This article was originally written for Tremr, a brilliant new social journalism website that everyone should check out.
Two weeks ago, on the 13th July, Joaquin Guzman, better known as ‘El Chapo (Shorty)’, escaped his high security cell in an Altiplano prison. He fled in an underground tunnel to a safe house that had been purpose built several kilometres away, marking his second escape from a high security facility in the last 15 years.
It is expected that he will now resume his position at the head of Mexico’s biggest drug cartel, the Sinaloa group, which he has headed for a number of years. But who exactly is ‘Shorty’, what is the group that he runs, and what do we know about the drug wars in general?
A lot, and not much, almost simultaneously, is the rather frustrating answer. For the purposes of this article I am going to concentrate mainly on the conflicts and rivalries between various drug gangs, simply because the amount and levels of corruption that would need to be summarised are two long and complex for a piece such as this.
The Mexican drug wars have dominated the country’s politics for a number of years now, since then President Felipe Calderón took an official hard line on drug violence in late 2006, and it is he who has the ignominious honour of being branded the instigator of the conflict.
Sending the Mexican army into Michoacan drug territory politicised an industry that had been around long before the Calderón administration, and caused an all out war between gangs, soldiers, militia groups and civilians that has resulted in over 164,000 civilian deaths since the trouble began. Compare that with the 100,000 or so civilians that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined and you may begin to get a bit of a picture of the size of the conflict that Mexico is currently facing. At one point, in 2010 Ciudad Juarez was seeing as many as 10 homicides a day, most of which went unsolved.
A map of drug-related murders up to 2010
So how has this conflict developed, and who are the main belligerents? Well, unsurprisingly it’s a bit complicated, but to simplify things slightly, we will soon jump to the time period when the smaller gangs had been absorbed into each other to form collective alliances to fight both amongst themselves and the government. This process had begun long before the concentrated intervention of the government, but it certainly acted as a catalyst if nothing else. But in order to understand the position in 2009, we have to go back slightly to an action that would prove crucial to later events, the formation of the Zetas.
Creating the Zetas
In the late 90s, the two most powerful cartels were the Sinaloa cartel (of El Chapo fame), and the Gulf cartel, headed by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Realising he was in a losing position, Cárdenas formulated the creation of a new ‘professional’ armed wing of the Gulf cartel, to be known as the Zetas.
As such, he bribed Mexican special forces soldier Arturo Guzmán Decena (known as Z1) to recruit around 50 fellow special agents to come to fight for him and his cartel. These men had the training, the weapons, and the brutality to beat back the encroachment of the Sinaloa threat onto Gulf territory, which, if nothing else, dispels the myth of El Chapo being the all-powerful, all-consuming figure as which he is at times portrayed, particularly when captured by the authorities. The Zetas were the Gulf cartel’s ticket to dominance in the region.
However, the drug game is a fickle one, and the rising power of the Gulf group was curtailed in 2002, when their leader (Cárdenas Guillén) was captured by the Mexican authorities. This coincided with the killing of Zetas’ leader Guzmán Decena by Mexican special forces in the same year, and ties between the groups immediately suffered, as the original ‘treaty-signers’ were removed from their respective influences in the group.
All of which brings us back to the present day, with Calderón marking the official beginning of the drug war by invading the Michoacan region near Mexico City. At this point, the two biggest cartels by area remained those that had been in power 10 years before, Sinaloa and Gulf, though the Gulf Cartel’s relations with its armed wing had been weakened since 2002.
Finally, in 2009, things came to a head, though few know the true reason behind it. Whether it was Gulf looking for a truce with Sinaloa Cartel, or simply internal conflict and disagreement, the Gulf Cartel did something to upset its armed wing, resulting in them breaking away and forming their own group, under the Zetas banner.
Unsurprisingly given their military background and reputation for brutality, the Zetas had soon taken over almost all of the territory from their former employers, and in 2010 the Mexican battleground was firmly pitched.
The Zetas very quickly became Sinaloa’s main rival in the country, earning a particular reputation for violence and brutality, along with their aggressive expansion along the east coast of the country.
All of which brings us inevitably back to El Chapo. There were whispers last year that the Sinaloa cartel was the U.S.A’s cartel of choice, due to their perceived reputation of doing things ‘the right way’. Whereas the Zetas had a reputation for violence that preceded them, the Sinaloa group had a myth surrounding them that they were only interested in the drugs. While this wasn’t strictly true, the image helped them to regain control and begin to push back against the Zetas.
Chapo became a sort of cult hero, particularly in the region of Sinaloa, where he based his reputation, and there are ballads of legend sung about him. His cartel gained the upper hand against their rivals, largely through the non-hierarchical nature of their structure, and the fact that the organisation could cope with its head being repeatedly chopped off, whereas the Zetas went through great periods of infighting and internal rivalry every time a leader was killed. As such, though they still technically hold more territory, there is little the Zetas can do to compete with their long-time rivals.
The Current Conflict
Everything, then, was going smoothly for El Chapo until his arrest earlier this year. Drug violence in general had declined, and Chapo had established himself as the head of a drug monopoly through Mexico, something that, while not the stated aim of the government, at least diminished the violence seen over the last decade.
Now, however, his operations face a new threat. Not only is he facing competition from Central American gangs that once served as suppliers, notoriously violent gangs such as Mana Salvatrucha, he is also facing a tangible threat from within his own borders.
Seemingly not having learned from the mistakes of their Gulf rivals, in the early years of the drug war the Sinaloa group created an armed wing to combat the growing influence of the Zetas in the East.
This group was known as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and was created with the express purpose of fighting the Zetas for control around Jalisco. Predictably, however, since Chapo’s arrest and the uncertainty over Sinaloa, they have followed the example set by the Zetas and broken from their former employers, reigniting violence in the regions they control, which is growing fast. This is particularly worrying as a development for Mexico due to the group’s distinctly antiauthoritarian stance, which is perhaps even more extreme than that of its predecessors.
The war on drugs, then, has been a long and bloody one, filled with unsolved high-profile murders, corruption, and betrayal, but what stands out above all else is the effect it has had on the lives of everyday people.
While drug controlling regions such as Sinaloa have been made relatively affluent and safe through their activities, regions of territorial dispute such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, near the U.S. border, have been devastated by the violence that Mr Calderón’s crusade against drugs unleashed.
El Chapo was a part of this, he has always been a part of this, and, what with the emergence of the new challengers to his reign of the king of the Mexican drug scene, it looks unlikely that the conflict will be ending any time soon. Indeed, if the emergence of the CJNG is anything like that of the Zetas, then the cycle of violence may only just be getting ready to begin again.