Mexico: The Death of a Cartel Leader

4 MINS READJul 30, 2010 | 16:36 GMT

Members of the Mexican military killed Sinaloa Federation No. 3, Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, in a raid on a safe house in the suburbs of Guadalajara, Jalisco state, the evening of July 29. A strong force in Mexican drug trafficking since the late 1980s, Coronel will be difficult to replace in terms of leadership, skill and experience. While his death represents a significant win for the government, it could well spark more violence as other drug trafficking organizations seek to fill the vacuum.

The No. 3 figure in Mexico's Sinaloa drug trafficking organization, Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, was killed in a government raid on two suspected Sinaloa safe houses in the wealthy Guadalajara suburb of Zapopan, Jalisco state, July 29. Along with the December 2009 death of Arturo Beltran Leyva, El Nacho's demise marks the second high-profile death of a senior drug cartel leader since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the country's drug trafficking organizations in December 2006. His elimination gives a much-needed boost to the Mexican government's counternarcotics efforts as organized crime-related violence continues to increase throughout the country. Moreover, as a strong force in the Mexican drug trafficking scene and an integral part of the Sinaloa Federation's leadership and operations, El Nacho will be difficult for Sinaloa to replace.

The raid on the two houses involved 150 troops from the Mexican army supported by two helicopters and various armored personnel carriers. El Nacho reportedly was located in the first house accompanied only by one of his top lieutenants, Iran Francisco Quinones Gastelum. Coronel reportedly opened fire on the troops with a handgun when they stormed the house, killing the point man on the entry team and wounding the second before two rounds struck El Nacho in the upper chest, killing him instantly. Quinones reportedly surrendered to Mexican troops immediately after El Nacho was shot. Mexican troops then discovered suitcases of cash and jewelry throughout the residence. The operation to take down the Sinaloa capo resulted from several months of independent intelligence work by the military intelligence unit of the Mexican Defense department (known by its Spanish acronym, SEDENA).

This operation was vastly different from the Mexican naval operation that saw the death of Beltran Leyva Organization kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva, in that the Mexican army rapidly acquired tactical control of the situation due to lack of resources on the part of Coronel. Coronel had been known for not travelling with an entourage of bodyguards, instead seeking to avoid attention by blending into the Guadalajara metro area. He had been a dominant force on the Mexican drug trafficking scene since the late 1980s, having begun his trafficking career working for Amado Carrillo Fuentes and the Juarez cartel. After the death of Carrillo Fuentes in 1997, El Nacho joined the Sinaloa Federation in the early 2000s. He worked under Sinaloa leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera and Sinaloa No. 2, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia. El Nacho controlled drug trafficking operations for the Sinaloa Federation along the Pacific coast of Mexico from Acapulco, Guerrero state, to Jalisco and Colima states. In addition to his logistical control of the region for the Sinaloa Federation, Coronel also headed the organization's production and trafficking of massive quantities of methamphetamine (aka meth, cristal or ice due to its clear, crystal-like appearance), which led to his other nickname, the "King of Ice."

El Nacho's leadership in the Sinaloa Federation and some 20-plus years navigating the Latin American drug underworld will be extremely difficult to replicate, something compounded by the arrest of his top lieutenant, Quinones.

His leadership in the Sinaloa Federation and some 20-plus years navigating the Latin American drug underworld will be extremely difficult to replicate, something compounded by the arrest of his top lieutenant, Quinones. The hierarchal structure of the Sinaloa Federation means someone will be appointed to take his place in the organization, likely someone within El Nacho's trafficking organization familiar with local and regional contacts as well as the organization's operations — not someone from the broader Sinaloa Federation.

El Nacho's death, a significant victory for the Mexican government, comes at a time of intensified domestic criticism of the country's strategy in the war against the cartels — even from former Cabinet ministers — and at a time when violence has reached all-time highs. The glow, however, is likely to be short-lived. As the Sinaloa Federation scrambles to regroup, other organizations will undoubtedly seek to challenge its dominance in the region, such as the Beltran Leyva Organization and Los Zetas. This could well lead to another spike in violence in an already violent region of the country.

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