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With ‘El Chapo’ gone, Mexicans brace for drug cartel turf war

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February 24, 2014


BADIRAGUATO, Mexico — Now that the Mexican government has nabbed the  country’s most-wanted drug lord, Fernando Antonio Robles is worried about the  future.

Robles is a 16-year-old bricklayer’s apprentice in the wild drug-producing  municipality where Joaquin  “El Chapo” Guzman grew up. In this hardscrabble patch of mountainous Sinaloa  state, more than 74% of the people live in poverty. And yet the tiny county seat  is full of fine new, freshly painted houses.

Robles knows that many of them were built by El Chapo’s men.


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“A lot of people are going to be unemployed,” Robles said while loitering  with a friend on the handsome town square, “because a lot of people worked for  him.”

The arrest of Guzman on Saturday in the resort city of Mazatlan, a few hours’  drive and a world away from Badiraguato, was greeted with delight by the Mexican  government. President Enrique Peña Nieto is hoping to show the world that he can  fight a better war on drugs by relying, as he said Monday, more on “the  application of technology and information analysis” than the sheer military  muscle deployed by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

But many Mexicans are less euphoric about the capture of Guzman. The drug  business has long been a main driver of Sinaloa’s economy. Here in the heart of  El Chapo’s worldwide empire, many see him as a sympathetic character whose  operation pumped billions of dollars into the state.

“He’s helped a lot of people,” said Jesus Gonzalez, the caretaker of a famous  chapel honoring Jesus Malverde, an unofficial “folk saint” for the poor — and  for drug dealers. According to legend, Malverde, who died in the early 20th  century, was, like Guzman, a bandit who spread his wealth around. Guzman “has  given out a lot of money,” said Gonzalez. “He’s built many things.”

The less controversial, but more widely held, opinion is that Guzman’s fall  could lead to bloody turf and succession battles while doing little to interrupt  the broad market forces that define the worldwide drug market and Mexico’s key  role in it.

“The triumph of the Peña government in detaining El Chapo shouldn’t be  underestimated,” Leo Zuckermann, a columnist for the Mexico City newspaper  Excelsior, wrote Monday. “But the question that should interest us more is  whether the arrest will help stop the violence in this country or not. I fear  that the answer isn’t promising. In fact, the opposite could happen — that is to  say, that there will be an increase in homicides, kidnappings and extortion in  the short run.”

A power struggle may ensue within Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, especially if it  is revealed that Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Guzman’s top partner, gave him up — as some Mexicans suspect.

Such an internal war could disrupt the earning power of the men who  commission those new houses in Badiraguato — and in the process hurt the  economic prospects of workers like Robles.

But the Sinaloa cartel may also prove to be an exception to the rule. The  largest of Mexico’s drug cartels, it has long been considered one of the most  sophisticated and well managed. Some close observers assume that Guzman and  other leaders had worked out a succession plan as smooth as Apple’s after the  death of Steve  Jobs. Guzman and Zambada worked together closely and are not likely to  unleash their men against each other, these sources say.

The next generation is primed to pick up where El Chapo left off. Guzman’s  “children are poised to take over for him,” said Ismael  Bojorquez, editor of Culiacan’s Riodoce newspaper who has studied the Sinaloa  cartel extensively. Zambada and the other main Sinaloa cartel leader, Juan Jose  Esparragoza, known as “El Azul,” are firmly in control of their factions and do  not need to seize Guzman’s portion of the operation, Bojorquez said.

Peña Nieto’s team expressed concern about the fragmentation of leaderless  cartels soon after the new president took office in December 2012. Interior  Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said that the Calderon administration’s  “kingpin strategy” — focusing on the capture or slaying of the nation’s top drug  lords — resulted in smaller groups that were “more violent and much more  dangerous,” often branching out into extortion, kidnapping and robbery  rackets.

Succession battles are also believed to have added to Mexico’s recent  violence. The killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva in Cuernavaca in December 2009,  for instance, unleashed a bloody power struggle among his lieutenants.

Despite the new government’s criticism of the strategy, however, few expected  Peña Nieto to abandon it, particularly since that would mean rebuffing American  security officials who often supply intelligence on the whereabouts of the  capos. The United States’ ability to track Guzman’s satellite phone use was a  key to his arrest.

The future of the cartel was the chief topic of debate Monday among residents  of Culiacan, a city of 600,000 people.

The cartel’s influence is all-pervasive here: A well-tended cross covered in  balloons is displayed prominently in front of a busy shopping mall,  commemorating the 2008 slaying of Guzman’s son Edgar Guzman Lopez.  The businesses in the mall are apparently too intimidated to argue with its  presence. In the leafy town square, conversations with a stranger are often left  to trail off when a speaker thinks a cartel spy might be nearby.

Taxi driver Jesus Luis Caldera, 36, predicted the cartel would weather the  loss of Guzman. “It’s going to be the same movie — only with different capos,”  said Caldera, who said he used to move cocaine for the cartel until he went to  prison for it.

Armando Sanchez, 28, the manager of an electronics company from the state of  Guanajuato, was playing curious tourist Sunday afternoon at the Malverde shrine.  He worried that Guzman’s death might give rival groups — particularly the  bloodthirsty Zetas gang — a chance to muscle their way onto Sinaloa cartel  territory.

“We’re going to see a lot of fighting for control,” he said.

Guzman may be locked away, but there is still anxiety that the vast machine  that has protected him over the years remains intact. The Culiacan newspaper  Noroeste reported Monday that it received threatening phone calls after it  contacted Mazatlan’s government offices to inquire about reports that municipal  police there had been protecting El Chapo.

Guzman’s 13 years of life on the run had its share of hardships: Mexican  officials said he avoided arrest last week at a house in Culiacan by escaping  through a series of underground drainage canals.

But he was also apparently intent on creating a semblance of a normal life.  On Monday, Osorio Chong said that Guzman was with his wife, a former beauty  queen named Emma Coronel, and the couple’s young twin girls, when he was  arrested. Osorio Chong said that the wife and children were not detained because  “they had absolutely nothing to do with respect to the actions of the  criminal.”

In the mountain town of Badiraguato — about 50 miles north of Culiacan along  a two-lane road controlled by heavily armed police checking up on who might want  to visit there — Joaquin Guzman is still the local boy made good. A store  selling pirated CDs was stocked with music singing his praises.

“They want to see him dead, but they can’t,” one tune declared. “The cartel  is big, it’s blowing up / I’m proud of Chapo Guzman.”

As word of Guzman’s arrest spread, many locals didn’t buy it at first,  preferring to believe it was a complicated ruse on the part of the Americans,  said Pedro Perez, 45, a worker at an ice cream store.

Others, like Culiacan resident Rodolfo Albertos, 58, see no conspiracy. When  it comes to the drug trade, he said, the forces that will continue to shape it  are as clear as day — whether “El Chapo” is around or not.

“This isn’t going to stop,” Albertos said. “Not so long as there are  consumers. As long as there are consumers, there’s going to be  business.”





About Doc

Spreading the word about the dangers of methamphetamine.

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