Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sinaloa group 101: Five facts about Mexico's powerful drug cartel

US authorities announced this week the dismantlement of a massive drug-smuggling operation in Arizona, believed to have generated $2 billion in proceeds over five years. The 76 suspects arrested in the 17-month probe, dubbed Operation Pipeline Express, are allegedly connected to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful drug-trafficking organization operating in Mexico – and, some say, in the Western Hemisphere.

“Today we have dealt a significant blow to a Mexican criminal enterprise that has been responsible for poisoning our communities,” Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said in the statement.

But who are the Sinaloa cartel?

- Sara Miller LlanaStaff writer

Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman Loera is seen in Almoloya, Mexico's high security jail, in this 2000 file photo. (Reuters/Files)

1. The face of the Sinaloa group

The group is led by Joaquin Guzman-Loera, also known as “El Chapo,” who is Mexico’s most wanted fugitive. He is listed in the US State Department’s Narcotics Rewards Program, which says the information leading to his arrest could generate $5 million in reward money. “El Chapo” means “the short one” in English. (Mr. Guzman is 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 165 pounds, according to the state department.)

He received international notoriety after escaping from a maximum security prison in Jalisco state in 2001. The escape was allegedly achieved with the help of prison employees. Even as he remains on the lam, he is perhaps the most powerful drug lord in this region.

His whereabouts are the source of constant speculation, with sightings reported as far as Guatemala to Bolivia. Mexican President Felipe Calderón told The New York Times recently he might be in the US. His wife recently gave birth to twins in California.

2. The Sinaloa group’s origins

The Sinaloa group has its origins in the state of Sinaloa, on Mexico’s northwest Pacific coast. From the 1970s, the state was a key area for moving Colombian cocaine and other contraband, as well as for the cultivation of marijuana and poppy. The drug-trafficking network evolved from a group of rural families, who over the decades have formed alliances with groups in various parts of the country. For a detailed history of their start, see a background page by the security analyst group InSight Crime.

3. The Sinaloa group's influence today

The dynamics of drug-trafficking organizations have changed greatly since President Calderón launched a military-led effort against organized crime in 2006. Many groups have been weakened, but the Sinaloa group seems to have strengthened.

As Stratfor’s vice president of tactical intelligence, Scott Stewart, said recently, the Mexican government is “making headway against certain organizations, but at the same time, the largest cartel, Sinaloa cartel, that is headed up by a gentleman by the name of El Chapo, 'the short one,' Sinaloa has been getting stronger and stronger. And they are really becoming more of a regional hegemon in the cartel landscape.” They control the border from Tijuana to Ciudad Juarez.

The Calderón administration has made progress in arresting and capturing top drug-trafficking suspects (including Sinaloa No. 3 Ignacio Coronel Villareal, also known as “Nacho Coronel,” in 2010, among others), but it has faced claims that it is favoring Sinaloa. The government vociferously denies that claim. The Sinaloa group is not only powerful in Mexico: their influence has grown deeper in Latin America and even Europe.

4. Sinaloa's role in Mexico's violence

Ciudad Juarez, especially in 2010, was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and many analysts attribute that to the Sinaloa efforts to take over lucrative drug trading routes into the US from the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization, also called the Juárez cartel. The Sinaloa group has long worked by forming allies, many of whom later become rivals, and that is still the case today in states across the country.

In the state of Veracruz, where some of the worst violence in Mexico is now playing out, analysts believe that the Sinaloa group is trying to take territory away from their rivals, the Zetas. Yet while the Sinaloa group is comprised of outlaws, in some ways they are quietly preferred among Mexicans since they tend to focus on the trade of drugs, while the Zetas, for example, are accused of earning proceeds through kidnapping and extortion.

5. What to expect in the future for the Sinaloa cartel

After five years of pressure on – and much splintering and fracturing of – drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico, many see two dominant organizations emerging: the Sinaloa group and the Zetas. Jorge Chabat, a well-known drug analyst in Mexico City, told the Associated Press recently that, assuming that those two don’t fracture, their domination could make it easier for the government to fight organized crime by focusing its efforts on two large groups, rather than a dozen splinter organizations.

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