Mexico after El Chapo: new generation fights for control of the cartel

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The wave of violence suggests if El Chapo had a plan for succession, it has fallen into chaos, turning Sinaloa into one of Mexicos most violent states

Engines revved, tires squealed and tail lights faded into the distance as an Audi raced a Mini Cooper down the street past apartment buildings and empty lots. The spectators boys in baseball caps, girls in short skirts lounged against their own luxury vehicles, drinking beer.

The drag races roared for more than an hour as darkness fell over Culiacn, but the neighbours never complained about noise, and the police never turned up to put an end to the fun.

No wonder: the racers were most probably the children of some of Mexicos most powerful crime bosses. Known collectively as narco-juniors, this generation of narcos has discarded the discretion of their elders, replacing it with conspicuous displays of wealth, violence and impunity.

And it is a generation that is now on the frontlines of a violent struggle for control of the Sinaloa cartel, which has been sunk into a war of succession since the capture and extradition to the US of Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn.

The generational change has started and it seems like the process is not going so well, said Adrin Lpez, editor of the Sinaloa newspaper Noroeste. And with El Chapo sitting in a US prison, theres no longer anyone to referee the disputes between them.

The disputes have turned Sinaloa a long sliver of pine-clad mountains and Pacific coast beaches into one of Mexicos most violent states in 2017. But the shockwaves have been felt across the country.

This week, a former policeman once described as Guzmns right-hand man was arrested in Mexico City, after reportedly clashing with El Chapos sons.

Federal officials say Dmaso Lpez Nez who once helped El Chapos escape from prison had sought to partner with the upstart Jalisco New Generation cartel, which has disputed Sinaloa cartel territories up and down the Pacific coast.

Ivan Archivaldo Guzmn Salazar Photograph: Handout

Lpezs war with Guzmns sons Ivn Archivaldo Guzmn Salazar and Jess Alfredo Guzmn Salazar, known collectively as Los Chapitos is believed to be behind a wave of violence in Sinaloa and Baja California Sur.

El Chapo was born in the rugged mountains of the Sierra Madre, where he grew up in abject poverty before becoming one of the most powerful figures in the Sinaloa cartel.

Those mountains were his unquestioned fiefdom, but with Guzmn locked up in a New York high-security unit, rival crime groups are now making brazen incursions.

Last year, gunmen from the smaller Beltrn Leyva cartel looted the home of Guzmns elderly mother in the hamlet of La Tuna.

More recently, violence has focused on the sun-scorched agricultural valleys around Culiacn and at the crossroads town of Villa Jurez, where rival factions are fighting over local drug sales.

In one incident this February, a convoy of trucks including one with a .50 calibre machine mounted in a rotating turret pulled into Villa Jurez and opened fire at a Pemex petrol station. Four people, including a pregnant woman, were killed.

Three months later, the bullet holes that pock the filling stations facade are still visible under a fresh coat of paint, but locals are still unwilling to talk. I dont want to get involved in it, said an employee while a jaunty narcocorrido a song lionizing drug lords blared in the background.

All the violence, said the employee, Its like being in Afghanistan or something.

As he spoke, he kept an eye on the steady stream of motorcycles that buzzed past the preferred mode of transport for cartel lookouts.

In the unkempt town square, a street vendor refused to make eye contact as he slowly set out gleaming tubes of lipstick on his table. Yes, theres violence, he allowed, but then fell silent.

The racers in Culiacn were most probably the children of some of Mexicos most powerful crime bosses. Photograph: David Agren for the Guardian

The wave of violence suggests if El Chapo had a plan for succession, it has fallen into chaos. In his 2016 Rolling Stone interview with Guzmn, Sean Penn described Ivn as the heir apparent. Hes attentive with a calm maturity, Penn said of Ivn, who was charged in the 2004 murder of a Canadian exchange student and a male companion as they left a Guadalajara-area bar.

A 2005 psychological profile from a prison stay said the younger Guzmn demonstrated probable psychological violence toward persons that he does not consider on his socio-economic level.

Cartel observers say that Ivn and Jess Alfredo who grew up in a life of luxury are not ready to take over their fathers empire. The only thing theyre good at is spending El Chapos money, said Mike Vigil, former DEA head of international operations. Theyve never had to get their hands dirty. Theyre not street smart like El Chapo.

Vigil pointed to a confusing incident last year, in which Jess Alfredo was seized by gunmen possibly from the rival CJNG from a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, before being released after an apparent deal.

Theyre very lucky to be alive, Vigil said.

Locals, however, say that Ivn retains one important advantage over the CNJG and the remnants of Lpezs faction: the lingering affection for his father felt by many in the state, where among the states rural and poor population El Chapo is revered as a Robin Hood figure who thumbed his nose at the authorities even as he doled out patronage and charity.

He owns this town, said a journalist covering organized crime in Culiacn. He said that Ivn Guzmn is thought to have an army of hitmen in Culiacn, along with spies in all parts everyone from youngsters on motorcycles to people washing windshields at intersections to employees at hotels. Ivn Guzman isnt shy about showing off. He tweets to flash his fancy cars, trips on private planes and exotic animals in his keep. He also rails against the government and denounces the many who have turned on us.

Locals say that the younger Guzmn is fond of racing a red Ferrari through Culiacn, a city of around 900,000 that is home to the kind of premium auto dealerships and luxury shops seldom seen in provincial Mexican cities.

And few doubt that the Guzmns word is law in the city: one local described seeing cartel bodyguards stop traffic so one of El Chapos sons could do doughnuts in his white Nissan GT-R at a traffic junction.

Unlike the first generation of cartel bosses, the new wave of cartel are often university educated and more likely to choose Italian slip-ons and Jaguars than their fathers ostrich skin cowboy boots and Hummers.

But the generational changes go beyond material tastes. One former cartel gunman, expressed dismay at the ethical shortcomings of the younger bosses, and over a plate of seak tacos reminisced about a time when narcos had honour.

15, 20 years ago, if we wanted to kill you and you turned up with your wife and children, we couldnt do anything. We couldnt touch you, said the man, who once worked for Ismael El Mayo Zambada, a contemporary of El Chapo.

Now, they dont give a damn If they see you in a taco stand, theyll come and shoot it up, he said.

Over decades, the people of Sinaloa have grown used to living alongside organised crime; now, however, many fear that changes are on their way and that change will inevitably bring more violence.

Leticia Villegas insists that her brother Adolfo a teacher and part-time contract lawyer had nothing to do with the underworld. But in March, he was grabbed from his small Chevy less than a block from his home and hasnt been seen since.

They say this is a dispute between different groups, she said, but its harming innocent people.

  • This article was amended on 6 May to clarify that Leticia Villegass brother Adolfo is a part-time contract lawyer.

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