06/14/2021 (written by rramos) – The U.S. Department of Justice announced on June 10 that Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of jailed Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, pleaded guilty to several criminal charges related to drug trafficking and money laundering. The charges included conspiracy to distribute cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the United States; conspiracy to launder drug proceeds; and violating the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act by engaging in financial transactions and dealings with property belonging to Guzmán, who remains sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
According to Anthony Nardozzi, the federal prosecutor handling the case, Coronel’s role in the Sinaloa Cartel also included delivering messages from her imprisoned husband to cartel operatives after Guzmán’s 2016 arrest, allowing him to remain involved in the group’s operations from behind bars. Additionally, Nardozzi stated that Coronel had collaborated with El Chapo’s sons to “plan and coordinate” attempts to help Guzmán escape from prison, including his successful 2015 breakout from Altiplano federal prison in Mexico.
Coronel’s defense attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, told the Associated Press that his client did not plead guilty as part of a deal to cooperate with federal investigators, but instead was aiming to receive a shorter prison term when she is sentenced in September. Nevertheless, Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) speculated that Coronel may ultimately decide to work with authorities in exchange for getting her 9-year-old twin daughters (fathered by Guzmán) and herself into some sort of witness-protection program in the United States.
U.S. Investigators Targeting Families of Sinaloa Cartel Leaders
Emma Coronel’s guilty plea comes as U.S. authorities continue to target close relatives of the Sinaloa Cartel’s leading figures. Within the family of “El Chapo” Guzmán, U.S. law enforcement agencies have steadily increased their attention on his sons, often referred to collectively as “Los Chapitos.” Two sons from his first wife, Jesús Alfredo and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, are regarded as particularly important actors within the Sinaloa network. Jesús Alfredo has appeared on DEA’s most wanted list since 2018, while Iván Archivaldo remains sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department under the Kingpin Act for being identified as a “key Sinaloa Cartel operative.” Another two sons, Ovidio and Joaquín Guzmán López, both from El Chapo’s second marriage, were accused by U.S. prosecutors of participating in the cartel’s drug trafficking activities in an indictment unsealed in February 2019. U.S. investigators’ interest in Ovidio was illustrated by the failed operation to arrest him in Culiacán, Sinaloa in October 2019, an operation that reportedly originated from the aforementioned U.S. indictment against him earlier that year.
Another Sinaloa Cartel kingpin whose family continues to be pursued by U.S. authorities is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, who had been among El Chapo’s closest associates for many years. In April 2021, Ismael Zambada Imperial, known also by the criminal alias “Mayito Gordo,” pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in a federal court in San Diego. Along with Zambada Imperial, three other sons of El Mayo have also been in the crosshairs of U.S. investigators. Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada Niebla, who was a key witness in El Chapo’s criminal trial, and Serafin Zambada Ortiz have both been convicted of criminal charges in the United States, while Ismael Zambada Sicairos, known as “Mayito Flaco,” remains at large after being indicted in 2014. The U.S. Treasury Department has also reportedly sanctioned multiple companies established by El Mayo’s wife, Rosario Niebla Cardoza, and several of his daughters that U.S. authorities allege are used for laundering ill-gotten proceeds from cartel operations.
Internal Disputes Continue to Rage On in Mexico
As the U.S. Government continues to go after the inner circles of the Sinaloa Cartel’s most prominent members, the organization itself remains engulfed in an internal conflict in which El Mayo and Los Chapitos are apparently competing for influence within the group. The dispute is playing out in a series of violent confrontations in some of the Sinaloa Cartel’s traditional strongholds in northwestern Mexico, such as Sonora, Sinaloa, and Durango. Intra-Sinaloa Cartel violence has been particularly acute in the strategically important border state of Baja California. The state’s capital city of Mexicali, which saw a marked increase in homicides throughout the early months of 2021, suffered additional clashes linked to infighting between El Mayo and Los Chapitos as recently as May 2021.
Although some observers have argued that Emma Coronel’s recent guilty plea paves the way for her to provide U.S. authorities with critical information regarding the inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, it is unclear if these insights (even if shared with investigators) will be able to help prevent further divisions within the organization once headed by her husband.
03/04/21 (written by scortez) – On February 22, Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of drug kingpin Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, was arrested on drug-trafficking charges at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. According to the New York Times, the charges against Coronel allege her role in assisting her husband run a criminal empire and plotting his escape from prison after he was captured in 2014. Reforma reports that the FBI obtained a postmarked letter Guzmán for Coronel, in which he negotiated the terms of increasing production of heroin. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison. In 2019, Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison without parole for being the chief operating figure of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the largest and most powerful drug-trafficking organizations in the world.
The Guardian reports that Coronel, a dual U.S.-Mexican citizen, was confident that she would not be arrested in the United States. She was a constant presence throughout the duration of Guzmán’s trial in New York City and had gone on record as knowing nothing about Guzmán’s illicit enterprise. Still, the arrest came as a surprise. Prosecutors had not made any indication that they would be pursuing charges, even after she had been directly implicated in Guzmán’s 2019 trial. For two years, Coronel had been under investigation by U.S. attorneys for communicating messages on behalf of Guzmán, while he was in hiding between 2012 and 2014.
Coronel Played Role in Her Husband’s Operations and 2015 Escape
According to Milenio, Coronel was responsible for communicating instructions, regarding her husband’s 2015 prison escape, to his children and other high-ranking members of the cartel. In their investigation, FBI agents obtained Blackberry text messages from Coronel that illustrate her deep involvement in his operations, at times involving her own father’s assistance. Igna “Nacho” Coronel, Emma’s father and longtime partner of Guzmán, is believed to have introduced the couple. Her father was later arrested in 2013 for his involvement in drug-trafficking for the cartel. After Guzmán was arrested in Mazatlán, Sinaloa in 2014, Emma continued to assist her husband with running the cartel from prison until his 2015 escape.
The U.S. Department of Justice asserts that in 2015, Emma Coronel aided Guzmán’s second escape from the Altiplano prison in the city of Almoloya. She worked with four of his sons to plan his underground escape, which included purchasing weapons and armored vehicles. The carefully planned escape involved a mile-long tunnel with tracks to allow him to escape on a makeshift motorbike on train-style tracks. The investigation also alleges that she planned to facilitate his escape after he was apprehended in 2016. Coronel contacted an individual, who is now a witness in the case, to purchase land around the prison to mirror his 2015 escape. The plan did not come to fruition because Guzmán was transferred to a prison in Ciudad Juárez and later extradited to the United States. Coronel had told a witness that they had paid $2 million dollars to an official in Mexico City in an attempt to get Guzmán back to the Altiplano prison, where he could escape more easily. It was previously believed that the bribe revealed a web of corruption that could have resulted in another planned escape.
Coronel is the latest family member of Guzmán to face charges for their role in facilitating his operations. U.S. authorities have labeled Coronel a “flight risk.” She is currently being held without bail, pending trial. Details of her involvement in the Sinaloa Cartel will continue to surface as the legal process runs its course. The arrest of Coronel also signals that the United States under the Biden Administration is going to pursue the geopolitical strategy of assisting Mexico in its fight against narcotrafficking.
01/11/21 (written by tmcginnis) — The National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, MORENA), President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) ruling party, passed a new law that curbs the role of foreign law enforcement agents operating within the country. This legislation calls into question the durability of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral efforts to combat the presence of powerful organized crime groups (OCG) exercising significant control over the Mexican state.
Understanding the Legislation
As reported by InSight Crime, the law and subsequent reforms, approved on December 9 and 15 by the Senate and Congress respectively, strip diplomatic immunity from foreign officials, necessitate that foreign officials secure permits from the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) to carry firearms, and require the aforementioned officials to share any and all security-related intelligence gathered while in Mexico with their proper Mexican counterparts. Concerning information exchanges, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at Brookings’ Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, further details that both Mexican officials and law enforcement officers, whether it be at the local, state, or federal level, must report all communication with foreign law enforcement, intelligence agents, etc. within three days of the initial occurrence. Furthermore, meetings with foreign agents must obtain prior approval from high-ranking federal officials and require the presence of a member of the Mexican Foreign Ministry (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE).
Possible Initial Impetus
Although the legislation does not overtly single out agents or officials from any particular country, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has maintained a strong operating presence in Mexico since the 1970s, will likely constitute one of the most impacted actors. According to Proceso, President AMLO put forth an initial proposal to regulate foreign officials in early December. As El Universal notes, this opening push came seemingly as a result of the arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, which occurred in October of 2020. Cienfuegos was arrested by DEA agents on U.S. soil on October 15 for alleged connections with drug trafficking and organized crime. At the time, El Universal reported that Mexican officials were unaware of the United States’ plans to arrest Cienfuegos. In fact, InSight Crime reports that Mexican officials had no knowledge of the multi-year investigation or the indictment filed in August of 2019. Furthermore, seeing that Cienfuegos represents the first senior Mexican military official to face arrest in the United States in connection to organized crime groups and drug trafficking, these gaps in intelligence simply compounded the existing shockwaves.
In attempting to rectify what Rita Kukertz of Justice in Mexico deems the “breach of trust” caused by the discrepancy in intelligence, the United States, in a move clearly breaking with decades of international law enforcement procedures and practices, dropped the charges and allowed Cienfuegos to return to Mexico. However, according to Brookings, this unprecedented action was predicated on the “premise of a bargain” to not expel U.S. law enforcement officials and agents from Mexico — a move the Mexican government had threatened in the past. Thus, the new law may be seen as a “double-cross” from Mexico, in that its significance or “practical impact” remains similar to expulsion. “Essentially, the law paralyzes Mexico’s cooperation with international law enforcement counterparts and eviscerates any remaining trust and meaningful law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Mexico,” writes Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings.
U.S. agencies have long engaged in joint operations with their Mexican counterparts to combat organized crime groups. Unfortunately, these efforts, working in tandem with billions of dollars in U.S. assistance, have not always achieved the desired outcomes and have, at times, resulted in serious missteps by the United States, as in the case of Cienfuegos or the 2011 attack on Allende by the Zetas cartel. However, it remains of critical importance to highlight that U.S. intelligence-gathering operations have been instrumental in arresting, prosecuting, and convicting high-profile individuals, such as Joaquín Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”), the former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin. Thus, the security reforms have raised concerns for several actors. For example, in a formal statement, former U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr expressed that the United States is “troubled by legislation currently before the Mexican Congress.” He continued, arguing that the “passage of this legislation can only benefit the violent transnational criminal organizations and other criminals that we are jointly fighting.”
In assessing the principal impacts, a substantial amount of information sharing and intelligence gathering occurs at lower levels through potential informants and cooperative witnesses. However, actors like the DEA, who are now restricted and vulnerable to prosecution in Mexico, will be less willing to put themselves in danger to acquire and relay mutually beneficial intelligence. As detailed by Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, the Head of Security Research Programs at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, with little incentive to engage in those conversations or coordinate exchanges, crucial information channels will begin to dwindle and wane, eventually drying up the evidentiary ammunition previously used to disrupt organized crime operations. Furthermore, as noted by Brookings, with the previously discussed condition necessitating the presence of a member of the Mexican Foreign Ministry during meetings with foreign agents, the ability to secure the attendance of a Foreign Relations official in an urgent time frame or complicated location (e.g. deep in Guerrero, Jalisco, etc.) could be rather unfeasible.
President López Obrador’s Motivations
Though a previous section discusses the arrest of Cienfuegos as a possible impetus for the law, one can also think of it more as a tipping point. President AMLO has several possible and more complicated motivations in pursuing such legislation. Firstly, and arguably most directly, AMLO faced pressure from the Mexican military to prevent further investigations and shockwaves, akin to what was witnessed regarding General Cienfuegos. AMLO has additionally privileged the presence of the Mexican military, SEDENA, in many traditionally civilian-run operations, such as the construction of airports, repairs of hospitals, etc. Analysts continue to raise concerns about the Mexican military’s ever-expanding power and influence.
Second, the president could be utilizing the legislation as a “bargaining chip.” AMLO still has to sign off on the law in order for it to reach formal implementation. However, if he delays signing, he could possibly generate leverage to hinder the U.S.’ incoming Biden Administration’s initiatives that will likely be controversial in the context of bilateral relations, such as energy reform and the mitigation of climate change.
Though the impact of this legislation on the U.S.-Mexico bilateral effort to combat organized crime is rather apparent, AMLO should remain wary of the possible unintended consequences as well. Brookings notes that by restricting the operations of U.S. law enforcement, this includes those U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Mexico who authorize the preclearance of cargo. Their limited presence will lead to a bottleneck of trucks waiting for inspection, creating issues in the supply chain and putting significant revenue, such as produce, at risk.
11/05/19 (Written by T McGinnis) – On October 17th, heavy fighting erupted in the Mexican city of Culiacán, Sinaloa after security forces detained Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of the jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. According to El País, authorities initially reported that they found Guzmán during a routine search and arrested him due to the significant role he has played in his father’s illicit activities. However, as noted by the Los Angeles Times, the story evolved rapidly. Mexican officials later acknowledged that the operation had been planned, but suggested that it was physically carried out by rogue security forces without proper authorization. In either case, authorities lacked a search warrant upon entering Guzmán’s property, calling the legality of the mission into question from the beginning. Following this blunder, the cartel launched a large attack in retaliation. As videos and pictures of dead bodies and families scrambling for shelter surfaced and subsequently flooded the media, the public watched as the death toll gradually rose in the days following the violence. Univision later confirmed on October 21st that at least 13 people were killed and dozens more were injured.
According to Milenio, in reaction to the violence, authorities ultimately freed Ovidio Guzmán López and retreated, subsequently defending this course of action by arguing that the most important objective remains to avoid the loss of human lives. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke publicly regarding the matter stating, “We don’t want bloodshed. We do not want that. From anyone. We are also hurting with respect to the loss of the life of an alleged criminal. We are not oblivious to the pain caused by the death of any person.” Reiterating the position that his administration has taken from the outset, Obrador insisted that “you can’t fight fire with fire.” However, this response raised strong criticisms of López Obrador’s security strategy, which thus far has failed to quell Mexico’s rising tide of violence, which has reached more than 3,000 murders each month as noted by El Universal.
Indeed, critics charged that the cartel’s victory represented a stunning “humiliation” for the Mexican government. According to The New York Times, though Obrador rightly maintains that he inherited the problem of unchecked corruption, those who oppose the strategy of release and retreat utilized by the government last month argue that these actions send the wrong message and set a dangerous precedent. Cartels may now more strongly assume that through the leveraging violence, they can get their way and further their interests. Additionally, while the López Obrador administration may opt not to go after drug traffickers, vocal critics like Ioan Grillo point out that the drug “war does not stop even if the government is not attacking them.”
López Obrador has also been criticized for the lack of an effective security strategy, despite his efforts to build a new National Guard to restore order. Indeed, many members of the National Guard have been diverted from their public security role to focus on stopping Central American migrants from entering the United States. Meanwhile, López Obrador’s efforts have been beset by protests from federal law enforcement officers who object to the dissolution of their agency, the Federal Police, and their incorporation into the National Guard during the recent reorganization of security forces, as noted last month by Justice in Mexico. Engelbert Ruiz, a Federal Police Officer, commented that “What is really happening is that they are simply changing our uniforms [with] no explanations, clarity, no rights or guarantees.”
According to the Diario de Yucatán, compounding an already complicated set of internal tensions, “Mexican media outlets reported that elements in the army were unhappy with the outcome of Thursday’s debacle in Culiacán.” As noted by sources, such as Mexican News Daily, this rift between President López Obrador and military forces continued to grow in the days following the operation. On October 22nd, retired military general Carlos Gaytán gave a highly critical speech regarding the worrisome status of “today’s Mexico” under the Obrador administration. “…We cannot ignore that the head of the executive has been legally and legitimately empowered. However, it’s also an undeniable truth that fragile counterweight mechanisms have permitted a strengthening of the executive, which has made strategic decisions that haven’t convinced everyone, to put it mildly.” Though Gaytán never explicitly referred to the Culiacán operation, established sources within the military informed The Washington Post that the speech served as a response to the mission on behalf the armed forces.
However, other sources point out that the story of Ovidio Guzmán’s release remains subject to two very different interpretations. According to Consulta Mitofsky for El Economista, “in Sinaloa, 79% of the population and 53% nationally, considered that the federal government did the right thing by freeing Ovidio Guzmán López from the threat of the Sinaloa Cartel to attack the citizens.” The state of Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, is overwhelmed by the presence of crime and an ever-increasing tendency of cartels to use insurgent tactics to achieve their political aims, such as the use of roadblocks to hinder military reinforcement. Vladimir Ramirez, a political scientist in Culiacán, explained that although the gunmen did not intentionally target noncombatants initially, the menace posed by the cartel remained clear. The citizens of Sinaloa, who have been subject and well-exposed to cartel reign, recognized this. The usual elusive quality of cartel gunmen had, in this case, materialized; their visible and violent presence forcing families to hide in small, anxiety-provoking spaces as described by Televisa. “It was a threat of terrorism,” Ramirez said. “The government acted with great responsibility.” Additionally, El Universal reports that during the operation, Aguaruto prison experienced a breakdown in security, resulting in the escape of approximately 50 prisoners, most of whom originally forfeited their rights due to ties with organized crime. Additionally, many approve of the government’s strategy of release and retreat because according to Milenio, cartel hitmen threatened to kill hostage soldiers and their families if Guzmán remained held by authorities.
Moving forward, it remains to be seen whether the Mexican president will heed critics’ warnings by cracking down on drug traffickers or continue to pursue a self-described approach focused on “hugs, not gunfights” (abrazos, no balazos). Clearly, though, what occurred in Sinaloa on October 17th has increased pressure on the López Obrador administration to develop a coherent and effective strategy to reduce both violent crime and the threat of Mexico’s powerful organized crime groups.
03/19/19- (written by Aitanna Ferrez) Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was convicted in the Southern District of New York on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 on all counts brought against him for his role in directing the Sinaloa Cartel since roughly the 1980s. The trial revealed significant details about the Sinaloa Cartel, how it works, who is involved and where their business is conducted, providing a greater understanding of how this specific cartel has contributed to corruption and violence in Mexico. In the wake of his arrest and extradition to the United States, business of the cartel seems to be carrying on as usual, there is an ongoing epidemic of U.S. drug overdoses, and violence in Mexico has reached record levels. Understanding the impact of the Sinaloa Cartel and where it may be headed in Guzman’s absence requires a careful review of what we now know about the organization.
Background on the Sinaloa Cartel
According to InSight Crime, the Sinaloa Cartel began as a small group of farming families who switched to drug trafficking in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán officially founded the Sinaloa Cartel. Up until his arrest in January 2016, Guzmán served with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia as what has been perceived as head of the drug trafficking organization.
The Sinaloa Cartel achieved success in part because of its relatively decentralized structure, with different geographic divisions of the network working together as “separate but cooperating organizations.” Indeed, though identified as the organization’s formal leaders in principal, InSight Crime reports that both Guzmán and Zambada Garcia historically maintained their own individual organizational structures within the Sinaloa Cartel. Meanwhile, many of the Sinaloa Cartel’s activities and operations in Mexico and internationally were “outsourced” to local suppliers, distributors, and other partners.
According to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, in an interview with ABC News, it was “El Chapo” Guzmán’s ability to “institutionalize power systems and relationships” that largely enabled the cartel to expand. According to Bret Hamilton, assistant special agent for Alabama’s sector of the DEA, the Sinaloa cartel is said to control about one-fourth of the drug traffic within the Mexican Region, with an even larger reach and hold on the United States.”
The effect of the reach of the Sinaloa Cartel and its network of contraband trade has had translates directly into its ability to, as InSight affirms, “successfully [penetrate] government and security forces wherever it operates.” As stated in a June 2018 CRS report, the Sinaloa Cartel has “successfully corrupted public officials from the local to the national level inside Mexico and abroad to operate in some 50 countries,” allowing it to become the top supplier of illicit psychotropic substances in the United States.
What We Learned from the Guzmán Trial
The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was a lesson in and of itself on how the Sinaloa Cartel’s success has been contingent upon the high level of corruption within the Mexican police, military, and government. Witness testimony during the trial brought to the surface countless allegations against Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel, and corruption was arguably the prominent theme that emerged throughout.
As revealed in a VICE News podcast, the corruption of the Sinaloa Cartel is practically embedded in all aspects of life in Mexico. Two testimonies in particular – one delivered by a former government official Lucero Sanchez Lopez, who became a mistress of Guzmán and the other by Alex Cifuentes, a relative of one of Guzmán’s primary cocaine suppliers in Colombia – brought to light the degree of high-level corruption of the Mexican government by the Sinaloa Cartel. In addition, according to the New York Times following the final presentation of evidence, reports delivered the prosecution revealed possibly the most shocking claims against Mr. Guzmán, accusing the crime lord of “routinely rap[ing] girls as young as 13 years old.”
The first witness’ testimony illustrated the way that government officials fell under Guzmán’s sway even as they were sworn to enforce the law. Cifuentes, meanwhile, alleged that the cartel was able to bribe officials even at the highest levels of office, including then-president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), who allegedly accepted a bribe of $100 million to protect the Sinaloa Cartel from authorities.
The Sinaloa Cartel, though constantly challenged within Mexico by other drug trafficking organizations, seems to prosper well due to its significant international network, even after the guilty verdict of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. In an interview with PBS Newshour, Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the DEA, comments that capturing and convicting Guzmán “was a great moral victory for the rule of law, [but] it did very little to have a negative impact on the Sinaloa Cartel.” With the drugs continuing to be shipped, the Mexican government no longer hunting down drug lords, and Guzmán’s fate of little importance, the Sinaloa Cartel seems to continue to persist with business as usual.