Ciudad Juarez: Ignacio Coronel and What Happens After a Drug Lord is Killed

by John Murray


In a luxury suburb of Guadalajara last Thursday afternoon, one of the key leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Coronel, was shot dead during a brief gunfight with Mexican Army special forces. Drawing on intelligence gathered over the past few weeks, the Army staged a raid on a home they believed was linked to drug trafficking; Coronel was inside. Witnesses reported hearing loud explosions and plenty of gunfire as helicopters and more than 150 men closed in on the drug baron. According to reports, Nacho got off enough shots with an assault rifle to kill one soldier before being killed.

In immediate terms, the raid was a huge success.

Coronel was considered to be the third ‘leader’ of the Sinaloa cartel, and may be the biggest fish the Mexicans have caught-if that’s the right word-so far in the drug war. The raid also netted the arrests of 10 of Coronel’s bodyguards, over $7 million in cash, jewelry, three luxury vehicles and perhaps most importantly, his laptop. Authorities have announced that its contents have already been used to find and arrest Mario Carrasco Coronel, Nacho’s nephew and most likely successor. The information gleaned from the laptop could end up having a devastating effect on the ability of Nacho’s organization to operate. Reports claim that it contained information on companies he used to import drugs and launder funds, as well as information on his contacts. We’ll soon see how this plays out for the rest of his outfit in Guadalajara, and whether the intelligence will be used to seriously disrupt their ability to operate.

This is a big deal. For the government, it should do something to assuage the feeling that other cartels were being selectively pursued while the Sinaloans were largely ignored. Coronel was one of the three main traffickers, along with Mayo Zambada and Chapo Guzman, that make up the Sinaloa cartel or ‘federation.’ Chances are that the cartel is already starting to adapt to Nacho’s loss and putting contingency plans into action to maintain control. But how will this affect their operations? What happens to a drug cartel after the death of its leader?

It’s extremely important to understand Guzman, Zambada and Coronel as independent traffickers working together under the same banner of self-interest, rather than as three bosses who’ve been working together to smuggle drugs as a team from the beginning. They’ve worked for different people over the years, taken different paths to get where they are. Drug trafficking is an entrepreneur’s business-and the Sinaloa cartel is less a business in its own right than an alliance between several businesses. One could even say it’s an alliance between three independent cartels. Coronel was called the ‘King of Crystal’ for pioneering the domestic production of methamphetamine using precursor chemicals imported from India and Asia. This expertise is something he brought to the Sinaloa federation. He wasn’t ‘hired’ to fill a need. He aligned with these powerful allies because of what he had to offer and what they could offer him in return.

Coronel was in charge of the Guadalajara ‘plaza,’ and held influence in the states of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan, Nayarit and parts of Durango. These areas were uniquely under his control. With over 30 years in the drug business, he had his own employees, his own contacts and his own network; this is what made him valuable to the Sinaloa cartel. His sphere of influence, mostly states bordering the Pacific coast, was strategically perfect for importing drugs and moving them to Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua and Sonora, key trafficking areas where Guzman and Zambada have great influence and control.

But it’s also important to understand their union as being ultimately opportunist. These aren’t iron-clad bonds. They’re business relationships.

Ultimately, Coronel’s death isn’t going to break the larger Sinaloa cartel, although the stability he provided the organization through the order he kept in his plaza and the longevity of his career is going to be almost impossible to replicate. Rival cartels, especially the Zetas, were already active in his territory during the past year, and the power vacuum in Guadalajara is going to leave the organization reeling in the short term. But while this will drastically alter their operations, it’s far from a death blow. They’ll still be able to use their vast network of resources to import and export drugs, and they’re very likely to throw a lot into defending Nacho’s organization and turf, no matter who ends up taking over its reins.

Killing a drug lord rarely leads to the death of the trafficking organization. As we’ve seen in the past, there’s always someone to fill the shoes of the deceased or incarcerated, and the organization, in some form, continues to function. The most recent example of this was the Beltran-Leyva cartel. Their story can shed some light on where these traffickers come from, how they come to power, and what happens after their demise, which should shed some light on the probable legacy of Nacho’s death.

The five Beltran-Leyva brothers-Arturo, Alfredo, Hector, Carlos and Alberto-were born in the municipality of Badiraguato, Sinaloa, the same small region where Chapo Guzman comes from. This impoverished area has a long history of birthing outlaws and smugglers. For many years before the modern drug trade, Badiraguato and the rest of the ‘Golden Triangle’ region where Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango meet was the cradle of Mexican marijuana and opium production. The Beltrans were born into this tradition.

While it’s unknown exactly how they got their start, they eventually came under the wing of the fledgling drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who began his own infamous career tending a marijuana farm in the Golden Triangle for his uncle, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, one of the founders of the first modern Mexican drug trafficking organization, the Guadalajara cartel. As Amado came to power in Juarez, so did the Beltran-Leyva brothers. As Amado was one of the most influential, powerful and rich drug lords of all time, so the Beltran brothers became powerful. Working in enforcement and operations, they became part of Amado’s inner circle, and helped him run one of the most lucrative and successful drug trafficking operations of all time.

But when Carrillo died in 1997, the Beltran-Leyva brothers were without a master. But, like Nacho Coronel, they had spent years developing their own network of underlings. Following the lead of one of Mexican drug trafficking’s most famous diplomats, Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, they brought their organization home to Sinaloa and began working with Mayo and his partner, Joaquin Guzman.

Led by eldest brother Arturo, the brothers engaged in all parts of the Sinaloa cartel’s operations, such as money laundering, drug transport and, perhaps most notably, enforcement. It was Arturo who, in response to the Gulf cartel’s formation of their own private army known as the Zetas, formed the groups of assassins known as Los Pelones and Los Negros, the two enforcement arms of the Sinaloa cartel. The formation of these three paramilitary groups would end up doing more to increase the volume and intensity of violence in Mexico over the next decade than any other factor. It was around this time that Arturo took on Edgar ‘La Barbie’ Villareal. Called ‘Barbie’ for his light complexion and blue eyes, the American-born hit man would become Arturo’s right hand and most trusted confidante, as well as the leader of Los Negros.

After Osiel Cardenas was arrested in 2003, Guzman sent Arturo and his enforcement squads to battle the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas in Nuevo Laredo, attempting to seize the opportunity to wrest territory from the weakened group. The results were mixed, but this became the first major skirmish in the cartel war the Mexican government is dealing with today.

The brothers went on like this, running their own show as part of the larger Sinaloa Federation, until January 21, 2008, when Alfredo Beltran-Leyva was arrested by federal police and taken into custody. The arrest was strange. He was picked up riding around in an SUV with three bodyguards, $900,000 in cash and a host of weapons. It was strange because this was the sort of the thing the Beltrans had developed an extensive network of baksheesh to prevent-certainly in a home turf city like Culiacan.

A livid Arturo soon came to blame Chapo. He believed that only Chapo could have known his brother’s location or had the authority to sell him out to the Federal police. There has been speculation that a few incidents had already developed an animosity between the two before the arrest. A botched transfer of the control of drug traffic through certain airports had earned Arturo the ire of his boss, and many reports suggest that after working for the Carrillo organization, Arturo wasn’t happy playing second fiddle to Guzman.

Whatever the reasoning for the feud, Alfredo’s arrest was the breaking point. Arturo began (or continued) to assemble his network to strike out on its own, into what would become known as the Beltran-Leyva cartel. Using its extensive connections with the Army, state and federal police and even the Mexican drug czar’s office to protect itself in its base of operations in the state of Morelos, Arturo would take La Barbie, Los Negros and Los Pelones with him.

It all came to a head on May 8th. Edgar Guzman, Chapo’s son, was exiting his car with two friends in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Culiacan when roughly 40 gunmen stormed the lot and cut the two down with a barrage of AK-47 fire. On the same day, Arturo struck back at the Federal Police by assassinating Edgar Milan Gomez, the head of the Mexican federal police, and the man behind the operation to arrest Alfredo. There was no mistaking the message. Almost immediately Mexico seemed to know the repercussions would be devastating. El Universal ran a story that captured the prevailing sentiment with the headline “Psychosis and Fear Grip Sinaloa.”

So began the war between the Sinaloa cartel and the Beltran-Leyva cartel. Highly functional in their own right, the Beltran-Leyvas used contacts in Colombia to send tons of cocaine through the Mexico City airport and the coast of Guerrero up through their trafficking corridors in Sonora and Arizona, where they held a great deal of turf and influence. With the young and ambitious Barbie running their brutal enforcement gangs and the combined 30 years of expertise of the brothers, the newly independent group quickly became one of the most dominant forces in Mexican drug trafficking. They were finally out on their own.

The war with the Sinaloans is what many researchers and reporters believe was the catalyst for the incredible levels of violence Mexico has experienced in the past three years. Arturo’s sociopathic brutality and ruthlessness quickly became apparent, as police all over Pacific and Central Mexico found bodies by the dozen, decapitated and bearing messages signed by ‘El Jefe de Jefes,’ ‘The Boss of Bosses,’ the name Arturo gave himself. These sadistic operations were carried out by men wearing uniforms bearing the acronym ‘FEDA’, which stands for ‘Special Forces of Arturo.’

The violence quickly escalated on both sides. Arturo reached out to his old contacts in the Carrillo organization in Juarez as well as the Zetas, who were then distancing themselves from their former employers in the Gulf cartel. The three aligned against the hegemonic Sinaloans. The Beltran-Leyva empire now rivaled any in Mexico.

But as quickly as things came together for the Beltrans, they began to unravel. In early August, Mexican officials arrested the Beltran’s main connection with Colombian cocaine, Ever Villafane Martinez. While they were able to establish new connections within Colombian cartels, it was a symbolic hit to the newly formed organization. In November, federal authorities running an anti-corruption campaign discovered that Noe Ramirez Mandujano, the chief of the Attorney General’s organized crime unit, was on the Beltran-Leyva payroll. This brought increased attention to the group, which had probably bought off Ramirez long before while they were still working for the Sinaloa cartel.

The violence bore on for another year, and was in large part responsible for the skyrocketing death tolls of 2008 and 2009. Arturo terrorized Mexico, and in addition to his nicknames “The Beard” and “White Boots,” he soon came to simply be called “El Muerte,” Death.

Then, in mid-December of 2009, Arturo threw a Christmas party for friends and associates near Cuernavaca, a wealthy resort town in his base state of Morelos. The party was thrown at a private house, and Arturo had invited the popular singer Ramon Ayala to entertain his guests. But the fete was interrupted when an elite special forces division of the Mexican Navy, acting on a tip, raided the house. Arturo managed to escape as his gunmen held the Marines at bay.

About a week later, on December 17th, Arturo was laid up at a second-floor apartment of the Altitudes luxury condo development in Cuernavaca with several bodyguards-though not including his favorite bodyguard and most trusted confidante, La Barbie. Again the Mexican Navy, acting on intelligence they had gathered from the first raid, managed to track him down and staged an assault on his apartment. Arturo and his men saw them swarming the complex from their second-story perch, and opened fire.

Over the course of about 90 minutes, 200 Mexican marines stormed the Altitudes condo complex, even rappelling onto the scene from helicopters. Arturo’s men were well-armed, firing assault rifles and lobbing grenades from the windows of the apartment. At one point, Arturo called for backup, and at least ten more gunmen arrived at the complex throwing grenades and fighting back the Marines to give Arturo a chance to escape. One by one, his men fell, until it was just Arturo left in his apartment. Whether he was given a chance to surrender isn’t clear, but it’s clear he had no intention of doing so. In a final act of defiance, he picked up an AR-15 and kicked open the front door of his apartment to make a break for it. He was met by Marines coming up the stairs to the second floor, who cut him down immediately.

This was Felipe Calderon’s first major victory in the drug war, and Beltran-Leyva’s body was certainly treated like a trophy. With his jeans were stripped to his knees in a gesture of humiliation, just as so many of his victims had been found, he was extensively photographed and recorded, and those images made their way around the Internet very quickly. This was the first time in the recent war anyone got to see what a dead Mexican drug lord looked like. There was something very strange about seeing where and how he lived, bowls of fruit still fresh on the table next to religious icons and automatic weapons, that made the whole thing seem symbolic. But it was very hard to grasp what that symbol was.


From there, the Beltran-Leyva cartel began to fall apart. On December 30th, police arrested Carlos Beltran-Leyva, who was riding by himself with fake identification, two guns and a bag of cocaine in Culiacan. With three of the brothers dead or arrested, many speculated about what would happen to the headless cartel. Some thought there would be some kind of succession of power allowing it to survive, others predicted another cartel moving in and taking over the entire operation. But what has happened so far bears no sign of a definitive ending.

Over the months following Carlos’ arrest, the group fractured further. In an apparent struggle for control of the remnants of Arturo’s empire, Barbie, the sidekick whom Arturo once trusted before anyone else, is now at war with Hector Beltran-Leyva, one of the last remaining brothers of the cartel namesake. The factionalized group is also still locked in a larger struggle with the Sinaloa cartel, which played itself out most recently in the epic shootout between Sinaloan foot soldiers and the last remnants of a local Sonoran Beltran-Leyva gang entrenched in a hilltown some 25 miles from the Nogales, AZ border crossing a few days ago.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Beltran-Leyva gang in the Mexican psyche has more to do with Joaquin Guzman. Almost without fail, the origins of the cartel are traced back in media reports and drug war analysis to the betrayal by Chapo Guzman, and that’s a reputation that hasn’t left Chapo since. To this day, it can be seen in the attitude of citizens who believe that the Calderon administration is in league with Chapo. He’s viewed as the man behind the scenes, pulling all the strings. Anytime someone is killed or arrested that was at a one-time friend or enemy of Chapo Guzman, the suspicion arises that he had something to do with it, that he either tipped off the police or somehow was responsible for the murder. This happened immediately after the death of Arturo Beltran-Leyva. It also happened happened when Teodoro Simental, a one-time associate of the Tijuana cartel operating in southern Baja, was arrested, and it continues with the death of Nacho Coronel.

But these reports are impossible to corroborate, and in many cases may owe to the puppetmaster stature that Guzman has received from the arrest of Alfredo in 2008.

But what the Beltran-Leyvas can tell us about the possible repercussions of the death of Nacho Coronel is that one thing we can expect is more violence. 2010 is on target to becoming the most violent year yet in the Mexican drug war, and a great deal of that was spurred on by the death of Arturo and the subsequent infighting and chaos within his ranks. Guadalajara was plagued by relatively little violence when compared with the slaughter in Juarez and along the Texas border and Gulf; that may change. Worse still, this will be extremely complicated, as Nacho and his most apparent successor have been taken out of the picture. Infighting among Nacho’s group and their Sinaloan allies, along with the threat from the Zetas and other cartels, will create a mess in Jalisco for some time.

While the DEA called Coronel’s death a ‘crippling blow’ to the Sinaloa cartel, the structure of the group ensures that it will survive, just as it survived and prevailed when it lost the Beltran-Leyvas, who were then a huge part of its core. The drug trade is far bigger than any one capo, no matter how big an image we paint of them. The only sure thing his death has for the history books at this point is one more story of an immensely powerful drug trafficker shot down, in a country where such stories flourish, and the promise of violence to come in the aftermath.

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