Mexico’s most powerful drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has a lot to catch up on as he returns to a landscape that has shifted considerably during his 17 months in prison.
Rival cartels have been vanquished, and infighting in Guzman’s Sinaloa gang has killed dozens. A new international cartel is waging a fierce war against soldiers and police in western Mexico, even using a rocket-propelled grenade to force down a helicopter – a style at odds with Guzman’s more corporate-like Sinaloa.
Other Mexican or Colombian cartels may have stolen some of Guzman’s transit routes. In the quiet since Guzman broke out of Mexico’s top maximum-security prison a little more than a week ago – dropping into a hole in his shower floor and fleeing on a motorcycle through a mile-long tunnel – friends and foes wait to see what he’ll do next.
“I think he’s going to want to regain the control that he lost,” said Jack Riley, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s top agent, who has spent years tracking Guzman. “That’s one of the reasons that I don’t think he’d leave the country.”
Internal DEA documents show that while Guzman was locked up, the Sinaloa cartel was controlled by Ismael Zambada Garcia and Rafael Caro Quintero, two old-school capos, plus the newer Damaso Lopez Nunez and Guzman’s son Ivan. Guzman was thought to be giving directions to his son and other members “via the attorneys who visited Guzman in prison and possibly through the use of a cellphone provided... by corrupt prison guards,” the documents say.
How much the Sinaloa cartel has changed depends how involved Guzman was from jail. The complexity and success of his escape suggests he had major input, if not day-to-day control, experts say.
But he is operating in a new dynamic, as the Mexican government has arrested leaders of other big cartels since Guzman was jailed in early 2014.
Only Jalisco New Generation, the cartel that forced down the helicopter, has used the void to grow into one of Mexico’s most powerful international criminal groups.
The Mexican government made numerous hits on the Gulf and Zetas cartels that control the border of Tamaulipas state alongside Texas. Guzman is likely to have his eyes on border city Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, one of the world’s largest land ports and one he tried to capture before, said Guillermo Valdes, former director of the Mexican intelligence agency. “El Chapo has wanted to control Nuevo Laredo since 2001,” he said.
Valdes takes his lesson from Guzman’s history. After escaping from another top-security prison in 2001, Guzman went from mid-level trafficker to one of the richest and most powerful drug lords in the world.
“This man has become a legend,” Valdes said. “If you look at the drug trafficking organisations that existed in 1990 and the ones existing today, Sinaloa is the only one that has endured, and that speaks to the quality of the strategy and leadership.”
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