FEB. 25, 2014
To have a crack at an international kingpin, undercover officers from Boston and New Hampshire went from the mountains of northern Mexico through the Caribbean to Spain, where they discovered operatives of the powerful Sinaloa cartel setting up new routes and new markets.
When it finally ended last year, Operation Dark Water, as the investigation was known, was heralded as a milestone in the fight against the global drug trade. Police officers seized 750 pounds of cocaine and caught four cartel members, including a first cousin to its infamous kingpin, Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán Loera.
But for the Sinaloa cartel, a criminal multinational corporation handling billions of dollars, the arrests proved only a minor setback, authorities acknowledged. The cartel has established channels of cooperation with so many European criminal groups, including Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and street gangs in Budapest, that business there continues to boom.
On Saturday, Mexican and American authorities struck even deeper, capturing Mr. Guzmán in a predawn raid on a seaside condominium in the Mexican city of Mazatlán. Governments around the world are hailing the capture as a landmark in the fight against organized crime. Yet many authorities agree that the arrest will probably not bring an end to the cartel’s activities, much less make a lasting dent in the availability of illegal drugs.
Operation Dark Water and other investigations against the Sinaloa cartel shed light on why. Simply put, said numerous law enforcement officials and scholars, whether Mr. Guzmán intended it or not, the cartel has transcended the man. It has learned better than any of its competitors how to produce and move drugs, how to establish new markets for them — and how to outsource business to partners worldwide.
“Sinaloa has managed to expand in such a way that the business can run itself,” said Samuel Logan, an expert on transnational crime at Southern Pulse, an investment and risk assessment firm. “The entire Mexican state could fall, and the drug trade will continue, as long as there is a demand.”
Of course, Mr. Guzmán’s arrest could weaken the cartel on many fronts, leaving it open to challenges from rivals, division from within or additional prosecution if he cooperates.
But the cartel’s activities, like those of many international businesses, are diversified. It quickly learned to shift the focus of its production between cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana, depending on price and demand, the authorities say. Once it achieved vertical integration, the cartel franchised its business to subcontractors across the globe: Italian mafias, Central American gangs, Canadian Hells Angels, Chinese traffickers and corrupt African governments. It then protected its profits and assets by lavishing its allies with patronage and bribes, and by showing no mercy to traitors and rivals.
“What Chapo was able to do was expand by sending representatives to a lot of different areas, settle in, learn the area, identify individuals and government officials he could bribe, if necessary, and build a solid base so that he could funnel drugs into the area and get cash out,” said Mike Vigil, a former top official with the Drug Enforcement Administration who worked for several years in Mexico.
Those kinds of profitable associations do not simply dry up when one man is taken out of the picture — especially when that man has been dodging the authorities and living in a remote hideaway that often kept him from close involvement with the day-to-day business, analysts say.
Still, Mr. Guzmán’s arrest poses clear challenges for the cartel. If Mr. Guzmán gives information to prosecutors, his organization could suddenly become vulnerable. Even if he does not — he did not during a previous time in prison, Mr. Vigil said — the cartel may have to fend off a scramble by partners and rivals alike for the assets he controlled directly.
One senior D.E.A. official said that Mr. Guzmán was very plugged into the expansion of new routes, the establishment of partnerships and the flows of money coming back to Mexico. Though Mr. Guzmán spent most of his time hunkered down in the mountains where he was raised, he owned jets and traveled extensively to oversee new ventures and meet new partners, the official said.
“He kept his fingers on the pulse of where his money was,” said the senior D.E.A. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “He kept close track of what he owned. And as for who was sticking their fingers into the pot of money as it was coming back to him? Chapo was all over that.”
The official added, “With Chapo gone, the assets that were under his direct control might be lost, too. But the drug business is liquid. The cartel will be able to make up any losses in a short period of time.”
The cartel’s tougher challenges, others contend, may be hierarchical. Most expect that the cartel’s second most powerful leader, Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada, will seek to take the reins of the sprawling operation by fending off internal power grabs by the dozen or so senior lieutenants, particularly those who feel a stronger sense of loyalty to Mr. Guzmán than to Mr. Zambada.
If Mr. Zambada holds the organization together, analysts say, the era of large cartels will be extended for a little while longer. It is more likely, they argue, that the aging Mr. Zambada will eventually retire or fail, and that the cartel will break into smaller groups that may be even more violent and competitive than their hegemonic predecessor.
“A lot of these guys suffer fragile male ego syndrome,” the senior D.E.A. official said. “They go to war with each other all the time. And if Mayo is unable to keep the peace among the different factions, the war could get worse.”
Unlike its rivals among the Zetas or the Gulf cartel, whose reach was extended almost entirely by brute force, the Sinaloa cartel more frequently operates on the thinking that too much violence is bad for business, analysts say.
Rather than moving into an area and trying to displace local groups, Sinaloa turns them into partners, using their expertise on such subjects as physical terrain and local politics, said Steven Dudley, an analyst for InSight Crime, a research group.
“These kinds of partnerships give them a staying power and an ability to penetrate areas in ways that other cartels have not,” Mr. Dudley said. “It gives them multiple options for moving all kinds of items across borders, whether it’s drugs going north, or weapons going south.”
Guillermo Valdés Castellanos, the former head of Mexico’s domestic intelligence agency, said that the cartel established partners on the streets of Los Angeles and Chicago, and in places much farther afield, like Australia, where the long coastline provides access, and the price of cocaine can be much higher than in the United States.
“If the American market is declining and you can’t completely enter Europe, the logical thing is to open markets in Asia and Australia,” Mr. Valdés said. “And he is very logical about markets,” he added of Mr. Guzmán.
Beyond the charges in Mexico, Mr. Guzmán has been charged by federal authorities in more than half a dozen American jurisdictions, including Chicago, Miami, Brooklyn and Manhattan, where an indictment was unsealed against him on Tuesday.
Many D.E.A. officials say that what set Mr. Guzmán apart — especially compared with Pablo Escobar of the Medellín cartel — was his willingness to be discreet and patient. The cartel has been known to evade customs officials by secretly shipping ephedrine, the key ingredient for strong methamphetamine, from India or China to intermediary ports like Long Beach, Calif. The cartel allows the chemicals to sit on the docks for weeks or months before loading them onto a second shipment headed for Mexico, making the cargo look like it originated in the United States so that inspectors are less likely to check it.
Mexican authorities intercepted nearly 3.5 tons of ephedrine hidden that way in 612 fire extinguishers that showed up on Mexico’s Pacific coast a few years ago.
“It’s done on a very professional level,” said another D.E.A. official. “Mayo and Chapo did everything they could to make the Sinaloa cartel blend into the business community. They ran it just like a global corporation.”