By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Nearly three years after his most recent arrest in Mexico, the trial of the Sinaloa cartel’s notorious former boss is set to begin in a Brooklyn federal courthouse. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán served as the head of one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels for decades—a reign during which he was arrested, jailed, and busted out of prison more than once. After a hard-fought extradition to the U.S., he is now being tried on charges related to trafficking almost half a million pounds of cocaine.
Murder, Conspiracy, Money Laundering
Guzmán’s 17-count indictment also includes charges of murder, conspiracy, and money laundering that covers a span of over 25 years, according to NBC News. The indictment describes the Sinaloa cartel as “the largest drug trafficking organization in the world,” and stated that its thousands of members “manufactured and imported multi-ton quantities of heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana into the United States,” generating “billions of dollars in profit.
The Sinaloa Federation, as the cartel is formally known, has evolved considerably since Guzmán gained control shortly after the demise of the original “Godfather of drug trafficking,” Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, in the late 1980s. He survived several bloody wars with rival cartels—most notably the Juárez cartel under the control of his former allies, the Carrillo Fuentes family. That affair resulted in years of unprecedented bloodshed a stone’s throw across the border from El Paso, Texas, and led to Ciudad Juárez earning the nickname “Murder City.”
The Tijuana Corridor
El Chapo’s kingdom came to cover roughly half of Mexico, but his territory was hard-won and always under threat. While doing battle with the Juárez cartel, the Federation also fought with the Gulf cartel’s ruthless mercenaries, Los Zetas, in Nuevo Laredo. On the western front, El Chapo wanted to win control of the lucrative Tijuana corridor from the Arellano Félix Organization. In 2012, longtime ally the Beltrán Leyva Organization split off from the Federation, and by then Los Zetas had become their own formidable cartel. A few years later, Federation member the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) also broke off, taking all of the logistics lessons they learned from the Sinaloa cartel with them. Now the CJNG is the most dangerous cartel in all of Mexico.
Historically speaking, the elimination of a kingpin from power rarely ends well. Larger and better organized cartels have a succession plan in place that prevents a power vacuum and avoids a hostile takeover—either from within the ranks or by a rival organization. Although Guzmán has sons and some partners within the Federation, none have really been perceived as capable of handling the burden of running such a large, famed, and continuously vulnerable organization. The older guard has also been accustomed to fighting the equivalent of a conventional cartel war with long-known rivals. The CJNG doesn’t fight by the same rules, and eschews the old-school standards of avoiding “civilian” casualties.
Now as Guzmán’s trial begins, his absence has resulted in historic levels of drug-related violence across Mexico under yet more failed counterdrug and anti-cartel policies. Outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed to do something different than his predecessor Felipe Calderón, whose policy of having the military fight the cartels instead of corrupt police is largely blamed for the dramatic uptick in murders. Levels of violence have gotten even worse under Peña Nieto, and incoming President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador is left with few options after his inauguration on Dec. 1.
Security Tight At El Chapo’s Trial
Guzmán’s trial is expected to last up to four months, and jurors were pulled from an original panel of 1,000 people. According to the New York Times, his defense attorneys plan to paint Guzmán as a small player and attack the credibility of dozens of witnesses for the prosecution—a list that includes informants, guards, law enforcement agents, and former allies and rivals. Security surrounding the trial is unprecedented, and the 12 anonymous jurors are being driven by guards to and from the trial each day.
Over the next few months, thousands of documents containing a “Matterhorn of evidence” will be pored over and presented by the prosecution. Regardless of how the trial progresses, it will be a historic event with many shocking revelations sure to come.