underneath the US/Mexico border. He's broken out of jail once before, in 2001, but his second escape act involved a Breaking Bad–esque engineering feat: a mile-long escape route burrowed underground and complete with ventilation and electricity.

What might be even crazier than El Chapo's life story, though, is that Mexico may not extradite him to America—as the US requested weeks before his escape—if he's brought back into custody a third time. "National sovereignty and national pride are so important... that I doubt the government will do it," Senator Juan Carlos Romero Hicks said of the situation. (According to BuzzFeed News, "Mexico's National Security Commission president said Guzman would be, 'transferred immediately to the United States when he is re-apprehended.'")

With pride and politics coloring the latest manhunt for El Chapo, it's at least worth wondering what he might might be getting up to now that he's a free man—and what all this means for the Sinaloa Cartel. I asked Malcolm Beith, author of a biography called The Last Narco, about how Mexico's biggest organized crime ring works, and the odds of its ruthless kingpin quietly retiring. (Hint: They're pretty remote.)

VICE: To begin with, just how big is Mexico's biggest cartel?
Malcom Beith: The way I worked it out in my book, The Last Narco, was I used Mexican military intelligence estimates to find out the number of people working in the drug trade. For that, they have 500,000. At the time—that was 2008-2009—there were about, roughly, four or five cartels. The Sinaloa Cartel was easily the most powerful, the one with the biggest presence.

So I went with the assumption that basically, maybe 150,000 people worked for the Sinaloa Cartel. The problem is when you look at real arrests—and you can do this, you can look at the National Drug Intelligence Center in the US, which compiles all the information on arrests and detentions and stuff—you find that a lot of people arrested are like, "Sinaloa what?" They don't even know the cartel they're working for. They'll be working for intermediary bosses, right? It's a fluid industry that works mainly on profit. There are academics who hate the word "cartel" because cartels are really organized, and [they] control prices. But they're fluid organizations, so let's say maybe 150,000 people. Did Chapo, when he was in control, did he know them, did he phone them all? No. They ran independently in what the authorities now call "cells."

They've adopted that word because they like it, because it sounds like terrorists. It's more like gangs.

How is Chapo's inner circle organized, then?
The top tier, traditionally, in the Sinaloa Cartel, has been him and a couple of other guys. Ismael Zambada and Juan José Esparragoza Moreno—he's dead now (Note: Moreno's death is still disputed)—the previous guy is thought to maybe have betrayed Chapo because his son was arrested in 2009 and extradited to the United States where he cut a plea bargain, and it was after that information that Chapo was caught. So there are a lot of people who believe that.

There were top few guys, and then lots of what they call lieutenants: high-ranking operatives who then delegate to what are called placa chiefs. The placa is the trafficking card—so for instance, each major city will have a placa, the placa is the route that the drugs take through that city. Each border town is gonna have a placa chief. So they have those at those levels, and then below that they have the foot soldier.

And then on another level you have the hit men, the sicarios, who are the killers. The one aspect that is often disregarded—people don't think about a lot—is the lawyers. The lawyers play a huge role. Just like the Mafia in the old days, the lawyers play a huge role in helping launder money, helping buy properties, helping negotiate deals—there are definitely examples, cases of Chapo's lawyers bribing officials. They do it through the lawyers so that someone like Chapo, if he's seen with an official—never gonna happen, right? But if he sends a lawyer to do it, a lawyer can plead whatever privilege that lawyers can plead. It's changing a little—a few years ago they were starting to go after the lawyers a little bit.

What would El Chapo's involvement have been in making day-to-day decisions? Are those now delegated to other people?
I think what he probably did mostly was organize big shipments, big deals, and negotiate with other cartels. There's always that sort of inter-mafia arrangement going on between the various organizations, whether it be for peace or for war, and those are the sort of decisions he would make.

How did the cartel reorganize the first time he was captured?
When Chapo went to jail, I think there was a bit of calm at that point—from '93 to '98, I think—it was a bit quieter. At the same time, that was around the time that Pablo Escobar was falling in Colombia. So maybe that has something to do with it. The tension basically went down to Colombia. Because a lot of this, remember, when they fight against each other—when business is good—they don't fight very much. It's kind of like normal.

So if law enforcement pressure was shifting towards Escobar, the Cali Cartel in Colombia, Mexico will just plod along as usual. Plus I think the economy was doing pretty well at that time. Oh, and there was NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement} too, which, helped. Unfortunately, NAFTA did actually help the drug trade in some ways because it just allowed so many more trucks to come through unchecked. So you can factor that in.

And then after El Chapo got out the first time, what happened? Did things explode into violence?
In about 2003, he launched a war against both the Tijuana Cartel and the Juarez Cartel. Maybe there was a bit of revenge going on there? It was the Tijuana Cartel that basically got away with the shootout that [El Chapo] got arrested for, if that makes sense. So it could've been a bit of revenge—they'd always had a lot of problems.

He went after the Juarez Cartel as well, which had been weakened since the death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes in 1997. [El Chapo] also went after the Gulf Cartel in the East, and I think that's where he sort of overstretched himself. He thought they were weak, but the East is very tough to break into.

When he was in jail the first time, I believe one of his brothers was put in charge and Ismael Zambada and the old guard continued to keep it going, and he just stepped back to his old role. I'm sure there were some tussles for power, like in any organization, I guess, but yeah, I think he just sort of quietly went back into the same pattern.

El Chapo obviously doesn't need money at this point in his life, but is stepping down something you think he would be able to do psychologically?
It's impossible to speculate, but yeah, he's never shown a particular desire to just settle down and retire. With him, I don't even know if he knows of other options anymore. He is a killer, so there's a bit of a difference, but I think with people like that, it's expected of him [to stay in the game].

Can you explain narcocorridos, the Mexican folk ballads that glorify traffickers who are, often times, terrible people?
If you go to Sinaloa, you'll very quickly realize why the government is not necessarily the respected force, OK? Shortly before I was there in 2008, a group of kids had been gunned down by soldiers, by accident. So after that, you can see why people are gonna be like, Well, to hell with the government. Chapo's our guy, you know, he's the one who looks out for us.

It sort of makes sense, but also what you are seeing—I definitely got a sense that in the last several years, there's been less of a glamorization, that sort of Robin Hood myth has been kind of deconstructed. They see him for what he is, not for what he tries to pretend he is. I think the media has done a good job in that; Mexican journalists have done a good job. And the authorities. [But] the police are not always perfect in Mexico. Neither is the military.

What kinds of themes do the narcocorridos about Chapo focus on?
They're a big part of it, and a lot of people like them. They're often funny, they're often satirical in many ways. You know, laughing at the general: I met one of the generals who chased Chapo for many years, and he played me a song that the people had written about him, "The Little General with the Long Rifle," and he found it funny. Part of it is a cat-and-mouse game—the drug war is a never-ending thing and the military knows that they're kind of outnumbered, or not outnumbered but outwitted, half the time. And they're OK with that, in some ways. But then there's some ballads that are more gory: Chapo will take over, will kill everyone in the government, things like that. They're less common. Usually, they're sort of [like], Chapo, our man from the mountains, he loves us, he represents us, he's one of us, man of the people, enemy of the state, you know, that kind of thing.

Why are people's conceptions of the man changing?
I think part of it is there's more awareness now. Instead of just rumors and all that, there's good reporting going on, good Mexican journalists doing good work to prove the killings and things like that, which I think is very important in those sorts of parts of the world. Otherwise, the myths will just continue. You know, Mexico is a place that had a lot of government-run media for many years, and that's just no good. That doesn't help people. It provides misinformation, it clouds their judgment if it's all propaganda. There's been good law enforcement too, I think, that has proved what's going on much better.

So basically people have realized he's not exactly Robin Hood—he's a psychopath, or at least a brutal career criminal.
I think it's impossible to look at him in any other way now. When he was arrested last time, I think he admitted that he had killed two or three thousand people. And you're like, "Come on, man. You're not a hero."

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