By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Reports of the Jan. 19 extradition of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, arguably the world’s most notorious drug kingpin, to the U.S. have been largely overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s inauguration and subsequent executive order controversies. However, Mexico’s drug war continues to boil south of the border, and recent internal discord within Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel could be foreshadowing the next big battle for territory and cross-border corridor control.
A letter reportedly handwritten by Guzmán’s two sons, Jesús Alfredo and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán, detailed a Feb. 4 ambush—and significant betrayal—by a longtime friend and cartel associate. According to the letter, Dámaso “El Licenciado” López Nuñez, a high-level leader of the Sinaloa cartel slated to become Guzmán’s successor, called a meeting with the brothers “on the issue of having evidence that Dámaso López ordered the kidnapping of the sons of ‘El Chapo.’” However, when Jesús and Iván arrived with Sinaloa cartel no. 2 Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada at the meeting site—reportedly in Badiraguato, El Chapo’s hometown—armed men opened fire on the brothers, killing some bodyguards instantly. The letter said the brothers “realized they were betrayed by el licenciado [lawyer] Dámaso López, trying to kill them so as to end” the Guzmán family at the root.
Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider this shootout did happen, citing conversations he had with Mexican security officials. Per Yahoo! News, the letter indicated Guzmán’s sons and Zambada fled, but they encountered other armed men who had orders from López to kill them. They reportedly traveled several kilometers before finding a small town where their wounds were treated, although it’s unclear if Zambada was wounded. José Refugio, one of Guzmán’s attorneys, confirmed the existence and El Chapo’s receipt of the letter, although he explained that receipt did not go through him.
The Sinaloa Cartel is Vulnerable
The fear of increased violence in Mexico is usually warranted after the capture or death of a major cartel figure. The Sinaloa cartel has been in existence for decades, and has had a relatively stable organizational structure—and line of succession—for quite some time. It is a federation of smaller drug-trafficking groups and commands a considerable amount of territory, which leaves the cartel vulnerable to outside challengers. After Guzmán’s most recent capture in early 2016, and certainly after his extradition to the U.S. in January, an attempt by a rival cartel to wrest control of territory would be expected.
However, this internal organizational challenge and betrayal by López, while far from being unheard of, is even more damaging. It sows distrust and destroys morale, leaving lower-tier members of the cartel to question who’s really in charge and what their future holds—both for their financial and physical security. Internal strife within a cartel leaves it even more vulnerable to outside attacks and takeovers, can significantly reduce trafficking income, and tends to draw more attention from law enforcement. But most concerning is the inevitable increase in violence associated with these leadership disputes, as evidenced by the shootout that occurred on Feb. 4.
It may be easy to think this is something best left to the cartel to sort out, or to let members kill each other off. Unfortunately, these contests frequently bleed over into the public sphere and often negatively affect public safety, as exemplified by the violence in Tamaulipas state that has resulted from splits in the Gulf cartel and subsequent external challenges by Los Zetas. It is in the best interest of Guzmán’s sons and Zambada to quash any internal challenges to their leadership or general Sinaloa unrest, or else the next Mexican cartel war could be on the horizon.