Busting Myths Surrounding Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
The March 3rd ambush of four American citizens in Matamoros Mexico that resulted in the murders of two of the victims and the abduction of the others caused a plethora of discussion about Mexican cartels and the violence in Mexico.
A number of false myths surrounding Mexico’s cartels have been repeated, and it is important to try to set the record straight.
Many of these myths involve Joaquín Guzmán Loera, widely known as “El Chapo”—“Shorty” in English.
Guzmán has become a legendary figure in the annals of global organized crime.
It is difficult to think of another criminal who has generated more media attention over the past two decades than El Chapo.
However, as is common with figures who generate so much global attention, it has difficult to separate fact from fiction, and the man from the myth.
Much of this mythology was intentional.
Guzmán himself paid musicians to write “narcocorrido” ballads romanticizing his exploits.
He also made an effort to coopt journalists who would write favorable articles about him, and he murdered many whom he could not pay off.
Guzmán also held parties and gave out gifts to the population in an effort to propagate this image—and help him win control of the human terrain he needed to operate as a criminal insurgent.
Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of Guzmán attempting to promote his own legend was his 2016 “clandestine” meeting with actors Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn that resulted in Penn writing an article for Rolling Stone magazine.
Myths can be entertaining, and honestly, kind of fun to indulge in.
But myths become problematic if you are attempting to understand and forecast the dynamics of a particular phenomenon—in this case, Mexico’s cartel wars.
Buying into mythical narratives results in faulty understanding by providing an incorrect contextual framework for understanding past events and forecasting future dynamics, leading to bad analysis.
To provide a better understanding of cartel dynamics, examine three of the most commonly held myths associated with El Chapo Guzmán.
Myth 1: Unlike other Narcos, Guzmán is a businessman, not a thug
I recently heard a friend and former colleague promote this myth on a popular podcast and then repeat it on his own YouTube channel.
This myth of Guzmán as simply a businessman was actively promoted to the public by Guzmán through his prodigious public relations efforts.
He attempted to portray himself as some sort of benevolent Robin Hood figure who was not as violent as other cartel leaders.
Guzmán liked to depict himself as the Mexican equivalent of the Dukes of Hazard—“Just a good old boy, never meanin’ no harm”—who was forced into criminal acts by corrupt politicians and law enforcement officers who were the Mexican equivalents of Boss Hogg and Sheriff Coltrane.
Admittedly, Guzmán was indeed a brilliant businessman and logistician, and he did pioneer several new and creative means of smuggling drugs into the United States.
Had he applied his business acumen to legitimate ends, there is little doubt he would have been very successful.
However, with a careful look at the historical record of Mexico’s cartel wars, it is easy to argue that from 1988 to 2014 Guzmán and his Sinaloa Cartel associates were the most blatantly aggressive of all the Mexican cartel groups and were responsible for starting much of the violence that has wracked Mexico since the early 1990s.
Guzmán’s first aggressive foray began in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he sent operatives into Tijuana to purchase stash houses and construct smuggling tunnels.
He made this move without the permission of the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO—also known as the Tijuana Cartel) and without paying the AFO the appropriate “piso” or tax for moving dope through their territory.
The AFO sent a message that such incursions would not be tolerated by killing the interlopers.
Guzmán responded by attempting to assassinate Ramon and Francisco Javier Arellano Felix in a Puerto Vallarta nightclub in November 1992.
This failed assassination attempt led to an all-out AFO/Sinaloa cartel war that eventually resulted in the May 1993 murder of a Mexican Archbishop who was allegedly killed by an AFO hit squad that mistook him for Guzmán.
The AFO defeated Sinaloa in the first war for Tijuana and Guzmán was forced to flee the country.
But Guzmán was not idle while in prison; he continued to work with the other leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel factions to plot further efforts to expand into the territory of other cartels.
The Sinaloa leadership saw their next opportunity to expand following the March 2003 arrest of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, whose organization controlled several border crossings in Eastern Mexico, including Nuevo Laredo.
Nuevo Laredo, which sits on the I-35 “NAFTA Superhighway,” is the largest border crossing along the U.S./Mexico border by volume, and an extremely lucrative “plaza” for any criminal group that controls it.
The Acapulco-based Sinaloa faction led by the Beltran Leyva brothers had previously established a presence in the northern industrial city of Monterrey, and the Sinaloa leadership decided that the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) was thus the Sinaloa faction’s best position to make a move to wrest control of the Nuevo Laredo plaza from the Gulf Cartel.
The result of this armed incursion into Nuevo Laredo was the bloodiest criminal war in Mexico to date, with the Gulf Cartel’s Los Zetas enforcer unit pitted against Sinaloa enforcer units, with both sides using military ordnance that included automatic weapons, anti-tank weapons, and hand grenades.
Sinaloa ultimately lost their battle for supremacy in Nuevo Laredo, but they were not finished.
Juarez and Tijuana
Their next target was Juarez. On September 11, 2004, Sinaloa gunmen assassinated Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, one of the leaders of the Juarez Cartel.
This sparked a war for control of Juarez—a war that has never truly been settled.
Although the Sinaloa was able to wrest control of a good portion of Juarez, violence continues in the Juarez and Chihuahua States between forces loyal to the Juarez Cartel such as La Linea.
Sinaloa also turned their sights back on the Tijuana plaza they had long coveted.
Following a string of arrests of members of the Arellano Felix family, the AFO was wracked by a bitter internal fight in 2008.
Sinaloa leadership seized this opportunity to support one of the factions in this war and thus gain entry into Tijuana.
Like Juarez, the war for Tijuana has never really ended.
Despite occasional outbreaks of violence, the Sinaloa Cartel still sends large volumes of drugs into the U.S. via Tijuana and Mexicali.
A Hands-On Jefe
In another highly publicized incident, Guzmán and the Sinaloa leadership dispatched gunmen from their New Generation Juarez Cartel sub-group (known by the Spanish acronym CJNG) to Veracruz in 2011 to attempt to seize control of the port city from the Los Zetas Cartel.
These CJNG hit squads, calling themselves “Matazetas” (Zeta killers) conducted several large body dumps of purported Zetas members that terrified Veracruz and shocked Mexico.
But Guzmán’s proclivity for violence went far beyond just sending sicarios and enforcers to use force against his enemies.
In testimony delivered during Guzmán’s trial in New York, witnesses testified that Guzmán himself participated in the torture and brutal murders of members of rival cartels.
While Guzmán does not appear to be quite as psychotic as some other cartel leaders, the man clearly did not hesitate to employ brutal, and even gratuitous, violence when it suited his needs.
Myth 2: The Sinaloa Cartel is or was a hierarchical organization
While El Chapo Guzmán was the high-profile “face” of the Sinaloa Cartel, the group was simply never a single, unified organization.
It could always be more accurately described as a network or confederation of smaller gangs and cartel groups that banded together for business purposes.
The number of different “stamps” seen on bricks of drugs seized from “Sinaloa Cartel” drug shipments give testament to the various sub-groups working together for smuggling operations under the Sinaloa umbrella.
Guzmán headed one of these sub-groups and his sons, known as “Los Chapitos”—the little Chapos—still lead that faction.
Another powerful sub-group, the BLO, was led by the Beltran Leyva Brothers.
One of Sinaloa’s other large factions, the Milenio Cartel, was tied to the powerful Valencia and Coronel smuggling clans from Guadalajara.
This faction was led by Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal until his death in 2010.
After an internal power struggle, the faction of the Milenio Cartel led by Nemesio Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, aka “El Mencho” became the CJNG.
In 2014, the CJNG split from Sinaloa and has since become one of the largest and most aggressive cartels in Mexico.
Since 2014 they have become even more militarily aggressive than the Sinaloa Cartel.
Other factions of Sinaloa are led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and Juan José Esparragoza Moreno “El Azul.”
Another faction known as “the Colima Cartel” was led by the Amezcua Contreras clan.
The Los Salazar organization is yet another branch of Sinaloa that operates primarily in Sonora state.
Each of these organizations has its own hierarchy, interests, and operational imperatives.
When these align with those of other Sinaloa factions they remain united in the confederation, but when they clash, factions can and do leave the network, which brings us to the third myth.
Myth 3: Sinaloa did not begin to implode until the arrest of El Chapo
There is a popular narrative that El Chapo Guzmán was the glue that held the Sinaloa Cartel and that after his third arrest in 2016, and extradition to the U.S. in January 2017, the organization began to break apart into several factions, including the groups run by Guzmán’s sons and the group run by El Mayo Zambada.
However, this narrative is easy to disprove.
One of the most significant fractures of the Sinaloa Cartel occurred following the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva in January 2008.
Alfredo and his brothers blamed the arrest on Guzmán, resulting in the BLO breaking away from the Sinaloa network.
Seeking revenge, a group of BLO gunmen assassinated Guzmán’s son Édgar Guzmán López in Culiacan, Sinaloa in May of 2008.
This assassination ignited a hot war between the former allies that would last for years.
Another significant fracture was the loss of the Milenio Cartel.
One faction of Milenio that called itself La Resistencia—The Resistance—broke off following the killing of Ignacio Coronel, which they blamed on Guzmán.
The other faction of the Milenio Cartel, the one led by El Mencho Oseguera Cervantes, would stay in the Sinaloa network until 2014 before also breaking away.
While Sinaloa has not experienced the same degree of organizational splintering that has devastated its rivals the Gulf Cartel, Juarez Cartel, and Tijuana Cartel, it has nevertheless been significantly impacted by the loss of both the BLO and the Milenio/CJNG Cartels—and both of these major fractures happened years before Guzmán’s arrest and extradition.
Guzmán may have been a unifying force who was able to smooth over some of the fault lines that erupted between the factions of the Sinaloa network following his arrest, but even the legendary El Chapo was unable to keep all the factions of the Sinaloa Cartel network together during his tenure.