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article imageAs 'El Chapo' faces court, Sinaloa cartel advances its pawns

By Yemeli ORTEGA (AFP)     Nov 13, 2018 in World

Far from the media frenzy around Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's trial in New York, a chess match is playing out between his Sinaloa cartel and its brutal rival, Jalisco New Generation, to decide the future of Mexico's multibillion-dollar narcotics industry.

Even as Guzman went on trial Tuesday on charges of shipping 155 tons of cocaine to the United States, the cartel he co-founded was thriving back in Mexico.

After surviving an internal power struggle in the wake of Guzman's extradition to the US last year, the Sinaloa cartel is now fighting back with a vengeance against its upstart rival from Jalisco -- and could even put it in checkmate if it plays its pieces right.

"Guzman's capture and extradition was good for the Mexican justice system and the United States, but it was largely symbolic. The Sinaloa cartel is still the most powerful in the world," said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The Sinaloa cartel is now led by Guzman's co-founder Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a veteran capo who managed to stamp out a bloody power grab by his extradited partner's sons.

According to Vigil, Zambada is an "extremely intelligent man, very capable, who has been in the drug trafficking business his entire life and never spent a single day in prison," thanks to the fact that -- unlike the flashy Guzman -- he keeps a low profile and never leaves his base in Mexico's western mountains.

El Chapo's sons, on the other hand, "are spoiled rich kids who never worked a day in their lives and don't know how this business works," said Raul Benitez Manaut, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

- New mastermind -

Having consolidated his leadership, Zambada, who is in his 70s, has now turned his attention to the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), a relative newcomer that has seized huge patches of territory with savage violence and a military-style arsenal.

"CJNG's domestic presence has significantly expanded in the past few years," the DEA wrote in its latest report on the international narcotics trade and its devastating impact on the United States -- particularly the opioid epidemic, which saw an average 174 Americans a day die of drug overdoses in 2016.

The man behind Jalisco New Generation's rise is Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera, its kingpin.

In a sign of his growing power, the United States last month doubled the reward for his capture, to $10 million.

But he is now fighting his own internal power struggle, against his former right-hand man, Carlos Enrique Sanchez, alias "El Cholo."

Sanchez "has aligned himself with the Sinaloa cartel, which is backing him with money and hitmen in his fight against El Mencho," Vigil said.

"If he manages to take over, he'll strike an alliance with the Sinaloa cartel. He'll have to in order to survive."

The Sinaloa cartel is meanwhile taking advantage of the infighting to grab as much territory as possible from its rival.

No matter what happens in the Jalisco cartel's civil war, "it's good for the Sinaloa cartel," Vigil said.

- All in the family -

Beyond the cold strategy play, there is a family drama worthy of a Mexican telenovela.

Guzman's wife, 29-year-old beauty queen Emma Coronel, is the niece of a late capo named Ignacio Coronel who oversaw the Sinaloa cartel's operations in Jalisco -- CJNG's bastion -- until he was killed in a shootout with the Mexican army in 2010.

After his death, CJNG took over his turf.

But if Sanchez now succeeds in dethroning Oseguera as head of CJNG and allying with the Sinaloa cartel, the late Coronel's territory "would be reintegrated into the main organization, which is Guzman's," said Javier Oliva, a security and defense researcher at UNAM.

The Sinaloa cartel will also be looking to exploit the structural weaknesses of its rival, experts say.

Oseguera has led with a reign of terror, racked up a body count that is drawing uncomfortable political attention, and installed a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, with himself at the top.

"El Mencho controls everything. If they catch him, it will be a major blow" to the organization, said Vigil.

Zambada on the other hand is known for his cool head, shrewd business sense and horizontal management.

The Sinaloa cartel "is like McDonald's," with semi-independent franchises in more than 40 countries that can keep functioning without the CEO, Vigil said.

From his mountain hideout, Zambada advances his pawns.

"They might catch me at any moment... or never," he said in a rare interview, in 2010.

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