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The DEA Toppled Kingpin “El Chapo” Guzman; Who's Mexico's Drug Underworld Next Boss of Bosses?

By Clarence Walker Jr. for Gangsters Inc.

Notorious drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman-Loera once ruled the Sinaloa drug Cartel with an iron fist for several years. Sinaloa Cartel, with hundreds of players enshrined in the group, is one of Mexico's most powerful criminal syndicates responsible for smuggling billions of dollars' worth of illegal narcotics into the United States while committing brutal and murderous tactics to maintain a powerful grip on the narcotic trade. Yet last year, on February 12, 2019, a New York jury convicted the kingpin on multiple crimes involving drug trafficking counts, murder conspiracy and money laundering following a three-month trial.

Federal authorities had been trying to knock the king off his throne for a long time until finally they managed to cut off the head of El Chapo Guzman.

When a king falls off his throne there is always a successor or a cast of inspired contenders to replace him. Whoever may be trying (if not already succeeded) to take over El Chapo's multi-billion dollars drug empire, the U.S. federal law enforcement and Mexico authorities will be waiting to put a bullseye target on any leader of a drug syndicate to bring them to justice. Either way, the illegal flow of narcotics will continue to wreak havoc on human lives and make the players in the dope game rich and richer.

A Day of Final Justice for a Kingpin

On July 17, 2019, El Chapo Guzman (right), wearing a gray suit and lilac-colored shirt and tie, strolled into the courtroom to hear his fate. Courtroom observers watched intently as Guzman covered his heart and blew a lovely kiss to his "ride or die" wife identified as Emma Coronel. Coronel attended the majority portions of her husband's trial and she was also implicated in some of his crimes.

With tight security in place, Chapo's glorious days as a legendary "shot caller" kingpin ended for good when Brooklyn federal court judge Brian M. Cogan sentenced El Chapo to spend life in federal prison without parole, plus 30 years, and the judge ordered Guzman to forfeit $12.6 billion based on the quantity and value of the drugs that El Chapo trafficked.

  • READ: The Real Narcos: Profile of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, Mexico’s “El Padrino” of drug lords

"The overwhelming evil is so clear," Judge Cogan said. There was "a mountain-load of evidence" showing Guzman's guilt, Judge Cogan added. The sentencing of Guzman closed the curtains on his final act. Guzman, a farm boy born into abject poverty but later metamorphoses his life from a small-time dope peddler into one of the largest, and most violent, criminal narco syndicates in history. Known for his blood lust, distribution of tons of dope into the U.S., fancy cars, pretty women and spending "tens of millions" to be paid to corrupt officials, Guzman's high-profile, prolific escape from prison on two occasions earned him the moniker as "Houdini Guzman."

Federal authorities were ecstatic.

"The long road that brought "El Chapo" Guzman to a United States courtroom is lined with drugs, death and destruction, but ends today with justice," said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski (right).

Benczkowski's excitement continued with the following statement.

"Thanks to the unflagging efforts of the Department of Justice and the law enforcement community over the past 25 years, this notorious leader of one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the Western Hemisphere, the Sinaloa Cartel, will spend the rest of his life behind bars."

Evidence at trial established how Guzman, Kingpin leader of the Sinaloa Cartel distributed tons of kilos of cocaine, marijuana, meth and heroin. To build their case, federal prosecutors introduced at trial credible testimony from 14 cooperating witnesses including Sinaloa Cartel members Rey and Vicente Zambada, Miguel Martinez, Tirso Martinez, Damaso Lopez and Alex Cifuentes.

Prior to sentencing El Chapo had a few harsh words to speak as well. Heaping scorn upon the intolerable conditions that he endured in confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, by saying he was denied access to sunlight, forced to use toilet paper as earplugs to sleep amid loud air vent noise and that he had to  drink unsanitary water. El Chapo Guzman spoke using a Spanish interpreter. "My case was stained, and you denied me a fair trial when the whole world was watching," Guzman said.

"When I was extradited to the United States, I expected to have a fair trial, but what happened was exactly the opposite."

Criticizing potential juror's conduct, Guzman accused the judge of taking no action to redress the serious problem. Guzman's concerns were in response to a Vice News report that said one member of the anonymous panel contacted a reporter and said she and at least five fellow jurors regularly followed social media coverage of the trial had discovered prejudicial evidence not introduced during the proceeding and that the jurors lied to the judge about it.

Nothing Guzman said mitigated his punishment. His lawyers vowed to appeal.

Will El Chapo Guzman's Life in Prison impact the International Drug Trade?

Experts are pretty much divided over whether Guzman's conviction and life sentence will impact the international drug trade. The consensus among them is most likely that Guzman's conviction does not impede the flow of drugs trafficked into the U.S. or anywhere else for that matter.

With the booming technology and the fast evolving of the internet that allow peddlers to make drugs more accessible, and combined with the distribution of deadly compounds like fentanyl on the rise, experts and those in the legal field often question how much effect does the imprisonment of cartel leaders can actually have.

"There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting," said Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, according to Insight Crime. "Those people are wrong."

After El Chapo was put away for life, former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirsten Nielsen said the verdict, "Sends an unmistakable message to transnational criminals: you cannot hide, you are not beyond our reach, and we will find you and bring you to justice."

When Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and FBI went after El Chapo their own investigations were part of a well-devised scheme used in the U.S. beginning in the early 1990s, wherein the authorities targeted cartel leaders with the idea that if the head of an organization is taken out, then the rest will crack into pieces, thus effectively destroying the organization.

"DEA will always target the leadership of these criminal international narcotic enterprises," said retired DEA agent Lewis Rice of New York.

"What cartel leaders like El Chapo fear most is a federal indictment and extradition," Rice said. Lewis rose in prominence with the DEA, beginning first as an agent during the 1970s and subsequently climbing the ladder to become the first African American to become the Special-Agent-in Charge of the DEA headquarters in New York. Rice has worked dope cases involving notable Harlem high profile dealers, particularly Frank Lucas. Denzel Washington played Lucas (photo above) in the blockbuster American Gangster Movie. During the Cocaine Cowboy era in Florida, DEA Rice also worked the Miami scene as an agent.

"Unfortunately, Mexico does not have the capacity to deal with the splintering of the cartels and the vast network that is the Sinaloa Cartel," explains Giovanni Marquez, a Mexico economist, referring to Guzman's cartel.

"We are experiencing so much violence," according to Jose Luis Cordoba. Cordoba works at a private security company in Mexico City. "So, no, it definitely won't stop or change because he (Guzman) got life in prison.

Authorities are aware that Ismael "El Mayo" and El Chapo's sons identified as Jesus Alfredo Guzman, Oviedo Guzman and Archivalo Guzman has led the Sinaloa after El Chapo was extradited to the U.S.

Insight Crime Journalist Steven Dudley writes, "The idea that this trade is dominated by vertically integrated organizations, each run by a single mastermind such as El Chapo is a myth, and a dangerous one, in that it may undermine international efforts to slow drug trafficking and combat the violence of criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel."

Lewis Rice admits, "Taking down a very powerful cartel leader like El Chapo is extremely significantly but it will not stop the availability of drugs in the U.S." Overall, though, Rice added, "It sends a very strong message when a ruthless drug leader is convicted and sentenced to life in prison because a reasonable person would think twice before he decides to assume the leadership position in the organization."

The Guardian published an article indicating that the arrest of El Chapo did not "magically rid Mexico, or the U.S. of violence or drugs" and that in fact, the kingpin strategy "has enabled new forms of crimes to flourish."

Journalist Jessica Loudis writes, "the start of Mexico's drug war in 2006 meant that as Mexican and American authorities took out cartel leaders that groups fractured, and new ones emerged."

In a interview with Inside Hook, Mike Power, investigative journalist and author of Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High, said there will always be other "capos"( or heads of criminal organizations) fighting for "dominance and control of what is, after all, a multi-billion-dollar business. Cartels are no different to any multinational corporation (except for the killings and torture)".

Jessica Lourdes explains that as cartels fragmented they had to change their business structure and in order to distinguish themselves in a crowded and competitive field, the " new groups pioneered the use of sadistic, headline-grabbing violence," Lourdes said. No doubt the federal government is able to target more low-level kingpins to go after, and once these type dealers are caught up by police they are usually vulnerable to cut plea deals and help prosecutors to take down cartel bosses and lesser players in exchange for a lesser sentence. For example, approximately 14 of the government witnesses who testified against El Chapo, previously worked for him in the dope trade.

Sinaloa's fledgling power base in the dope trade remained in the top spot after DEA extradited El Chapo to the U. S. in January 2017. In August 2017, Mexican authorities recovered 50 tons of meth, worth approximately $5 billion, stashed in a Sinaloa lab just seven months later after El Chapo's incarceration.

"The Sinaloa Cartel is still operating with the same power and reach," said Mike Vigil, to CNN, after Guzman was convicted. Vigil (right) is a former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "They continue to be the most powerful drug organization in the world."

Author Mike Power boiled it all down to simple semantics. "As long as people want to do drugs, someone will make it their business to provide those drugs."

Targeting Drug Kingpins

Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, told Inside Hook. "Is there a decline in the drug trade, decline in prohibition related violence, and are there fewer people connected to organized crime than two-and-a-half years ago? I don't think so."

Hope further said that those who would be most affected by Guzman's arrest would be the immediate family, but, "As far as we know, part of the criminal structure built by El Chapo is now run by two or three of his sons." DEA authorities identified one of the sons (already mentioned) as Ovidio Guzman Lopez. With a display of continuing power that the Sinaloa Cartel often exemplifies, was again put on full display, when El Chapo's son Ovidio was arrested by Mexico security forces in October 2019.

To keep Ovidio Guzman (right) from facing extradition to the U.S.,  the Sinaloa Cartel members fought fierce street battles with the army in broad daylight, set fire to vehicles, and even had the audacity to stage a prison break before Ovidio Guzman was eventually freed. This action alone proved the Sinaloa remains immensely powerful and brutal.

Describing the chaotic event, Washington Post article reported these details. "The bungled operation in Culican offered vivid proof that in parts of Mexico the government can be outgunned, outmanned and outsmarted by drug cartels. And it marked one of the most embarrassing moments of Andres Manuel Lopez-Obradors presidency."

Alejandro Hope said there are two reasons to go after the leaders of cartels: one ethical; one strategic. "Ethically, because these people are horrible human beings responsible for the death, torture, and maiming of literally thousands of people," Hope explained.

"And strategically, if law enforcement does not go after the kingpins, then drug dealers would get the idea that once you reach a certain level of prominence, you're untouchable. And how do you reach that level of prominence? By means of violence. So, I think there is a case to be made that we need to send the message that if you get too big, you are going to go down," Hope concluded.

Big time hitters in the dope game must not forget there are consequences for distributing poison to the masses of vulnerable, addicted narcotic users.

"Life in a maximum-security prison, locked up twenty-three hours a day and without human contact is a strong reminder that crime doesn't pay," DEA retired agent Lewis Rice (right), said. "As the leader of (drug cartel organizations) ...'you reap the benefits of this illegal enterprise money, cars, planes, women, wine and song.'" 

Referring to the indefinite time that El Chapo Guzman and other present and future big-time drug dealers will most likely serve in the feds "hellish" underground prison, Rice concludes that, "Life in a federal prison renders you invisible. Was it worth it; absolutely not?"

Sidebar Facts:

Does the Following Cartel Organizations Have the Clout and Firepower to Replace the Sinaloa As the Number 1 Drug Syndicate in Mexico?

Besides the Sinaloa Cartel, law enforcement authorities here in the U.S. and abroad identified the following drug syndicates in Mexico that is poised to replace the Sinaloa as the world's largest narcotic trafficking organizations:

  • The Jalisco New Generation: This group was created around 2010. Led by Mexico's most wanted Ruben "El Mencho" Oseguera, Jalisco Cartel is the strongest and most aggressive competitor to the Sinaloa. The reward for El Mencho's capture is a whopping $10 million.
  • Los Zetas Cartel: Los Zetas was founded by corrupt members of an elite unit of Mexico's special forces.
  • Gulf Cartel: This group is one of Mexico's oldest dope syndicates. Gulf Cartel traces back to the 1980s. Gulf Cartel was previously led by Juan Garcia Abrego, the first Mexican drug lord placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Captured in 1996 and extradited to Houston Texas, Abrego is serving life in prison without parole. Abrego's heir Osiel Cardenas Guillen is serving 25 years in U.S. prison. Osiel's brother, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, took over the Gulf Cartel, but was killed in a shootout with Mexican troops in 2010. Since then, the group splintered into other smaller factions, which weakened the infrastructure.
  • Tijuana Cartel: Miguel Angel Felix-Gallardo founded the Guadalajara Cartel but when he went to prison in 1989 for his involvement in the murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique Carmarena, Felix-Gallardo's  nephews Ramon and Benjamin Felix-Arellano renamed the group the Tijuana Cartel. The Arellano-Felix drug crime family consists of seven brothers and three sisters. Groups like the Colima, Sonora and Milencio Cartels are smaller branches of the Sinaloa.
  • Juarez Cartel is led by Juan Pablo Ledezma who also runs a Mexican gang called La Linea.
  • Beltran-Leyva: Formerly headed by the five Beltran-Leyva brothers identified as Mario, Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo, Mario Alberto and Hector. This group originated as a branch of the Sinaloa Cartel. Beltran-Levy organization eventually divided and lost a key portion of its status when Alfredo Beltran was captured on January 20, 2008, and on December 12, 2009, Arturo Beltran was killed by Mexican marines. Although this family syndicate remains in the narcotic trafficking business, yet its power has been weakened and overshadowed by the Sinaloa and other powerful cartel.

Investigative Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at: newswriter74@yahoo.com

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