Why Killing Kingpins Won't Stop Mexico's Drug Cartels

Even when El Chapo dies, Sinaloa will live on.

mx guzman.jpg
Federal police present weaponry seized during an arrest operation against drug traffickers linked to Chapo Guzman, during a media presentation in Mexico City on February 4, 2012. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

The rumor started Thursday afternoon when the newspaper Prensa Libre reported that several narcos were killed during shootout in Guatemala's remote Petén region. Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez said one of the corpses was "physically very similar" to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, top boss of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel. Other outlets, including the unfiltered drug war diary Blog del Narco, spread the word on Twitter, piquing the interest of the international press, and sending Mexican and Guatemalan officials scrambling to confirm the powerful drug lord's purported demise.

The rumor was soon thoroughly debunked. There was no shootout, let alone one that claimed the life of the modern day Pablo Escobar. (Lopez, the Interior Minister, later apologized for the "misunderstanding" and blamed contradictory reports for the confusion.) Not only is El Chapo still very much alive, his legend has grown larger than ever. Already a billionaire according to Forbes, the Sinaloa capo has supplanted Osama bin Laden as the State Department's top international target, and the Chicago Crime Commission recently named him Public Enemy No. 1, a title originally reserved for Al Capone.

History has repeatedly shown that high profile drug kingpins rarely survive long in the spotlight. Guzmán has already outlasted many of his peers and predecessors in the Mexican underworld, but with international law enforcement agencies and rival cartels both gunning for him, his days are inevitably numbered. After the latest round of death rumors, the question is worth asking: What happens if (or perhaps rather when) El Chapo meets his maker?

The outcomes depend on the circumstances, but few people are likely to benefit from Guzmán's death. Slaying El Chapo would be a public relations boon for Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, whose PRI party has long been associated with corruption and organized crime. Peña Nieto could claim success where his hardline predecessor Felipe Calderón failed in his bloody war against the cartels. But the long-term repercussions for Peña Nieto and the Mexican people may very well be negative.

Calderón was a staunch proponent of the "Kingpin Strategy," developed by the DEA in the early 1990s to cripple Colombia's infamous Cali and Medellín cartels. The thinking goes that decapitating (a figurative description for what has become a gruesomely literal narco tactic) the head of crime family creates disarray in the ranks below, which disrupts business operations and irreparably weakens the entire organization. Calderón's administration boasted of capturing or killing over 40 major drug traffickers , effectively dismantling the Tijuana cartel, and severely weakening the Gulf, Juarez, and La Familia Michoacana organizations.

While successful on some levels, killing kingpins is accompanied by grim side effects. Mexico's former Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told the Los Angeles Times the strategy causes criminal groups to fragment, making them "more violent and much more dangerous." The country's new Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said the kingpin strategy spawned 60 to 80 small and medium-sized factions that are now fighting among themselves for control of lucrative drug "plazas," and engaging in other criminal enterprises such as kidnapping, extortion and oil theft.

Capturing Osiel Cardenas Guillen, powerful head of the Gulf Cartel, merely paved the way for the paramilitary group Los Zetas to split from their bosses and commence their reign of terror in much of eastern Mexico. La Familia Michoacana has largely been replaced by the equally fearsome Caballeros Templarios. The death and arrests of the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, former allies of El Chapo, ignited a series of feuds that have wreaked havoc in much of Sinaloa and Guerrero .

"The capture or killing of Chapo will indeed weaken the Sinaloa cartel but not necessarily to the Mexican people's advantage," says Malcolm Beith, author of The Last Narco, a book that chronicles the manhunt for Guzmán. "What you'll get is more violence, we know that. It's not rocket science. It's been established that if you cut off the head off one of those groups, everyone who is left ends up fighting and duking it out."

Peña Nieto has backed away from the Kingpin Strategy and toned down the war rhetoric accordingly. The White House Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime still calls for targeting kingpins but also seeks to address root causes such as arms sales, corruption and the American demand for drugs. The White House notes that drug trafficking organizations have "developed into versatile, loose networks that cooperate intermittently but maintain their independence."

Chapo's cartel is a very much a loosely allied network of gangs that sometimes more aptly described as the Sinaloa Federation. According to Beith, Guzmán holds enough sway over this cabal to keep the violence in check when it suits his interests. "When Chapo issues an order in Sinaloa people listen," Beith says. "Without that commanding voice, there will be mayhem within the organization for awhile."

After warring for control of Juarez, Guzmán's forces have reportedly emerged victorious and murders there have since dropped precipitously. If Chapo dies, the calm is jeopardized. Chapo has also reportedly forged alliances with the Gulf Cartel and other groups to combat Los Zetas. Make no mistake: Guzmán is directly responsible for thousands of murders and countless atrocities. But given the choice between him and Los Zetas, the Sinaloan is perhaps the lesser of two evils. Calderón was suspected of favoring the Sinaloa cartel (an allegation his administration repeatedly denied) and reports suggest Chapo fed American law enforcement information that helped topple the Tijuana and Beltrán-Leyva cartels.

As for the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel, Chapo partners with Ismael "El Mayo" Zamabada and Juan Jose " El Azul" Esparragoza. This formidable duo is poised to assume greater control of the organization in Chapo's absence, but the line of succession is complicated, according to Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, a group that tracks organized crime in Latin America.

"It's not if El Mayo or El Azul could take over the Chapo Guzmán faction, but if whoever is slotted to take over within that faction could continue to work with the other Sinaloa Federation members," McDermott says. "What we've found in organized crime is, even if it's another leader in the same federation, it's not easy to absorb the leadership of another [faction], often because they're geographically distinct."

McDermott speculates that Chapo's death could further accelerate the fragmentation of the major Mexican cartels, which is not necessarily a good thing. While Colombia has had great success dismantling its once-mighty cartels with the help of the United States, the unintended consequences have included increased domestic drug consumption and distribution, and expansion to neighboring countries.

"[Organized crime] follows the path of least resistance, and there's a lot of resistance in Colombia so it's moving abroad," McDermott says. "We're already seeing that in Mexico as well with Los Zetas in Guatemala. The squeeze is definitely moving operations in Latin America, and it's certainly contributing to the record murder rates in Honduras."

The best-case post-Chapo scenario involves the cartel boss planning ahead and choosing one or more successors for his global drug empire. Chapo's own rise to power began when Felix Gallardo, leader of the once-omnipotent Guadalajara cartel, was arrested in 1989. As narco legend has it, Gallardo, known as El Padrino ("The Godfather"), had already divvied up his empire among his top regional lieutenants , ceding control Sinaloa to Chapo and El Mayo. Gallardo is now serving a 40-year sentence in a maximum-security Mexican prison.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the Mexican underworld would abide an orderly transition of power. Certainly, there is no shortage of aspiring kingpins eager to fill Chapo's shoes. On January 17 the U.S. Treasury Department used the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act to single out a new crime network operating in Sinaloa. The group, known as "La Oficina," is led by Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, nicknamed "Little Shorty" - or in Spanish, "Chapito."