Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the alleged head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, once referred to Chicago as his “home port,” a hub of a narcotics empire he built by filling a power vacuum left by the imprisonment of the city’s gang leaders.
Guzman’s arrest in a seaside Mexican town three days ago has left law enforcement, community leaders and even gang members disagreeing over how his own imprisonment will affect the multibillion-dollar drug trade. Some are predicting Guzman’s longtime lieutenant, Ismael Zambada, will easily assume control, while others anticipate a new vacuum that spurs violence in Mexico as well as Chicago and other U.S. cities.
Rival Mexican cartels may flood markets like Chicago with cheap drugs to get a foothold, triggering more bloodshed as gangs skirmish for retail space, Harold “Noonie” Ward, a former Chicago gang leader, said in an interview.
“They are going to fight over who’s next,” said Ward, whose own gang, the once-dominant Gangster Disciples, ceded control to Sinaloa after its leadership was incarcerated. “Somebody will question why someone else has the power now.”
Robert Coleman, who retired in January after two decades on a Drug Enforcement Administration task force in Chicago, disagreed, noting the role of Guzman’s top lieutenant, Zambada, his co-defendant in a federal drug-trafficking case filed in the city in 2009. Zambada remains at large.
“He’s got that strong second in command who has been his second in command for a long time,” Coleman said of Zambada, known as “El Mayo.”
The Sinaloa cartel controls an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine trade in the Chicago region, fueling turf battles and violence among the city’s street gangs.
While Guzman referred to Chicago as his home port in a 2006 secret recording, authorities say his cartel also dominates the narcotics trade in other parts of the U.S. One thing observers agree on: His capture may have little impact on the flow of drugs to those communities.
“A ripple,” Coleman said.
Said Ward: “If anything, it’s probably going to get worse.”
Guzman, known as “Chapo” or “Shorty,” was captured by Mexican security forces Saturday morning in a condominium in Mazatlan, along the Pacific coast. Though guns and a rocket launcher were seized, no shots were fired.
A stocky man in his 50s, the 5-foot-6-inch Guzman came from rural poverty to become, in the words of the U.S. Treasury Department, the “world’s most powerful drug trafficker.”
One indicator of his importance is the tussling, post arrest, over where he will be prosecuted, in Mexico or the U.S. Guzman is facing indictment in Chicago, Miami, San Diego, El Paso, Texas, Brooklyn, New York, and elsewhere.
“The decision whether to pursue extradition will be the subject of further discussion between the United States and Mexico,” said Peter Carr, Justice Department spokesman.
The Guzman case will test the willingness of the Mexican government to send criminals to the U.S. for trial. President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, returned to power in December 2012 after 12 years during which the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, held the nation’s top office.
Guzman already embarrassed Mexican officials when he escaped from prison in a laundry truck in 2001. The question now is whether Mexico can successfully prosecute him and keep him locked away.
“They have their hands on him, and it’s up to them to extradite him if they want,” said former federal prosecutor Chris Gair, who predicted the extradition issue would be “a real battle.”
Gair, who now leads his own private practice, said he has spent about eight weeks in the last year and a half working with Mexican prosecutors on preparing criminal cases. In some instances, murder victims’ parents won’t testify for fear of retribution.
“Their system is still a long way from being a system that people can trust,” he said.
If extradition efforts are successful, the justice department will then have to decide which jurisdiction has the strongest case against Guzman and the greatest likelihood of winning a conviction, former prosecutors said.
While authorities don’t know whether Guzman ever stepped foot in Chicago, his lieutenants exploited a government crackdown on gang leaders to seize control of the drug trade.
The cartel has also been blamed for flooding markets in the Midwest and elsewhere with cheap and potent heroin, leading to a surge in overdoses in Chicago’s suburbs.
There were a record 46 heroin-related deaths last year in DuPage County, just west of Chicago, said Dr. Richard Jorgensen, the county’s coroner. While he said the overdose rate has slowed so far in 2014, he didn’t think Guzman’s arrest would have much effect.
“I think the general belief is that you get one, and another couple rats jump in,” he said.
Coleman said the Sinaloa cartel gets its strength from its distribution networks, which were originally created to bring marijuana into the U.S.
The Mexican cartels eventually used the same routes to transport South American cocaine across the border, as well as heroin and other drugs.
“The Mexicans have the routes, the officials they can bribe, the border crossings,” said Coleman, now director of the National Intelligence Academy in Florida, which provides training for law enforcement. “Each cartel has its own sources to get drugs into the United States. Sinaloa has the biggest network.”
A sliver of that network was exposed in federal court documents in Chicago, after the Flores twins -- Pedro and Margarito -- began cooperating with authorities. The twins allegedly broke down shipments of drugs from the Sinaloa cartel, and others, and redistributed them around Chicago and beyond.
In 2008, the Flores brothers’ drug trafficking was worth a whopping $700 million. It fell apart when Guzman and a boyhood friend battled over the Flores twins’ loyalties, among other issues. With Guzman gone, the question becomes whether Zambada and other alleged leaders can maintain order, in Mexico and abroad.
In the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village, which Sinaloa maintained as a stronghold, some said the result would be the same, whether Sinaloa was supplying the drugs or some other cartel.
Rev. Jose Landaverde, whose Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission sits on the main commercial artery that cuts through Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, said the arrest of Guzman won’t reduce violence in his neighborhood. The influence of ``El Chapo" will only grow as his jailtime adds to his legend, according to Landaverde.
“Guzman is very significant for the young people of this neighborhood,” said Landaverde from a back office in his church in the neighborhood that’s considered a center of Mexican-American culture in the nation’s third-largest city. “Chapo already stopped being a drug trafficker and became someone compared with Osama bin Laden, a political figure, an ideological one.”