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The Sinaloa Cartel: Drug Trafficking & Extensive Global Influence

Sinaloa Cartel Hierarchy Between 1989-2008


Overview: Sinaloa Cartel

Mexico’s drug cartels continue to perpetuate violence and destabilize the region as they attempt to vie for control of the drug supply routes and local territories as well as expand their global influence throughout the international community (Stratfor Analysis 2011, 63). The Sinaloa drug cartel has emerged as one of the most prevalent and “powerful drug trafficking organizations in the Western Hemisphere” (InSight Crime). Led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Federation has assumed control over the Mexican state of Sinaloa and expanded its authority into the states of Chihuahua, Guerrero, Durango and Michoacán (See Figure 1.) (Stratfor Analysis 2011, 67). Since the formation of the Sinaloa Cartel, the drug trafficking organization has progressively fought for dominance throughout numerous states in Mexico and abroad. The cartel is known for distributing cocaine, heroin, marijuana, MDMA and methamphetamines to lucrative markets in the United States, Europe and Latin America (U.S. DOJ 2011, 7). The Sinaloa cartel, under the direction of El Chapo, continues to be successful because of their modus operandi and operational philosophy of business professionalism, which has afforded them the ability to gain ground in Mexico and successfully penetrate high demand markets, while evading extensive fragmentation to the organization. This strategy has allowed the Sinaloa cartel to expand its global influence and maintain a prominent presence in approximately fifty countries worldwide (Beittel 2013, 12).

Drug Trafficking Routes.

Drug Trafficking Routes.

Formation of The Sinaloa Cartel

Since the 1960’s, the Mexican state of Sinaloa has been a prime operating ground for narcotics cultivation and trafficking (InSight Crime). The trafficking industry was comprised of local farming families within the state of Sinaloa, who transported contraband and eventually entered into the drug trade and participated in the trafficking of marijuana (InSight Crime). Pedro Aviles was known as the first person to transport large shipments of Marijuana into the region and also for recruiting Joaquin El Chapo Guzman-Loera into the narcotics trade (InSight Crime). By the 1970’s, the farming families began to expand the drug trafficking business to include the trafficking of cocaine for Colombia and Central America. As the Medellin Cartel from Colombia and the Guadalajara Cartel from Mexico continued to escalate operations, Mexican officials began to target the cartel members, fragmenting the Guadalajara Cartel. As a result, the remaining members fled to separate areas throughout Mexico and setup new areas of operation to continue the trafficking of narcotic drugs, leaving Joaquin Guzman-Loera in charge of the state of Sinaloa (InSight Crime). During the 1990’s, the Colombian drug trafficking organizations started to break apart and needed assistance transporting drugs from Colombia to the United States (Vinson 2009, 41). Colombia’s continued reliance on the Mexican drug cartels for support, resulted in Mexico’s control of the cocaine industry and its distribution (Vinson 2009, 41). The emerging cocaine industry being transited through Mexico allowed Guzman to expand his drug trafficking operations.

As the Sinaloa cartel successfully expanded operations, other rival cartels began to compete for dominance, causing turf battles and increased violence among the competing Mexican cartels. To end the inter-cartel turf wars, the Jaurez, Tijuana, Sinaloa and Sonora cartels signed a “non-aggression” agreement in an effort to establish an alliance between former warring factions, termed La Federacion (Pacheco 2009, 1027). Although the pact was short-lived, the Sinaloa cartel grew to be a “premier drug cartel” by relying on familial ties, political connections, and an array of strategic alliances (Vinson 2009, 43). Today, the Sinaloa cartel operates in seventeen Mexican states with extensive connections throughout the United States and is estimated to control forty five percent of the narcotic industry flowing through Mexico (Vinson 2009, 43) (Beittel 2013, 11).

From 1989 to 2008, the Sinaloa drug cartel was primarily led by El Chapo, but underwent a few organizational changes as key leaders were captured and detained for their involvement. Upon the arrest of Hector Salazaar, El Chapo assumed full control of the organization and led the cartel with the assistance from Jesus “The King” Zambada, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan Jose “El Azul Esparagoza Moreno (Vinson 2009, 43). Guzman had suspected associations and a possible alliance with the Beltran Levya Organization to include three subordinate members, Fredo Beltran-Leyva (captured), Arturo Beltran-Leyva and Hector Beltran Leyva (Vinson 2009, 43). Table 1 outlines the organizational hierarchy of the Sinaloa Cartel and its suspected associations with the Beltran-Levya brothers and Los Negros (Vinson 2009, 43). An InSight Crime report confirms that the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, El Chapo, had direct associations and partnerships with El Mayo, El Azul and the Beltran Leyva brothers. One of Guzman’s key allies in the drug trade is El Mayo. Currently, El Mayo runs a major drug operation in Mazatlan, Sinaloa and has extensive connections throughout Arizona, along Mexico’s west coast and in “Cancun, Quintana Roo and the city of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon” (Vinson 2009, 46). The partnership between El Mayo and El Chapo has allowed the Sinaloa cartel to expand its drug trade throughout the U.S. and Mexico. In 2005, the Sinaloa cartel created an alliance with multiple cartels, transforming their architecture into a federation (Vinson 2009, 47). During this time period, the participating cartels greatly benefited from the alliance and were able to significantly extend their territorial control throughout Mexico (Vinson 2009, 47). However by 2008, Mexican security forces increased drug enforcement operations throughout Sinaloa, causing other drug cartels to pull out of the Federation (Vinson 2009, 48).

Leader of Sinaloa Cartel.

Leader of Sinaloa Cartel.

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Modus Operandi & Philosophy

The Sinaloa drug cartel operates in a manner that resembles the Cali Cartel from Colombia (InSight Crime). The cartel primarily consists of family members that are associated by blood or marriage and maintains associations and alliances with other cartels when necessary to advance their overall expansionist goals (InSight Crime). Since its conception, the Sinaloa cartel established numerous training sites for its operatives throughout the state of Sinaloa (Durbin 2013, 21). New recruits and seasoned members were trained to use numerous weapon systems such as rifles, machineguns, mortars and grenade launchers to enhance the organization’s accuracy and firepower (Durbin 2013, 21). To supplement the cartels firepower, the organization concentrated on building influential relationships with the governmental elite, authoritative figures and business owners throughout Mexico (Durbin 2013, 21). The cartel relies on its ties with the government and law enforcement to maintain its freedom of maneuver, secure trafficking operations and routes, and ensure its safe distribution (InSight Crime).

The organization continues to refine its diplomatic approach to help penetrate the local population and elected officials within the government of Mexico. Numerous reports have articulated that the Sinaloa cartel is safeguarded from dissolution and benefits from systemic corruption and political top-cover because it is protected by high-level government figures in the National Action Party (PAN) (Beith 2011, 787). In 2006, former President Calderon launched a major offensive against the Mexican drug cartels and was able to successfully capture key leaders within most of the cartels, except the Sinaloa Cartel (Beith 2011, 787). For example, since 2000, the leaders of the Tijuana cartel, Gulf cartel, and Los Zetas have been captured or killed, but the three main leaders of the Sinaloa organization remain at large (Beith 2011, 788). During this offensive, the Sinaloa cartel was able to expand drug trafficking operations, while other cartels faced major fragmentation and setbacks (Beith 2011, 787). The Sinaloa cartel has suffered from a number of arrests, but not comparable to that of the Los Zetas, the Familia, and the Gulf Cartel.

Contributing to its successful expansion, the Sinaloa Cartel reportedly favored a philosophy of business and the use of bribes over violent brutality (Logan, 2013). Two reports from InSight Crime argue that the business ethics of the Sinaloa organization have made them one of the least violent cartels in Mexico, which contributed to its resiliency during Calderon’s war on drugs (Logan, 2013) (InSight Crime). Another report by Timothy Urgelles (2012) confirms that the Sinaloa cartel “has built an image of business professionalism” vowing to not harm the Mexican population, while the Zetas have built their reputation around violence and brutality to secure their drug operations. Furthermore, the article supports the claim that the Sinaloa’s less violent reputation has allowed them to avoid being targeted by the Mexican security forces (Urgelles 2012). The Sinaloa cartel’s modus operandi and philosophy has aided their evasion from Mexico’s security forces and expansion in key territories throughout Mexico.

Mexican Cartel's Area of Influence


Global Influence

The Sinaloa Cartel under the leadership of El Chapo Guzman was able to build an extensive drug trafficking enterprise in Mexico, the United States and the Americas. The cartel remains one of the most dominant drug trafficking organizations throughout the Americas and still maintains its base of operations in Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango, continuing to take over surrounding Mexican territories “for its methamphetamine production in Sinaloa, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and Jalisco” (Stratfor Analysis 2011). Guzman continually pursued a strategy of international expansion and established overseas drug operations in a number of countries. The Sinaloa organization built its empire by capitalizing on the international supply of cocaine and methamphetamines throughout Central and South America (Logan 2013). The cartel established relations with drug cultivators and traffickers in Guatemala, Honduras, and the Andean region, where the cocaine was eventually routed to Mexico to be transported to the United States, Europe or Africa (Logan 2013).

Multiple reports confirm that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are participating in diplomatic talks with the government of Colombia to reduce the presence of drug trafficking throughout the region (Logan 2013). Further reporting suggests that the Sinaloa cartel is concurrently vying for control of the cocaine industry throughout Colombia as the FARC potentially steps down from the drug trade (Bargent 2013). Research portrays that the Sinaloa cartel will attempt to control the cultivation, production, and trafficking of cocaine throughout Colombia, expanding its global reach and authority of “coca plantations and cocaine processing labs near the border of Ecuador” and in “Antioquia and Cordoba provinces” (Bargent 2013). Sinaloa’s penetrating presence in Colombia will create a substantial decline in transportation costs and increase its overall profit per kilo (Bargent 2013).

As mentioned earlier, the Sinaloa cartel operates in approximately fifty countries worldwide and is continually seeking to multiply its global reach. The United States continues to be a lucrative market for the Sinaloa cartel to supply marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines (Logan 2013). The organization first established smuggling routes from Nogales and into Phoenix. Once inside the United States, Sinaloa progressively took over the areas of operations where their allies were previously embedded (Logan 2013). This strategy played a key role in their extensive access to the U.S. market. Once Sinaloa penetrated the U.S. demand for narcotic drugs, the cartel established major trafficking routes and operations in Chicago. Since Chicago’s city structure offers several opportunities for multi-city distribution throughout the U.S., the organization routed the drugs from Juarez to Oklahoma City and St. Louis directly into Chicago for distribution to numerous gangs and organized criminal rings (Logan 2013). From Chicago, the Sinaloa cartel is able to deliver narcotic drugs directly to Ney York City, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles and many other U.S. cities through its controlled locations in Mexico (Logan, 2013) (Stratfor Analysis, 2011).


Extensive research analyzing open source data has revealed that the country of Mexico is plagued with systemic violence and corruption as the Mexican drug cartels engulf themselves in turf wars and vie for control over key smuggling locations and routes throughout Mexico. Several credible sources have confirmed that the Sinaloa Cartel has emerged as one of the most powerful and expansive drug trafficking organizations with connections inside Mexico, throughout the U.S. and Latin America. Analysis of multiple open source reports has determined that the formation of the Sinaloa cartel and its initial seizure of the Colombian drug trade transformed the organization into an adaptive and resilient drug trafficking network, catapulting its expansion and access to lucrative demand markets. Throughout the years, the organization formed strategic alliances with other aligned cartels and established powerful government ties with hopes of securing and expanding the drug trade. To further insulate Sinaloa’s drug operations, the organization adopted a unique modus operandi and operational philosophy that allows them to exude less violent and business like qualities that has perpetuated its drug trafficking business and expansion into Mexico and abroad. A combination of the organization’s expansion in Mexico, access to key drug markets, the formation of strategic alliances and government infiltration as well as its modus operandi has allowed the group to remain unscathed and drastically expand its global influence throughout the international community.

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