Ciudad Juarez: The Sinaloa Cartel and Where We Are Now

by John Murray

Joaquín Guzmán

The AP ran quite a story the other day, capped with the blockbuster headline “Sinaloa cartel wins Juarez turf war.” After 3 years of brutal assassinations, countless kidnappings and the shuttering of roughly 10,000 local businesses, the article claims the battle between the local Juarez cartel and the Sinaloans (who began to try to take over in 2007) has essentially been won. The proclamation is largely based on an FBI memo and cited confidential sources, as well as the fact that recent drug seizures indicate that between 60% and 80% of the drugs currently being trafficked through Juarez now come from the Sinaloa cartel, to draw the same conclusion.

This appears, if true-and the DEA and the chief of Mexico’s federal police do not necessarily agree it is a done deal-to be huge development in the drug war, albeit one that many may have seen coming. So now we see a larger shifting of cartel and gang alliances in a battle for power.

The Juarez cartel has been in trouble ever since its founder, the inimitable Amado Carrillo, died in 1997, while undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance. One of the most feared and successful Mexican drug traffickers to ever live, Carrillo’s cartel was also one of the most powerful, generating roughly $200 million a week in earnings at the height of its power. From the early 90s up until the time of his death, Amado simply owned Juarez. He had what experts estimate to be about 90% of the local police on his payroll, as well as the protection of the state governor and several high-ranking federal officials.

Although he was quickly succeeded by his brother Vicente, his death created a power vacuum in the Mexican drug trafficking world. The growing Tijuana and Gulf cartels became more influential and more powerful. In 2002, Ramon and Benjamin Arellano-Felix, the leaders of the extremely aggressive Tijuana cartel, were, respectively, killed and arrested. The following year, Osiel Cardenas, leader of the Gulf cartel operating in the south Texas region, was arrested and extradited to the U.S.

With these developments, the balances of power keeping the drug trafficking world in relative peace and stability came undone. Plagued by infighting and power struggles, the Gulf and Tijuana cartels became weakened. Soon after, the Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, began to make forays into the territories of weakened cartels, most notably the Gulf-controlled city of Nuevo Laredo. In 2007, they began their campaign to wrest control of Juarez from Vicente Carrillo, and sparked the bloody turf war we’re dealing with today.

So is it over? The answer seems to be yes and no. The Sinaloa cartel is the oldest cartel in Mexico, and Chapo and Mayo are no fools. At 53 and 64, they have been in the drug business a long time. They are extremely powerful, and managed to avoid the high profiles that ultimately have led to the demise of other cartel leaders during the past two decades. They are more organized, have been around longer, and are seemingly smarter than any other group out there. Many believe, on both sides of the border, that the Sinaloa cartel has the tacit approval of the government, pointing to statistics showing that arrests of Juarez cartel members and their associated street gang, the Aztecas, have been exponentially higher than that of Sinaloa cartel members.

That’s a very important point to note. Looking at the history of the drug trade as a whole, periods of violence are always marked by a struggle for control between rival trafficking organizations. When territories or leadership aren’t in dispute, the business simply chugs along without much need for violence, save the internal judicial murders that rule a trade ungoverned by conventional law. It’s pretty much been commonly accepted that no number of federal policemen, soldiers or public awareness was going to end the violence in Juarez. It only ends when one cartel wins. And from the outset, that was probably going to be the Sinaloans.

This is where the government has to deal with the industry realistically. Felipe Calderon and his entire administration know that the drug trade isn’t going away. U.S. officials know it too. As long as there is a market for drugs in the U.S., there will be an industry to support the demand in Mexico. And when that industry funnels tens of billions of dollars into the Mexican economy every year, through investments in business, the greasing of political palms and good old-fashioned trickle-down economics, it’s hardly in Mexico’s best interest to try to stamp it out.

However, there is the issue of public unrest. 22,743 dead in Mexico since December 2006 and 5000 people murdered in two years in Juarez, the city that was supposed to be the poster child for free trade, international cooperation and Mexico’s new future in the North American economy isn’t good for business either. Worse still, the rest of the country is now being ravaged by drug violence, the situation seems to be devolving. Why wouldn’t it be in the government’s best interest to go back to the days of Amado Carrillo? Why not help the situation along to its inevitable conclusion instead of dragging it out for everyone? The sooner the most powerful cartel establishes their dominance, the sooner the murders end, and the sooner everything can get back to normal. But as the force of protection for the people, you have to look like you’re doing something about all this violence, you have to go after somebody. So why not selectively pursue the weaker cartel?

It might seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s called realpolitik, and it seems to be what’s happening. Many have posited the eventuality of a Mexican megacartel [PDF], based on the supposition of these forces in Mexican politics, and while it’s certainly not yet a reality, these events do seem to be laying the groundwork for it.

But before that happens, the Juarez cartel is going to fight tooth and nail, to the death, in fact, as they reportedly stated several times. In an extraordinary turn of events, a member of the Azteca street gang who was arrested for involvement in the 3 murders of US embassy even told interrogators that the attacks were a deliberate attempt by gang and cartel leaders to get the U.S. to step in and intervene in Juarez-because they believe the army and police are on the side of the Sinaloans.

This certainly is not the end of violence in Juarez, but it’s a reminder of the past, and a taste of what’s to come. While this particular hellish outbreak of violence in Juarez may be beginning to draw to a close, it’s certainly not because its cause was rooted out. The seed of violence will still be lying dormant.

Previously: Eduardo Ravel is as Wanted as bin Laden

John Murray is a lover of obscurity. He lives and writes in Arizona.