What the Trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Revealed About The Inner Workings of the Sinaloa Cartel


"El Chapo" at his trial, Courtroom sketch by Christine Cornell

Sketch by Christine Cornell

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.

Looking Ahead

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.




Beittel, June. “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations.” Congressional Research Service, 3 July 2018, pp. 1–28. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41576.pdf.

Feuer, Alan. “El Chapo Drugged and Raped 13-Year-Old Girls, Witness Claims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Feb. 2019. www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/nyregion/el-chapo-trial.html.


Keneally, Meghan. “How El Chapo’s Sinaloa Drug Cartel Spread Its Reach Across US.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 13 July 2015. www.abcnews.go.com/International/el-chapos-sinaloa-drug-cartel-spread-reach-us/story?id=32421054.


Robinson, Carol. “Mexico’s Sinaloa Drug Cartel Leaving Deadly Mark on Alabama.” AL.com, Advance Local Media LLC., 23 July 2018. www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2018/07/what_is_the_sinaloa_mexican_dr.html.


“Sinaloa Cartel.” InSight Crime, 30 Jan. 2018. www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/sinaloa-cartel-profile/.


“The Verdict.” Chapo: Kingpin on Trial. VICE News/Spotify. 19 February 2019. https://open.spotify.com/show/3iZGZfoQX9kfzdZtAYi2s2?si=wxEH63CcQD2B50avZt8XJg.


Verza, Maria, and Mark Stevenson. “After El Chapo Conviction, Sinaloa Drug Cartel Carries On.” PBS, KPBS, 12 Feb. 2019. www.pbs.org/newshour/world/after-el-chapo-conviction-sinaloa-drug-cartel-carries-on.


Verza, Maria, and Mark Stevenson. “Despite ‘El Chapo’ Arrest, Mexico’s Powerful Sinaloa Drug Cartel Still Raking in Cash around the World.” The Japan Times, 13 Feb. 2019. www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/02/13/world/crime-legal-world/despite-el-chapo-arrest-mexicos-powerful-sinaloa-drug-cartel-still-raking-cash-around-world/#.XGxRBc9KigQ.





Mexican activist, journalist killed during on-air radio program

journalist, sinaloa, dead, activist

Activist and journalist Atilano Román Tirado. Photo: Univisión.

10/27/14 (written by ggaona-hernandez) — A rather brazen and public attack on October 11 left another Mexican journalist and activist dead. The attack occurred on October 11 when two armed men entered a radio station in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, and killed Atilano Román Tirado at point blank range. Román was in the middle of a live weekly radio program he held, “Asé es mi tierra” (“Such is my land”), hosted on Radio Fiesta Mexicana when the gunmen entered. Although the radio recording was seized by authorities as part of the investigation, reports indicate that the other broadcasters and media members in the room yelled “They killed him! They killed him!,” which was broadcast live across the radio stream. Román, who was shot in the face, was rushed to the nearby hospital where he passed away soon thereafter.

Because the gunmen did not turn their weapons on the witnesses in the broadcasting booth, authorities believe this was an attack strictly targeted towards Román because of his role as an activist in Sinaloa, and not because of his work as a journalist. For one, although attacks against journalists are not uncommon in Mexico, attacks against radio journalists are largely outside of the norm. Meanwhile, surveillance videos also show the gunmen following Román by car from his house through Mazatlán to the radio station. Román’s work as an activist included leading the Displaced Persons of Picachos group, which emerged when more than 800 families’ farm lands were flooded by the government following the criticized creation of the Picachos dam in Sinaloa in 2007. Román was an advocate for better treatment and compensation for the families and farmers who lost their land and houses. As Reporters Without Borders writes, “A frequent critic of the local authorities in his programmes, Román… had received threats in the past in connection with his role in organizing marches and protests to demand compensation for the lost land.

The day before Román’s murder, another Sinaloan journalist was targeted when Nueva Prensa director Jesús Antonio Gamboa Uriás disappeared the night of October 10. His body was found 13 days later in Ahome, Sinaloa. Like Román, Gamboa, too, was an activist in the social scene, having played a leading role in repealing the State’s “Gag Law” (“Ley Mordaza”) in August 2014 and demanding journalists’ access to public information and investigations. In response to Román’s murder on the heels of Gamboa’s then-disappearance, Reporters Without Borders Deputy Programme Director Virginie Dangles spoke out, saying, “We urge the authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into Atilano Román’s shocking murder and to bring those responsible to justice.” She continued, “Murdering a presenter in a radio studio while he is on the air shows that violence against journalists knows no limits in Mexico.” Sinaloa Governor Mario López Váldez also chimed in on the matter, proclaiming that justice would be served against those responsible for Román’s murder.


“Asesinan en Sinaloa a locutor cuando transmitia su programa de radio.” Univisión. October 13, 2014.

Associated Press. “Mexican Activist gunned down during Live Radio Broadcast.” CBS News. October 13, 2014.

“Radio host shot dead during live broadcast.” Reporters Without Borders. October 15, 2014.

“Director of Sinaloan newspaper reported missing.” Justice in Mexico. October 18, 2014.

Director of Sinaloan newspaper reported missing

Disappeared newspaper director Sinaloa

Nueva Prensa Director Jesús Antonio Gamboa Urías. Photo: El Debate.

10/18/14 (written by cissel) — Another Mexican journalist has been the target of violence, this time in the state of Sinaloa. Jesús Antonio Gamboa Uriás (39), the head of the politically-charged magazine Nueva Prensa, disappeared the night of October 10, according to a complaint filed by his family with the State Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de Justicia del Estado, PGJE). Speaking from Culiacán, Sinaloa, Iván Gamboa, the brother of Jesús Antonio, stated that the last time his brother was seen was around 11:00pm on October 10 in Ahome, Sinaloa at the local corner store El Paradero owned by Iván. Reports indicate thatJesús Antonio drove away from the store through the streets of the Anáhuac suburb in his own vehicle, and has not been seen since. The PGJE is investigating the case.

Some speculation has risen that Gamboa’s disappearance may be politically charged. Not only does Nueva Prensa report on stories of politics and corruption, but Gamboa, who has had over 18 years of experience in media, was also one of the leaders of a movement in August to repeal a law enacted by the Sinaloan Congress. Also known as the “Ley Mordaza,” or “Gag Law,” the law limited access journalists, and the public at large, have to information related to investigations and judicial cases. Gamboa played an active role in gathering hundreds of protestors to a march on August 7, demanding Congress repeal the law, which it unanimously did several weeks later. Sinaloa is also home to the Sinaloa Cartel and related organized crime violence, thus the PGJE is investigating the motive behind Gamboa’s disappearance, whether political, cartel-related, or other.

Gamboa’s disappearance comes just one month after a story caught national news of the assault of a young female reporter in Guanajuato—an attack allegedly ordered by the town’s mayor and municipal police force. Such events add to Mexico’s already notorious standing as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to work. In April 2014, for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Mexico in the bottom seven countries worldwide in its effort to punish and investigate crimes against journalists. Specifically related to Gamboa’s case and the previous incident in Guanajuato, organization Artículo 19 reported that of the 330 acts of aggression against journalists reported in 2013, 60% were committed by government officials.


“60% de las agresiones a periodistas en México, de funcionarios: Article 19.” CNN México. March 18, 2014.

Witchel, Elisabeth. “Getting Away With Murder.” Committee to Protect Journalists. April 16, 2014.

“Body of kidnapped journalist found outside of Acapulco.” Justice in Mexico. June 7, 2014.

“El Congreso de Sinaloa deroga por unanimidad la ‘ley mordaza.’” CNN México. August 21, 2014.

“PGJE investigating mayor and municipal police of ordering attack on journalist.” Justice in Mexico. September 21, 2014.

Redacción. “Familiares reportan desaparacíon del periodista Jesús Antonio Gamboa Uribás in Sinaloa.” SDP Noticias. October 13, 2014.

Redacción. “Reportan desaparación de periodista en Ahome, Sinaloa.” Proceso. October 13, 2014.

EFE. “Journalist reported missing in northwestern Mexico.” Fox News Latino. October 14, 2014.

Artículo 19. “Autoridades mexicanas deben investigar desaparición de periodista sinaloense.” IFEX. October 17, 2014.