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After ‘El Chapo’ arrest, focus turns to next Sinaloa drug boss

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March 2, 2014

MEXICO CITY — With the arrest of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin  “El Chapo” Guzman, the leadership of Mexico’s largest and most sophisticated  illegal drug operation has probably transferred to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a  66-year-old former farmer with a knack for business — and maintaining a low  profile.

But Zambada is likely to discover, much as Guzman did, that inheriting the  throne of top capo comes with a series of complications worthy of a  Shakespearean king.

Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada

Like his predecessor, Zambada is a country boy made good who hails from the  badlands of Sinaloa, the traditional heart of Mexican drug-smuggling culture.  Though he has enjoyed less publicity than Guzman, he has long been considered a  high-level target for U.S. and Mexican authorities, who have managed to nab a  number of his family members and close associates in recent years. Now that  pressure is likely to increase substantially.

As long as Zambada remains free, however, close observers of the Mexican drug  world will be analyzing the little that is known about his style in an effort to  divine the future for his global drug empire. They will also be attuned to  Zambada’s personal history — particularly his longtime business alliance with  Guzman. The current state of that partnership could be the difference between a  smooth succession within the Sinaloa cartel and a bloody fracturing of what has  long been a loose-knit and volatile confederation of killers, smugglers and  outlaws.

A U.S. federal law enforcement official said Friday that American authorities  were watching Mexico closely, expecting that Guzman would be handing the reins  of the Sinaloa cartel to his “most trusted” confederate.

“But the question is: Does he want it?” said the official, speaking  confidentially because there is a pending criminal case against Zambada. “Does  he want to become the lightning rod by becoming the head of the cartel? If he  does that, he knows the U.S. and Mexico will come after him like an avenging  wind.

“But he’s probably got no choice. Chapo, through his lawyers, will send a  message to El Mayo that he has to take over the cartel, simply because he’s the  only guy there for a smooth transition.”

In a 2010 interview with the weekly Mexican newsmagazine Proceso, Zambada,  whose nickname is a diminutive often given to boys named Ismael in Sinaloa, said  that he and Guzman “are friends, compadres,” who “talk on the phone regularly.”  The two men do seem to have much in common. They are of roughly the same  generation (Guzman, officials say, is either 56 or 59), grew up poor in rural  Sinaloa, and both sport cowboy-style mustaches.

Both men have also spent decades in the drug business, the reason the U.S.  government issued individual rewards of up to $5 million for information leading  to their capture. Zambada is said to have begun at age 16 — “since before Christ  resurrected Lazarus,” Michael S. Vigil, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s  former chief of international operations, said in an interview Friday.

Early on, Vigil said, Zambada worked the Mexicali area, lording over the  region against rival drug smugglers. “He killed several individuals that were  trying to take over that plaza,” Vigil said.

Eventually, Zambada and Guzman formed a bond. In 1989, they were said to be  among the emerging cartel leaders who were granted control of key geographical  sectors of Mexico by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a powerful capo of the era  known as “El Padrino,” or the Godfather. At the time, Felix was seeking to  disaggregate the drug trade’s leadership, making it more difficult to  police.

According to federal grand jury indictments filed in 2008 and 2012 against  Zambada, Guzman and others, the two men came to control two distinct and  powerful factions in the Sinaloa cartel. Prosecutors said they continued their  alliance in order to more effectively coordinate massive shipments of cocaine  and heroin to U.S. markets, employ squads of assassins and threaten violence  against buyers in the United States who dared to consider doing business with  the competition.

In Mexico, there were rules, but Guzman, in particular, was happy to break  them. On the website of the Mexican newsmagazine Nexos last week, Guillermo  Valdes Castellanos, the former director of the Mexican government’s Center for  Investigation and National Security, said that the 1989 meeting with El Padrino  established dues that regional drug chiefs would have to pay to move through  another’s territory.

Guzman frequently ignored these territories in his quest for expansion — one  reason why Mexico saw so many battles break out in key nodes on the drug route,  including Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo. Now, Valdes argues, it is Zambada who will  have to decide whether to continue with the same adversarial approach.

“Everything indicates that El Mayo Zambada will stay at the front of the  organization. What’s less clear is whether, with the detention of Guzman Loera,  his business model will come to an end,” Valdes wrote, referring to Guzman by  his full surname.

Little is known about Zambada’s management style. Writer Malcolm Beith, in  his 2010 book, “The Last Narco,” credited him with a sophisticated business  acumen, saying he was careful not to flood the U.S. market with drugs and thus  drive down street prices.

One U.S. law enforcement official Friday described Guzman as “the muscle” at  the top of the Sinaloa organization and Zambada as all the rest. “He is  everything,” said the official, who asked to be unnamed because of the pending  criminal charges. “The brains. The logistics. Security. Everything.

“He’s very respected in the Sinaloa cartel and even among their rivals. They  respect him because he is one of the old drug traffickers in Mexico, and he’s  also very feared because, like Chapo, he will exert violence. Not in a wholesale  manner. He’s a little more surgical. Because he knows it’s bad for  business.”

The Zambada faction and what remains of Guzman’s faction may still be close.  But there is also a possibility that one may have betrayed the other, a  not-uncommon occurrence in the Mexican drug world. A few days before Guzman’s  Feb. 22 arrest, Mexican authorities had carried out operations that led to the  arrest of a number of Zambada’s closest associates.

Two of Zambada’s sons are in U.S. federal custody, awaiting trial on drug  trafficking charges. One of them, Jesus Vicente Zambada, has argued in court  documents that he should be immune from prosecution because he was cooperating  with U.S. officials.

The U.S. law enforcement official who spoke of the potential “avenging wind”  said he doubted that either Guzman or the Zambadas rolled over, arguing that the  relationship between the two clans was too strong, and that revenge could be  extracted on an informant, even within prison walls.

That will do little to stem speculation in and outside Mexico.

“We’re like ships on the water, watching the bodies floating to the surface,”  said David Shirk, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “We  have no idea what’s going on below.”

Zambada’s 2010 interview with Proceso was a rare moment when he stepped into  the spotlight. Zambada himself requested the interview and posed for a picture  with the writer. He ended up on the cover, in an eggplant-colored Izod shirt and  a hunting cap, looking defiant and a little paunchy.

In the story, Zambada bragged of his extensive knowledge of the Mexican  backcountry, where he often hides from authorities. He has never been  apprehended, in marked contrast with Guzman, who was arrested in 1993, and then  made a high-profile escape from a Mexican federal prison in 2001. The jailbreak  made him as famous as any soap opera star.

After his escape, Guzman was known for making occasional flashy appearances  at crowded restaurants. That is not the case with Zambada, which may make him  tougher to track. Vigil, the ex-DEA official, said that Zambada may also have  had plastic surgery to alter his appearance.

“‘El Mayo’ Zambada lives in his natural environment, which is the sierra….  That’s his home,” said Gustavo Fondevilla, a security specialist at Mexico  City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. “It’s not the traditional  model of the narco we’re used to — visible, with high levels of  consumption.”

Nor is he likely to surrender. In the Proceso interview, Zambada was asked  whether he would commit suicide if he was ever caught.

“I want to think,” he responded, “that yes, I would kill myself.”



About Doc

Spreading the word about the dangers of methamphetamine.

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