YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


After 'El Chapo' arrest, focus turns to next Sinaloa drug boss

Ismael 'El Mayo' Zambada, who is believed to now control Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, comes from the same countryside as Joaquin Guzman. But he keeps a lower profile, which may make him harder to catch.

March 02, 2014|By Richard Fausset and Richard A. Serrano
  • Journalist Julio Scherer Garcia, left, appears with Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada on the cover of a 2010 edition of the newsmagazine Proceso. Zambada is believed to have succeeded Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman as boss of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Journalist Julio Scherer Garcia, left, appears with Ismael "El Mayo"… (Proceso )

MEXICO CITY — With the arrest of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the leadership of Mexico's largest and most sophisticated illegal drug operation has probably transferred to Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a 66-year-old former farmer with a knack for business — and maintaining a low profile.

But Zambada is likely to discover, much as Guzman did, that inheriting the throne of top capo comes with a series of complications worthy of a Shakespearean king.

Like his predecessor, Zambada is a country boy made good who hails from the badlands of Sinaloa, the traditional heart of Mexican drug-smuggling culture. Though he has enjoyed less publicity than Guzman, he has long been considered a high-level target for U.S. and Mexican authorities, who have managed to nab a number of his family members and close associates in recent years. Now that pressure is likely to increase substantially.

As long as Zambada remains free, however, close observers of the Mexican drug world will be analyzing the little that is known about his style in an effort to divine the future for his global drug empire. They will also be attuned to Zambada's personal history — particularly his longtime business alliance with Guzman. The current state of that partnership could be the difference between a smooth succession within the Sinaloa cartel and a bloody fracturing of what has long been a loose-knit and volatile confederation of killers, smugglers and outlaws.

A U.S. federal law enforcement official said Friday that American authorities were watching Mexico closely, expecting that Guzman would be handing the reins of the Sinaloa cartel to his "most trusted" confederate.

"But the question is: Does he want it?" said the official, speaking confidentially because there is a pending criminal case against Zambada. "Does he want to become the lightning rod by becoming the head of the cartel? If he does that, he knows the U.S. and Mexico will come after him like an avenging wind.

"But he's probably got no choice. Chapo, through his lawyers, will send a message to El Mayo that he has to take over the cartel, simply because he's the only guy there for a smooth transition."

In a 2010 interview with the weekly Mexican newsmagazine Proceso, Zambada, whose nickname is a diminutive often given to boys named Ismael in Sinaloa, said that he and Guzman "are friends, compadres," who "talk on the phone regularly." The two men do seem to have much in common. They are of roughly the same generation (Guzman, officials say, is either 56 or 59), grew up poor in rural Sinaloa, and both sport cowboy-style mustaches.

Both men have also spent decades in the drug business, the reason the U.S. government issued individual rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to their capture. Zambada is said to have begun at age 16 — "since before Christ resurrected Lazarus," Michael S. Vigil, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's former chief of international operations, said in an interview Friday.

Early on, Vigil said, Zambada worked the Mexicali area, lording over the region against rival drug smugglers. "He killed several individuals that were trying to take over that plaza," Vigil said.

Eventually, Zambada and Guzman formed a bond. In 1989, they were said to be among the emerging cartel leaders who were granted control of key geographical sectors of Mexico by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a powerful capo of the era known as "El Padrino," or the Godfather. At the time, Felix was seeking to disaggregate the drug trade's leadership, making it more difficult to police.

According to federal grand jury indictments filed in 2008 and 2012 against Zambada, Guzman and others, the two men came to control two distinct and powerful factions in the Sinaloa cartel. Prosecutors said they continued their alliance in order to more effectively coordinate massive shipments of cocaine and heroin to U.S. markets, employ squads of assassins and threaten violence against buyers in the United States who dared to consider doing business with the competition.

In Mexico, there were rules, but Guzman, in particular, was happy to break them. On the website of the Mexican newsmagazine Nexos last week, Guillermo Valdes Castellanos, the former director of the Mexican government's Center for Investigation and National Security, said that the 1989 meeting with El Padrino established dues that regional drug chiefs would have to pay to move through another's territory.

Guzman frequently ignored these territories in his quest for expansion — one reason why Mexico saw so many battles break out in key nodes on the drug route, including Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo. Now, Valdes argues, it is Zambada who will have to decide whether to continue with the same adversarial approach.

Los Angeles Times Articles