With ‘El Chapo’ Gone, Violence Soars in Fight for Control of Cartel

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The extradition of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, Mexico’s long-dominant drug lord, has led to an explosion of violence in his home state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of the country’s narcotics industry.

CULIACÁN, Mexico—The extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s long-dominant drug lord, has led to an explosion of violence in his home state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of the country’s narcotics industry.

Rival factions are fighting over Mr. Guzmán’s billion-dollar empire as he awaits trial in solitary confinement inside a high-security prison in New York. He was extradited to the U.S. in January on drug-trafficking and murder charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

Close to 900 people have been murdered in Sinaloa over the first six months of 2017, almost twice the number of homicides over the same period last year, according to the Sinaloa Attorney General’s Office. Most of the increase was due to drug-related killings.

Onlookers at the scene where three people were shot inside a car in Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, earlier this month. Photo: Enric Marti/Associated Press

In one outburst of violence late last month, 19 people were killed in an incident that ended with gunmen battling police a short distance from the Pacific beach resort of Mazatlán, Sinaloa officials said. Five police officers were also wounded.

“It’s a war between two groups fighting for drug markets and routes,” said Genaro Robles, a retired Mexican army general who was named Sinaloa’s secretary of public safety in December.

The war of succession has also sowed violence elsewhere in Mexico, as rival groups take advantage of a weaker Sinaloa cartel to try to poach turf from the gang, which has been the top dog in the Mexican underworld for the past two decades.

Earlier this month, 14 people were killed in a gunbattle in neighboring Chihuahua state between alleged gunmen from a faction of the Sinaloa cartel and members of La Línea, a dominant faction of the Juarez cartel, Chihuahua state officials said.

Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation cartel, a powerful organized crime gang in the nearby Pacific coast state of Jalisco, also has been emboldened and is expanding in Sinaloa and elsewhere, officials and analysts say.

The violence underscores the drawbacks of a longstanding U.S. and Mexican government strategy to capture and kill narcotics kingpins.

“The kingpin strategy doesn’t work,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who has written a book on the Zetas cartel. “When a kingpin is removed, he is replaced by somebody else, violence increases, and there is more diversification of criminal activities.”

When a kingpin is captured or killed, he is often replaced by a member of a younger, bloodthirstier generation, analysts say. In Sinaloa, for the most part, old-time drug traffickers like Mr. Guzmán maintained a rough sort of law and order in places like Culiacán, the state capital. Some types of crimes, such as burglaries and street holdups, were rare. The old capos concentrated on exporting drugs to the U.S.

For that reason, many Sinaloa residents pray for the good health of 69-year-old Ismael “ El Mayo ” Zambada, the last of the old-time bosses still at large, who has a reputation as a conciliator among the warring groups. “El Mayo is the best of the bad ones,” a longtime Culiacán businessman said. “When he goes, there will be a bigger bloodbath.”

Much of today’s violence is driven by competition for local drug sales—especially methamphetamines, officials and analysts say.

“The domestic market produces a lot of money, especially for meth,” said Ismael Bojórquez, the publisher of Riodoce, a weekly newspaper whose co-founder, Javier Valdez, was gunned down in May in Culiacán.

Tensions within the Sinaloa cartel had been simmering since Mr. Guzmán’s recapture in 2016, but they burst into open warfare in February following his extradition. Hostilities were set off when Dámaso López, described by the U.S. Treasury in 2013 as Mr. Guzman’s right-hand man responsible for multiton shipments of cocaine, made a play for control of the cartel. Mr. López’s gunmen took on the Chapos, those loyal to Mr. Guzmán’s two sons, Iván Archibaldo Guzmán and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán, officials and local residents say.

Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán in a sketch of his court appearance at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in May.Photo: jane rosenberg/Reuters

The arrest of Mr. López and half a dozen bodyguards in Mexico City in May has only increased the pace of killings: his son, also named Dámaso López, has now taken over that faction, officials say. Attempts to reach either Mr. López were unsuccessful. The father was indicted on a charge of drug smuggling in 2011 by federal prosecutors in Virginia. The U.S. has requested his extradition, Mexican officials say.

Many of the recent killings in Sinaloa have taken place in the dusty farm town of Villa Juárez, where the two sides have been fighting for control of the local methamphetamine market, officials say. The battle began in early February as rival gunmen riding SUVs—including one with a mounted machine gun—engaged in a running firefight at a traffic circle at the entrance of town. Two uninvolved pedestrians were killed in front of a nearby restaurant, and a woman was gunned down a block away.

“I thought they were shooting at me, but they are fighting for control of the town,” the restaurant’s cook said, adding that she dived to the floor with her young son when the shooting started.

The town feels like a war zone, with Mexican army armored personnel carrier parked at its entrance. On a recent day, middle-school art teacher Idilia Ceniceros supervised a dozen students as they painted cheery murals of doves and children shaking hands on the school’s cinder-block walls. Ms. Ceniceros said it was her way of countering the violence her students are living through.

“We are trying to teach values, because we get along like dogs and cats,” she said.

One student recounted how one of his neighbors was snatched from his house and killed. Another, holding a paint can, said her cousin was recently killed. “He was with the wrong person, and they killed him,” she said.

A third student said her uncle was among those killed since the February shootout. “He was one of them,” she said, referring to the gangs, adding she didn’t know which one.

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