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Guatemalan authorities say that a man resembling Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Latin America’s biggest drug trafficker, has been killed by security forces. The reports are likely false, but raise questions about what Chapo’s fall would mean for Mexico.
On February 21, rumors began circulating in Guatemala that the police or army had killed two men in a firefight in the northern province of Peten — and that one of the dead was El Chapo himself. The country’s Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez confirmed that there had been two confrontations, and said that one victim “looked like” El Chapo.
The news remains confused — a Guatemalan army spokesman said that troops had arrived at one of the sites where a clash supposedly took place, but that there was no sign of a confrontation (see map of the two sites, below). Agents from Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office are reportedly going to Guatemala to carry out DNA tests on the body.
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Chapo has been brought down in Guatemala before. He was arrested in that country in 1993, after going there to lie low following the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, which prompted a government crackdown on organized crime. Once arrested, El Chapo was sent back to Mexico, where he was held in prison until escaping in 2001.
However, the context has changed greatly since then. Since 2010, Chapo’s rivals, the Zetas, have been building a strong presence in Guatemala, based in the province of Peten. The Sinaloa Cartel’s influence in Guatemala is mostly concentrated in the country’s west, according to recent statements by President Otto Perez. Malcolm Beith, author of “The Last Narco,” told InSight Crime that it was highly unlikely that Chapo would venture to Peten for any reason. “He has no protection there to speak of — the local authorities are not in his pocket, and neither is the local population.”
Indeed, Chapo’s arrest in 1993 took place after he was betrayed by his protector in the Guatemalan Army, and he would likely be extremely wary about putting himself at risk in the country again, as Beith points out. Chapo is thought to have been able to evade capture for so long in part because of his ability to lay low in the mountains of Mexico’s Durango state, where he can hide among a broadly compliant local population.
There have been previous rumors of Chapo traveling across the region, to Guatemala, Argentina, Honduras, and Bolivia, but prior reports of his death or capture have always proven false.
Perhaps the biggest winner in the scenario of Chapo’s death would be the new government of Enrique Peña Nieto. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won back the presidency last year after 12 years of absence, and Peña Nieto took office in December. The previous government of Felipe Calderon was dogged by rumors that it was complicit with El Chapo, with some arguing that the government chose to persecute the cartel’s rivals at the expense of bringing down the country’s biggest transnational criminal group — accusations strongly denied by the Calderon government.
If El Chapo was indeed captured or killed in just the third month of Peña Nieto’s administration, it would boost the president’s claim that he is ushering in a new era in crime policy, and could reflect badly on Calderon. El Chapo’s demise would also help squash suspicions that the PRI’s return to power would mean a return to appeasing Mexico’s drug cartels.
Chapo’s death would be a severe jolt to Mexico’s underworld, as he has dominated the drug business for more than 20 years. However, Mexico has captured or killed many of the country’s biggest capos over the last few years, with no appreciable impact on the amount of drugs moving through the country, as new leaders simply rise to replace them.
The immediate impact of the removal of any major kingpin in Mexico is generally to cause more violence in the short term, as those lower-down in the organization jostle for influence. However, Chapo directs the Sinaloa Cartel alongside two other extremely powerful, and low-profile, figures — Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza. These men might be able step in and ensure that much of the day-to-day running of the Sinaloa’s operations went on as usual, as InSight Crime has commented previously.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and member of InSight Crime’s board of directors, says that if Chapo was removed, El Mayo would initially be able to take uncontested control of the organization. However, Hope points out that the kingpin is in his sixties, and allegedly suffers from poor health, meaning that this take-over would only slow the gradual atomization of the organization.
If the Sinaloa federation dissolved, and the groups that worked under the Sinaloa umbrella opted to start up independent operations, this would simply be an acceleration of the Mexican underworld’s current trend towards decentralization and fragmentation, with the break-up of the old, large cartels and rise of increasingly powerful but localized street gangs, according to Samuel Logan, of risk analysis firm Southern Pulse. Logan also points to the impact that the break-up of the Sinaloa Cartel would have on its international subsidiaries in places like China, India, Australia, Spain, and Chicago.
It remains unlikely that Chapo Guzman is currently lying dead in Guatemala, but the reports are a reminder that the Sinaloa Cartel boss will likely meet some kind of ugly demise in the coming years.
Hannah Stone, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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