This month's capture of the world's most-wanted narcotics kingpin, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, will have little to no impact on the amount of drugs flowing into the U.S. across the Mexican border, experts say.
Guzman's Sinaloa drug cartel — the largest in Mexico and the world — has a leadership succession plan that most likely has placed Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada at its helm.
"If El Chapo was the CEO, then El Mayo was the CFO. He's certainly smart, knows the network, and will keep the supplies going," said George Grayson, a drug war expert at the College of William and Mary who has written several books on Mexican cartels. "This [arrest] may be a sharp thorn in the side of the cartel, but it's certainly not a dagger in the heart."
Mexican authorities arrested Guzman early Saturday in a condominium in the beach resort town of Mazatlan on the Pacific coast. He has been formally accused of cocaine trafficking, and authorities are weighing other charges against the former fugitive as American officials call for his extradition to face U.S. drug-trafficking charges.
Mr. Zambada previously has run Guzman's empire, from the drug lord's 1993 imprisonment in Mexico until his escape in 2001. The two leaders share the same vision for the organization's trafficking network and have a clear notion of who their adversaries are.
Mr. Zambada, along with Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, another Sinaloa heavyweight, remain at large.
"In the short term, El Chapo's arrest achieves the DEA's [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] goal in that it disrupts the cartel's command-and-control center," said former undercover DEA agent Bob Mazur. "However, the Sinaloa organization is much too effective and powerful to be taken down with one man alone. They own leaders of countries and have infiltrated law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border."
Although Mr. Zambada most likely will assume leadership, there are many young cartel up-and-comers who may use this schism to try to take ownership of the organization's most prized smuggling routes, said Mr. Mazur, author of "The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel."
In the near term, there may be more conflicts and violence. The cartel already is responsible for leaving tens of thousands dead in Mexico. It's unlikely the gang's main rival, the Zetas, will attempt to take over Sinaloa's turf as they've been weakened by their own arrests, and other groups are too locally focused to compete with Sinaloa's international reach.
The Sinaloa cartel is said to be responsible for as much as one-third of the cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines entering the U.S. With operations in Europe and Asia, the cartel flaunts an international presence unmatched by any other criminal organization.
Using 747 airliners, shipping freights and tractor trailers, Guzman built an extensive network that can smuggle tons of drugs into the country of his choosing, experts say. Sinaloa sells more narcotics today than Colombian drug dealer Pablo Escobar did at the height of his career, according to the DEA.
Mr. Mazur said the U.S. drug market is too attractive for a cartel like Guzman's to stay underground for too long. For example, Sinaloa buy a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine in Colombia or Peru for about $2,000. It then can get as much as $10,000 for that kilo in Mexico and as much as $30,000 in the U.S. Marked up for retail, a kilo of cocaine in some U.S. cities can reach $100,000.
Colombian and Mexican cartels can achieve as much as $39 billion annually in drug sales from the U.S. alone, the Justice Department estimates. If Sinaloa actually is responsible for about one-third of all U.S. narcotics, it could be making $13 billion a year, outranking Coca-Cola and Facebook in annual revenue. Guzman has appeared on Forbes magazine's billionaire list, and his organization has been likened to a Fortune 500 company.
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