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It sounds crazy, but catching the most notorious and wanted drug trafficker in the world might be a bad thing.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera’s empire spans almost half of Mexico, employs, bribes, and kills thousands of people, and rakes in billions of dollars every year from the insatiable American demand for illegal drugs. He has been ranked for the last three years as one of Forbes magazine’s top 100 most powerful people in the world, and the US government is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Guzmán is also a smart and talented businessman, getting involved in the drug business at a very young age under the tutelage of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known as “The Godfather” of Mexican drug trafficking. He was a major player in the original Guadalajara cartel, and was granted his own corridor in Sonora, Mexico when Gallardo divided up his empire in 1987. El Chapo is as “old school” mobster as they come, having built up his transnational criminal organization (TCO), known as the Sinaloa Federation, into one of the richest and most powerful organized crime groups in the Western Hemisphere. So why wouldn’t Mexican and American authorities want him behind bars?
The answer is simple—stability.
When Guzmán came to real prominence after his escape from a Mexican prison in 2001, there were only four major cartels operating in Mexico: the Arellano Félix Organization in northern Baja California state, the Carrillo Fuentes Organization in Ciudad Juárez, the Gulf cartel (a.k.a. the CDG for Cartel del Golfo) based out of Matamoros, and Guzmán’s own Sinaloa Federation. Being traditional mafia-type cartels, the killers and kidnappers among them stayed away from spouses, non-involved family members, children, and innocent bystanders. But years later, the introduction of Los Zetas into the mix by former CDG leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillen changed everything.
Many drug war observers and media outlets point to President Felipe Calderón’s strategy of deploying the army to fight TCOs when defining a starting point for today’s levels of violence in Mexico. While that’s part of it, the most significant reason for the evolution of violence is the introduction of beheadings, dismemberments, body dumping, and other macabre corpse displays by Los Zetas in 2004 in Nuevo Laredo. During that time, Los Zetas were battling the Federation on behalf of the CDG for control of one of the border’s most lucrative drug smuggling corridors. Since then, it has become a game between cartels of “keeping up with the Joneses,” always having to increase the shock factor to keep rivals, authorities, and innocent citizens alike intimidated beyond belief.
Today, the drug trafficking landscape in Mexico has polarized into two major camps—one belonging to the Federation and the other belonging to Los Zetas, now an independent organization run by Miguel “Z-40” Treviño Morales since the death of founding member and leader Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano in October 2012. The other organizations that emerged from the Guadalajara cartel in 1987 still exist, but are shadows of their former selves. Like the dozens of “mini cartels” and smaller trafficking groups in Mexico, they’ve had to bet on who they think will be the winning horse in the bloodiest race Mexico has ever seen.
And while the Federation and Los Zetas swim like huge sharks with scores of feeder fish under their bellies, the US and Mexican governments are busy plotting ways to catch the most slippery fish of all—El Chapo. Or are they?
Rumors have swirled for years in Mexico that the Calderón administration has favored the Sinaloa Federation, with critics using cartel arrest statistics (or lack thereof, in the Federation’s case) as proof. This is despite the fact that the Mexican army killed the Federation’s number three and one of its top operations chiefs, Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel Villarreal, in July 2010, arrested Vicente Zambada Niebla, son of the Federation’s number two, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, in March 2009, and arrested El Chapo’s top pilot and accountant in early 2012.
When reports emerged from the Wikileaks scandal relating to Mexico, some indicated the US government might even be facilitating Federation activities. An anonymous Mexican diplomat referred to as MX-1 alleged that in 2010, US authorities signaled to the Carrillo Fuentes Organization that it should recognize the superiority of the Federation in the Juárez area in order to reduce violence there. In July 2011, more leaked documents disclosed that US authorities refrained from informing their Mexican counterparts of Guzmán’s location when they knew he would be staying at a ranch near the Mexican border with Arizona in 2009.
However, there is no doubt that US and Mexican authorities are keeping an eye on his possible whereabouts, and those of his family members—known and previously unknown.
On October 16, 2012, US Customs and Border Protection officers at the San Ysidro, California port of entry detained a woman claiming to be El Chapo’s daughter. She had traveled on foot and presented a fraudulent passport and visa. The woman identified herself as Alejandrina Gisselle Guzmán Salazar and the daughter of Guzmán and his first wife, Maria Alejandrina Salazar Hernandez. However, no one had ever heard of this daughter; El Chapo supposedly only had three sons with his first wife, four children with his second wife (the only daughter of that marriage is named Griselda), and infant twins with his current wife.
Regardless, US authorities have said they verified her claim, Alejandrina has hired high-profile attorneys who have represented VIP drug lords in the past, and she will likely be persuaded to divulge any information she can about her father. Press reports say she isn’t cooperating with US officials—at least, not as of late October 2012—but she may not have any useful information about Guzmán’s whereabouts. She is a licensed surgeon in Guadalajara, and if she truly was connected with her father and the Federation, she probably would have been able to acquire legitimate immigration documents. Alejandrina does, however, have motivation to cooperate. She was seven months pregnant when she was detained and stated her intention was to deliver her baby in Los Angeles (where the as-yet-unidentified baby’s father reportedly lives), which would automatically make her children US citizens.
This is a tactic that has been used before by women in El Chapo’s circle. In August 2011, Chapo’s current wife, then-22 year-old Emma Coronel gave birth to the couple’s twin girls in a Los Angeles hospital. Coronel is a US citizen and isn’t wanted in the United States for any crimes, so authorities weren’t able to detain her, let alone question her about Guzmán’s whereabouts. Yet, according to US press reports, US federal agents apparently kept tabs on Coronel even before she crossed the border at the Calexico port of entry, through her hospital stay and until she left the country to return to Mexico.
It’s difficult to say exactly how hard authorities on both sides of the border are really trying to find and apprehend El Chapo. But what the Mexican government can never publicly acknowledge—if it truly believes this to be the case—is that Mexico would be a safer place with Guzmán in charge of the drug trade. Los Zetas have grown in size and power so much since they separated from the CDG in 2010 that some experts believe they now control more territory than the Sinaloa Federation.
The scariest part of Los Zetas is the fact they didn’t enter the Mexican drug trade in the same way as the other cartels. They came into it as pure killers and kidnappers. They’re also not organized hierarchically like older TCOs; they work as a franchise operation, doing business in cells across Mexico that often have a great degree of freedom to extort, kidnap, and kill as they wish. They’ve broken every cardinal rule the original four TCOs have ever followed, and have repeatedly displayed a clear disregard for the lives of innocent bystanders through massacres of northbound migrants and attacks on public spaces.
The prospect of Los Zetas emerging as the winning horse is a situation too desperate to even contemplate. If Mexican authorities manage to capture El Chapo, Los Zetas are poised to fight for his territory. The Federation is just that—a loosely knit alliance of smaller cartels that owe allegiance to Guzmán and his people. When a kingpin is captured or killed, such alliances tend to fracture as it becomes a case of every man for himself. Before El Lazca was killed by Mexican marines, Los Zetas were divided and pockets of increasing violence had already started to crop up in parts of Mexico where internal factions were fighting for control. Multiple Zetas cells battling for territory with a potentially fractured Federation in a post-Guzmán would leave many parts of Mexico awash in blood.
When Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI was elected in July 2012 to become Mexico’s next president, he made it a point to let the people of both Mexico and the United States know his election didn’t mean a return to the past—a time when the PRI looked the other way and allowed cartels to operate unhindered by the government. The security landscape in Mexico has changed too much for that to happen anyway, and the US government would never stand for such an arrangement. But Peña Nieto doesn’t need to create that kind of relationship with Guzmán to have a positive impact on the drug war.
It’s important to remember that it’s impossible to completely eliminate the drug trade from Mexico. But it is possible to reduce levels of violence—something Peña Nieto has made one of the top priorities of his presidency. To do that, the Mexican government needs to eliminate Los Zetas from the narco map. With the death of El Lazca, Treviño is the undisputed leader and in a position to reunite and consolidate a cartel showing some cracks. However, the organization’s overall loyalty to Z-40 is questionable. Treviño was not a member of a Mexican special forces group like most of the original Zetas, and rumors have circulated for some time that he somehow betrayed El Lazca before his death. A divided Los Zetas is even more dangerous and destructive than a united one.
Ironically, the Mexican government also needs Guzmán to stay right where he is for that to happen. He is a smart businessman above all else, and a rational thinker. He has a better chance of eventually stabilizing Tamaulipas—the epicenter of Zetas-related violence—by propping up what’s left of the CDG and acting as a bigger buffer to Los Zetas, who are irrational loose cannons. Their brand of violence currently poses the largest transnational criminal threat to both Mexico and the United States.
Since both TCOs can’t be categorically eliminated in the short term and the Mexican government has very limited options, priorities must emerge. Guzmán’s way of doing business is far more preferable, and has a considerably smaller negative impact than that of Los Zetas. Sadly, as a result, the stability of Mexico’s security relies heavily on Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera remaining a free man.
 Erin Carlyle, “Billionaire Druglords: El Chapo Guzman, Pablo Escobar, The Ochoa Brothers,” Forbes.com, March 13, 2012.
 “Narcotics Rewards Program: Joaquin Guzman-Loera,” Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, US Department of State.
 Elyssa Pachico, “Lazcano 'Death' May Hasten Zetas' Decline,” InSightCrime.org, October 9, 2012.
 Hannah Stone, “Mexico Not in League with Sinaloa Cartel, Insists Government,” InSightCrime.org, July 6, 2011.
 Geoffrey Ramsey, “Is the US Government Facilitating the Sinaloa Cartel's Activities?” InsightCrime.org, October 4, 2012.
 Richard Marosi, “Woman claiming to be drug trafficker's daughter is arrested,” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012.
 Tim Gaynor and Mary Slosson, “Mexican drug kingpin's daughter not talking to U.S. officials,” Reuters, October 17, 2012.
 Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood, “Wife of fugitive Mexican drug lord gives birth in L.A. County,” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2011.
 “Mexico’s Peña Nieto: ‘No return to the past’ from PRI,” BBC News, July 2, 2012.
 Matthew Jaffe, “Enrique Pena Nieto to Focus on Making Mexico Safer,” ABCNews.com, July 12, 2012.