It was like a scene from a movie: truckloads of gunmen drive up to an upscale restaurant, interrupt a party, round up the men of the group, and lead them away at gunpoint. But what may have passed for just another kidnapping in Mexico soon turned into worldwide news after media outlets identified one of the victims, Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, as a son of the world’s most famous criminal, Joaquin Guzman Loera, also known as “El Chapo.” The kidnapping and subsequent release of Salazar, himself a high-ranking member of his imprisoned father’s Sinaloa Cartel, may have been an isolated incident, but it provides a window into the inner workings of Mexico’s cartel landscape. And while many are interpreting the prominent cartel member’s kidnapping as a signal that Sinaloa is in decline, there is no reason to believe we’re witnessing the end of the infamous cartel; on the contrary, its unique organizational structure has allowed it remain just as powerful as it was prior to El Chapo’s arrest and imprisonment.
The ground-level details of the kidnapping provide insight into current cartel dynamics. Salazar was picked up in Puerto Vallarta, a city controlled by the upstart New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG), widely believed to be behind the kidnapping despite a lack of official claim of responsibility. Though it occurred within its territory, the realities of cartel life make it all but certain CJNG had help. A high-level Sinaloa member like Salazar would have had tight security, and his location would not have been public knowledge. The well-coordinated effort and complete lack of a security response indicate that someone within Sinaloa may have tipped off the kidnappers.
Rumors had already circulated that the younger Guzman was clashing with associates, and poor treatment from senior officials coupled with the absence of their notorious leader may have compelled Sinaloa members to question and reorganize their alliances. For its part, the hyper-violent and aggressively expanding CJNG would be more than willing to accept Sinaloa defectors into its ranks. The group famously announced its arrival by dropping 35 bodies in the street and spent last year targeting the Mexican government, even shooting down a helicopter full of soldiers. Some are even pegging CJNG expansionism and targeted aggression against Sinaloa and other cartels as the driver behind a broader spike in the country’s overall levels of violence.
Though these surface-level details of the prominent attack have animated the narrative of Sinaloa’s decline, the belief in such a drop-off is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the infamous cartel functions. The popular misconception paints a picture of a strictly hierarchical organization dependent on a Godfather-like kingpin to lead the way. In reality, Sinaloa operates more as a federation, with various factions working together. Guzman may have headed the overall operation, but his long-time number two, Ismael Zambada Garcia, AKA “El Mayo,” remains free and controls his own independent aspects of the cartel. El Mayo himself even reportedly negotiated the release of Salazar, who, with his brothers’ support, is likely to retain control over their shared part of the operation despite this temporary setback. While some intrepid or disgruntled members may stray, most Sinaloa factions will prefer the stability of established territory, trafficking routes, and bribed Mexican officials to the uncertainty of throwing in their lot with the violent and volatile new kid on the block.
Of course, other cartels will also try to take advantage of any perceived Sinaloa weakness, but there is no one group powerful enough to do so effectively. Los Zetas, a formerly powerful cartel, is fighting within itself. The Gulf and Juarez cartels both control border territory but are also struggling with internal fractures. The rest, though powerful within their own areas, lack the strength to take on Sinaloa and the other cartels in any meaningful way.
Indeed, despite a high-profile arrest and aggression from upstart rivals, Sinaloa domination of the Mexican cartel landscape will continue, meaning business as usual for the regional drug trade. Sinaloa currently controls an estimated 45 percent of the U.S. illegal narcotics market, and those networks will continue to function with or without El Chapo actively involved in their management. In the long run, even if the cartel did recede from preeminence, cross-border traffickers would simply forge new alliances. As long as the demand for drugs remains, those who fuel the supply chain will continue to find a way to meet it. The entity at the top of that chain is, and for the foreseeable future will, remain the Sinaloa Cartel.