How the Sinaloa Cartel Won Mexico's Drug War

By Jan-Albert Hootsen

BADIRAGUATO, Mexico - Neat, freshly painted buildings and a renovated church line the central square. Shiny SUVs rest curbside. Some lack license plates, as if the law doesn't apply. Mansions crown the surrounding hills.

Badiraguato, a town of 7,000 in Sinaloa state, shouldn't have such wealth. It's among the poorest municipalities in Mexico. But you're better off not asking questions here.

This is a secretive place, hot and quiet in the Sierra Madre foothills. There's an army barracks, but soldiers mostly stay inside.

It's the heart of drug country, home to Mexico's most powerful criminal syndicate: the Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

For well over a century, local farmers have harvested marijuana and opium in the rugged mountains surrounding Badiraguato. Since the 1980s, the Sinaloa cartel has acted as their Wal-Mart, transporting the mind-bending cargo north with quasi-corporate efficiency, and distributing it to a narcotics-craving United States market.

Ever since former President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers and federal police to combat organized crime in 2006, the country has been ravaged by violence. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in often brutal territorial warfare.

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Yes, there have been victories for the government: In March 2009 the attorney general's office published a most-wanted list of 37 high profile drug lords. As of February 2013, two-thirds of them are either dead or in custody. By now, the majority of the seven major drug trafficking cartels battling for dominance have been crippled. Most have partially or completely fractured into smaller groups. Even the infamous Los Zetas, whose leader Heriberto Lazcano was killed last fall, have recently suffered severe blows.

Only the Sinaloa cartel seems to have survived the onslaught relatively intact.

In fact, some critics of the government even claim Sinaloa has "won" the drug war.

El Chapo is still at large, after his spectacular escape from prison in 2001.* In mid-February Guatemalan authorities investigated rumors that he had been gunned down, but the president's spokesman later told GlobalPost they found no evidence of this. His inner circle cronies Juan Jose Esparragoza and Ismael Zambada also still operate freely.

And while they succesfully evade capture, the cartel has made substantial territorial advances, and has amassed extravagant wealth.

"El Chapo is going to get stronger if he is not arrested in the next year and a half," a senior official of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told Forbes in a June 2011 interview.

Since then, the Sinaloa cartel ousted its rivals in the lucrative smuggling corridors of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. El Chapo himself is now the most wanted man on the globe, with US authorities offering a $5 million reward for any information leading to his capture.

In a business as opaque as the drug trade, it's hard to get reliable figures on the size of a crime group's territory, the breadth of its wealth or the extent of its market share. Court documents, arrests and drug seizures, however, paint a picture of the Sinaloa cartel as a multinational, highly flexible organization, quick to adapt to new circumstances and showing a resilience unlike any of its rivals.

Compared to its humble beginnings in the 1980s, when it controlled only a single Pacific trafficking route into Arizona, the cartel's territorial expansion has been staggering. Key areas it now controls include most of Mexico's Pacific coast states and parts of central Mexico.

Even more impressive is its global reach. Sinaloa operatives have been arrested from Egypt to Argentina and from Europe to Malaysia. Properties attributed to El Chapo Guzman have been seized in Europe and South America. US law enforcement reports that the group is now present in all major American cities. Recent US court documents involving the case of Vicente Zambada-Niebla, Mayo Zambada's son, even suggest the Sinaloa cartel now controls the cocaine trade in Australia.

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This article is reprinted with permission from GlobalPost.

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