MEXICO CITY―Since the infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was extradited to the United States, a war has broken out for control of his Sinaloa cartel, leaving a growing trail of bodies.
At least three sides have been fighting each other for control of the multi-billion-dollar drug trafficking operation, experts say.
One group is led by Guzman’s right-hand man, Damaso Lopez Nunez, who knows the cartel’s operations inside-out and helped his extradited boss escape prison twice.
Another is led by two of the extradited kingpin’s sons, Jesus Alfredo and Ivan Archivaldo, who say they are the rightful heirs to his drug-running empire.
The third is led by Guzman’s brother Aureliano “El Guano” Guzman, who controls the area around their hometown, Badiraguato.
Since Guzman’s extradition in January, a bloodbath has engulfed Sinaloa, the western state where the cartel is based.
There have been 764 homicides in Sinaloa so far this year, the highest rate in six years, according to the security secretariat for the state of three million people.
“It’s terror. The word for what is happening in Sinaloa is generalized terror,” said Alejandro Sicairos, editor of local magazine Espejo.
“This hasn’t been the usual kind of shootout. They’re coming with everything they’ve got: high-caliber weapons, full arsenals, vehicle-mounted artillery.”
The trigger for the conflict appears to have been an armed raid on Guzman’s mother’s house in June 2016, according to another drug trafficking expert, Jose Reveles.
That incident―unconfirmed by authorities, but reported by Guzman’s lawyers―happened five months after “El Chapo” was re-arrested following a brazen escape from a maximum security prison in July 2015.
It was the first sign that war was brewing in Sinaloa.
Two months later, Guzman’s son Jesus Alfredo was kidnapped in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta. Authorities blamed the abduction on a rival cartel, Jalisco New Generation. But questions linger about whether the kidnappers got an inside tip.
Things escalated after “El Chapo” was extradited on January 19, effectively eliminating any possibility he would escape again or manage to maintain control from inside jail.
In February, Guzman’s sons penned an open letter accusing Damaso Lopez Nunez of trying to kill them in an ambush.
Then, last month, Lopez Nunez himself was arrested. But the killing continues unabated.
“It’s a real battle. The ‘Damasos’ even have their own uniformed army, the ‘Damaso Special Forces,’” said Reveles.
The cartel, which experts say has the complex structure of a multi-national corporation, is worth some $20 billion, according to a government estimate cited by an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sitting on the sidelines -- for now -- is cartel co-founder Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, experts say.
Opting to look after for his corner of the business rather than go to the trenches, “El Mayo” has emerged as a “pacifying, balancing force,” said Sicairos.
“’El Mayo’ is the one who will decide the final outcome,” said Reveles.
Sinaloa’s security under-secretary, Cristobal Castaneda, acknowledged the state lacks the resources it needs to stanch the blood.
It has 5,700 police and soldiers, but international standards indicate an area that size should have 9,000, he said.
Local police forces do not have enough training, he added.
“We are betting heavily on police training to make sure they can operate in full compliance with the rule of law,” he said.
Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up.
Many of those killed have been cartel members.
Others appear to have been caught in the crossfire, like noted journalist Javier Valdez.
Valdez, 50, was gunned down in the street on May 15 outside the offices of the newspaper he co-founded, Riodoce.
His colleagues suspect it may have been retaliation for an interview he published with Lopez Nunez.
In it, the narco denied attacking Guzman’s sons and called “El Mayo” his friend.
Riodoce’s editor, Ismael Bojorquez, said that “really bothered” one side in the conflict―but it’s unclear which.
The day the interview came out, a group of men followed the newspaper’s distributors and bought up every issue.
“I don’t know what line we crossed,” Bojorquez said.
“But that foreshadowed Javier’s killing.”