After ‘El Chapo’, Mexico faces a new phase in its neverending war on drugs

There are many challengers to the Sinaloa boss’s throne amid endemic corruption

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador received a blunt warning earlier this month: a crude hand-painted sign strung up on a bridge in the border city of Tijuana.

It was the work of an ally to Mexico's most aggressive cartel, the Jalisco new generation (CJNG) which is waging a brutal fight with the Sinaloa cartel for supremacy in the Pacific coast gateway to the US drugs market.

The turf battle, a replay of Mexican mafia wars from a decade ago, has turned Tijuana into Mexico’s most murderous city with 2,404 homicides last year and prompted a recent deployment of 1,800 troops by López Obrador to try to stop the escalating violence.

“You can’t do anything to us . . . not with all your f***ing people,” the narcos’ message baited Mexico’s new president. “Get the f*** out of Tijuana. We don’t want you here . . . this isn’t your war.”


Recent news headlines might lend the impression that the authorities on both sides of the border are making progress against the illicit drugs trade that runs through Mexico. In New York last week, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the once all-powerful former head of the Sinaloa cartel, was convicted on 10 counts of drug trafficking and money laundering. He was the highest profile drug boss to ever stand trial in the US.

At the same time, López Obrador has sought to refocus the fight against the drug trade. Shortly after Guzmán’s conviction, he visited the drug lord’s hometown of Badiraguato in the northwestern state of Sinaloa to inaugurate a trio of public projects including a tree-planting scheme. One of his campaign slogans was “hugs not bullets” and he is aggressively pushing social programmes he says will help keep young people out of the clutches of organised crime.

He maintains it is not his job to go after cartel bosses – a stark reversal of the “kingpin” strategy Mexico has assiduously pursued. “Officially, there is no war any more,” he said last month.

Business booming

Yet even if Guzmán may be spending the rest of his life in jail, the illicit drugs trade shows no signs of diminishing. Instead, business is booming. The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that Mexican heroin production increased 37 per cent to 111 tonnes in 2017. Cocaine production in Colombia also reached a record high in 2017.

Rising drug busts on the US border also point to increasing supplies heading north. According to the DEA, most heroin is sent over in the San Diego corridor near Tijuana – the majority smuggled through legal points of entry, suggesting that President Donald Trump’s planned border wall would be of scant use in deterring what he calls an “invasion” of drugs. Heroin seizures in the San Diego corridor rose nearly 60 per cent in 2017.

Cocaine seizures rose by nearly a quarter to reach a five-year high in 2017, the third straight year of increases. Border seizures of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid produced in China and Mexico and increasingly mixed with heroin to make it more powerful, also rocketed 135 per cent in 2017, the DEA said, the majority again trafficked through the San Diego region. That was also the gateway for most methamphetamines, seizures of which shot up 255 per cent in the five years to 2017.

Despite the challenge from new rivals, the Sinaloa cartel still has the biggest overall drug distribution footprint in the US. On the DEA website, just below a news release celebrating Guzmán’s conviction as a “huge victory”, is a most wanted fugitive notice for Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Guzmán’s longtime partner who is believed to be now running the Sinaloa cartel.

“You won’t end drugs trafficking in Mexico. With 30m US consumers, it’s utopia to think you could,” says Guillermo Valdés, a former Mexican intelligence chief. “It’s all about what type of drugs trafficking you tolerate.”

Rising trade has led to rising violence. Mexico saw a record 30,499 murders last year, up more than 15 per cent on 2017. In just over a dozen years, since Mexico’s then president Felipe Calderón launched a disastrous war on drugs, more than 250,000 people have been killed and 40,000 have disappeared. Tijuana’s murder toll last year was roughly double levels a decade ago.

"As long as, by US government estimates, $19 billion-$39 billion in illicit drugs' profits are returned to Mexico [a year] and there is a $150 billion US market, that will create a gravitational pull and the conditions for organised crime activities in Mexico," says Bruce Bagley, an expert on cartels at the University of Miami.

“We aren’t going to see an end to violence and drug trafficking out of Mexico. Very likely we’ll see more because the drugs trade is so profitable.”

Old school

El Chapo (61), who rose from being a semi-literate farm-hand to international criminal mastermind, is an old school drugs boss, who spent billions buying protection from officials up and down the country. According to testimony heard in the trial, that went right up to former President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was accused of receiving a $100 million payment from the Sinaloa cartel. (He denied the claim).

These connections helped Guzmán bust out of prison twice – first in 2001, either hidden in a laundry cart or disguised as a policeman, depending on whom you believe; then in 2015 via a tunnel under his cellblock shower. His largesse ensured he could live apparently invisible to the authorities for 13 years after escaping jail the first time. He also bought local loyalty by funding churches, roads and schools; some locals who revered him as a Robin Hood figure embarked on a prayer marathon for his acquittal as the jury in New York deliberated.

An incorrigible womaniser, Guzmán jetted to Macau to gamble, to Switzerland for expensive anti-ageing skin treatments or to Acapulco where he had a private zoo, the court heard. Zambada, however, keeps a much lower profile. "He never leaves his mountain lair," [in Sinaloa and neighbouring Durango] says Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope.

There are plenty of challengers to the throne. The fugitive 52-year-old CJNG boss Nemesio Oseguera, alias “El Mencho”, has made his upstart cartel a watchword for brutality in the years since it came to prominence.

A former local policeman from the state of Michoacán who grew avocados as a boy and did not finish primary school, he served three years in a US jail for heroin trafficking before returning to Mexico and ramping up the presence of CJNG in the synthetic drug trade while forging a chilling reputation for violence.

According to Mexican media reports, he ordered the murder of 35 people and the dumping of their bodies outside a shopping centre in the southeastern state of Veracruz in 2011 as a warning to the now largely defunct Zeta cartel. Now he is waging war on the Sinaloa cartel he used to support. While the latter's nationwide presence has shrunk to 15 or 16 of Mexico's 32 states, CJNG has expanded to about 23, according to Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst.

"The CJNG are trying to be the Zetas," says Vanda Felbab-Brown at the Brookings Institution, referring to the cartel that became known for astonishing acts of cruelty.

“CJNG is having fights left and right, turning everyone against them. They’re not building political capital.” She expects the CJNG ultimately to implode, like the Zetas, but “that doesn’t mean it will happen soon and it can still be excruciatingly messy for Mexico”.

Organised crime

Besides the big two cartels, and the remnants of other established but now less powerful cartels, Mexico’s organised crime scene has exploded in recent years with the emergence of a series of local groups, some not devoted to drugs but to ancillary crimes such as extortion, kidnapping and fuel theft for which they pay protection money to the large cartel on whose patch they operate.

But according to Anabel Hernández, one of Mexico's leading cartel investigative reporters whose book Narcoland documented the cosy ties between drug barons and officialdom, there is another menace. A new generation of bosses – which she dubbed "a silent threat" – has muscled into the business, forging ad hoc alliances with other drug lords and moving large quantities of narcotics but staying under the radar by using minimal violence.

Two decades ago, it was Guzmán who was seen as the innovator, implementing a “hub-and-spoke” system that put himself and top allies in central control of the Sinaloa cartel but gave associates relative independence, provided they met their cartel duties, says Bagley.

The three-month trial heard how the Sinaloa boss implemented ingenious trafficking methods, including hiding millions of dollars of cocaine in the walls of freight trains or stuffed into jalapeño pepper cans.

But it was tunnels that Guzmán was most famous for. The man who at one stage gave security forces the slip by leaping naked out of bed with his mistress and into a tunnel and then into a sewer, made his name by funnelling coke shipments under – as well as across – the border. Investigators found one narco tunnel between California and Mexico with an elevator, while another was equipped with solar panels and pumps in case of flooding, as well as a railway line.

Guzmán's trial had all the plot twists and betrayals of a soap opera – indeed the star of the Netflix series Narcos, who plays Guzmán, even turned up in court one day, earning a smile from the real-life capo who dreamt of having his life portrayed on screen. The court heard about Guzmán's black moustache dye, his elaborate phone-tapping system, gold-plated AK-47 and diamond-studded pistols and soundproof murder room equipped with a drain in the floor for the blood. It also heard descriptions of how he bludgeoned two victims until they were "like rag dolls", and shot a rival cartel member, ordering him to be buried alive while he was still gasping for air.

But there was a glaring omission, says Hernández: interrogation over the whereabouts of the $14 billion fortune US prosecutors say Guzmán had amassed. “You can’t dismantle the Sinaloa cartel or the system of corruption if you don’t take away the money,” she says.

That is just one of the problems facing López Obrador as he seeks to reduce violence in Mexico. He says his government will no longer tolerate corruption, but key institutions, including the judiciary, remain porous and vulnerable to the huge bribes the cartels can offer.

Meanwhile, his security strategy – which so far consists largely of a planned new police force dubbed the National Guard – is “full of holes”, says Felbab-Brown. “The biggest hole is when he says he isn’t going to focus on drug trafficking routes, only on violence. The majority of violence is caused by traffickers.”

“The way we’re going, we’re going to have more murders under López Obrador than under Peña Nieto,” says Hope. Mexico’s murder rate could even hit 30 per 100,000 this year, says Guerrero – some five times the worldwide rate reported by the UN and Small Arms Survey.

On his visit to Badiraguato, López Obrador did not mention the town’s most famous son by name and only briefly alluded to Guzmán’s trial. His was a message of hope and opportunity. “You can’t fight fire with fire, violence with violence,” he said. “You have to fight evil by doing good.”

However few observers believe this will be enough. “The country is not at peace,” says Bagley. “Drug trafficking is alive and well.”

Peak cocaine: Production in Colombia is higher than ever

Anyone familiar with the hit TV series Narcos could be forgiven for thinking that Colombia hit "peak cocaine" in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Pablo Escobar was at his height.

Not at all. Colombia is churning out much more coke now than it did then – indeed, more than ever before. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says there were a record 171,000 hectares of land under coca cultivation in Colombia in 2017 – an area 30 times the size of Manhattan. Since 2013, the figure has soared 256 per cent. The US puts the figure even higher, at 209,000 hectares – five times more than in the Escobar era. UNODC estimates that translates into 1,379 tonnes for 2017, almost a third more than the year before. Colombia, which in the 1980s produced less cocaine than Peru and Bolivia, now accounts for 70 per cent of total output.

How has this happened, especially given Colombia and the US have poured billions of dollars into the war on drugs? There are many reasons. Europeans and North Americans snort a lot of cocaine and as long as there is demand, Colombia's traffickers will try to meet it. Furthermore, new markets are opening up. In Brazil cocaine use has jumped. In Colombia itself, the percentage of the population that consumes illicit drugs has more than doubled in two decades.

Another factor is Bogotá’s decision to halt aerial fumigation of coca crops in 2015 due to health concerns. Since then it has relied on manual eradication, but it is arduous and time-consuming. Drug gangs often move back on to cleared land and replant coca. The government, under pressure from the US, is thinking of resuming aerial fumigation.

Colombia’s historic peace deal with Farc rebels, signed in 2016, has allowed the state to move into coca-growing areas once controlled by the guerrillas. Unfortunately, in many cases, when they get there, they find criminal gangs are busy producing cocaine, complicating their efforts to eradicate the crop. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019