By Scott Stewart
Stratfor analysts spend a lot of time reading intelligence, including huge numbers of media reports. This is something I jokingly refer to as "electronic waterboarding" when talking to new analysts: The intelligence flow is more than any brain can absorb, and until you become accustomed to managing the onslaught of information, you can feel as though you are drowning intellectually. But once you learn to manage it, a heavy flow of information can be very useful in spotting anomalies and patterns and in charting and predicting changes in dynamics. It is also quite helpful in allowing an analyst to pick out conventional wisdom and even myths that are propagated by the media and sometimes deeply held by a population.
Analytically, the problem is that buying into a popular narrative or commonly held myth can be quite dangerous. This is because such concepts can not only shape the way you perceive and categorize information as you read through the flow, but also serve to radically skew your analysis of a situation or dynamic. Indeed, conventional wisdom, disinformation and myths have long proved to be the bane of sound analysis. Intellectually buying into these types of concepts has led to the construction of faulty intellectual frameworks that in recent years have resulted in deeply flawed analyses regarding, for example, the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the purported links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.
But deceptive narratives, disinformation and myths do not apply just to Iraq or Saddam. One of the places where they are running rampant today is in Mexico, and perhaps no figure has more myths and disinformation associated with him than Joaquin Guzman Loera, also known as El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Federation.
Myth and Reality in Mexico
This is not the first time Stratfor has attempted to address the El Chapo myth. In November 2012, I wrote an analysis discussing how a commonly held belief that El Chapo was somehow less violent than his competitors is patently false. Indeed, a historical review of inter-cartel violence in Mexico shows that it was the aggressiveness of El Chapo and his Sinaloa cartel compatriots in their efforts to seize smuggling corridors from competing organizations that started successive cartel wars in Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, Juarez and Veracruz. Yet, despite this clear history, the myth somehow endures, and it is not unusual to read media accounts in which analysts and academics who study Mexico's cartels discuss how El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel are more businesslike and less violent than their competitors. I often wonder what the remnants of the Arellano-Felix Organization (also know as the Tijuana cartel) or the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (also known as the Juarez cartel) think when they read such claims.
There is another myth we would like to address. Since the July 15 arrest of Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, the leader of Los Zetas, there has been an increase in the circulation of the persistent myth that El Chapo's organization has somehow been spared in the Mexican government's efforts to decapitate and splinter the cartels. This is purportedly a sign that El Chapo has reached some sort of deal with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party to spare the Sinaloa Federation from government attention. But this is clearly not supported by the facts.
Certainly, connections between the various cartels in Mexico and politicians at the local, state and even federal levels are long-standing and very well documented. However, while such connections can provide some degree of shelter and a great deal of intelligence regarding police and military operations, they by no means have been useful in completely shielding cartel figures from the government.
For example, the cartel leader who built arguably the best intelligence network within the Mexican government was Alfredo Beltran Leyva. Even though some of the Beltran Leyva Organization's alleged informants have been released from prison in recent months — including former Mexican drug czar Noe Ramirez Mandujano and former army Gen. Tomas Angeles Dauahare — due to questions about the credibility of a witness who testified against them, the cartel still possessed an extensive and impressive network of agents of influence and human intelligence sources. Yet this expansive network could not prevent Beltran Leyva himself from being arrested in January 2008, one of his brothers, Arturo, from being killed in December 2009 or another, Carlos, from being arrested two weeks later.
Clearly, agents of influence and intelligence sources cannot provide universal protection from the government. This is because while corruption is widespread in Mexico, it is not homogenous at any level, and collusion does not imply exclusive or consistent support. Some politicians are on the payrolls of multiple cartels, and while one member of a political party or government institution can be in the employ of a certain cartel, their colleagues may be on the payrolls of others.
Because of this, agents of influence and information sources in the Mexican government have not been able to provide absolute protection to El Chapo and the Sinaloa Federation. For example, the Beltran Leyva Organization was a part of the Sinaloa Federation until after Alfredo Beltran Leyva's arrest, when rumors that El Chapo had betrayed Alfredo compelled Arturo Beltran Leyva to break away from, and declare war on, the Sinaloa Federation. It has never been clear if the rumors of the betrayal were true or if they were part of an information operation employed by former President Felipe Calderon's administration and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to divide and decapitate the cartels. Either way, the rumor was taken as fact, and the loss of the Beltran Leyva Organization was a big blow to the Sinaloa Federation.
El Chapo's group lost not only the Beltran Leyvas' intelligence and logistics networks but also their guns. The brothers had been dispatched to Nuevo Laredo when Sinaloa was attempting to wrest control of the plaza from the Gulf cartel following the arrest of Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2003. After Alfredo's arrest, those same forces that had become battle-hardened after warring with Los Zetas for control of Nuevo Laredo began to attack their former Sinaloa Federation allies. They even killed El Chapo's son, Edgar Guzman Beltran, in Culiacan in May 2008. To this day, certain remnants of the Beltran Leyva Organization, including an enforcer group known as Los Mazatlecos, pose a potent threat to the Sinaloa Federation throughout Sinaloa state.
A similar dynamic played out following the July 2010 death of Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, the leader of a Sinaloa Federation faction based in Guadalajara. The organization splintered into several factions, some of which are now at war with the Sinaloa Federation after blaming El Chapo for betraying Coronel. These factions are also battling each other for control of Guadalajara. In this case, not only did the Sinaloa Federation lose significant revenue from the methamphetamine produced by Coronel's organization (Coronel was known as the "King of Crystal"), but Guadalajara has now become a hotly contested city rather than a Sinaloa stronghold. The largest of the Coronel factions, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, which is at war with the Sinaloa Federation, has become one of the fastest-growing cartels in the country in terms of territory, and it poses a significant threat to the remaining Sinaloa factions headed by El Chapo, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia and Juan "El Azul" Jose Esparragoza Moreno, along with their allies in the Knights Templar and the Gulf cartel.
Speaking of El Mayo and El Azul, it is important to recognize that the Sinaloa Federation does not operate as a single hierarchical organization under El Chapo. While El Chapo gets most of the media attention, El Mayo and El Azul are also members of the triumvirate that guides the cartel's activities. Sinaloa's structure as a network of separate groups has helped the federation weather the loss of the Beltran Leyva and Coronel organizations. This also means that even if El Chapo is removed from the equation, his organization would likely continue, as would the factions led by El Mayo and El Azul — though there is always the risk that the fall of such an apex leader could lead to the type of balkanization we have seen affect the Beltran Leyva and Coronel organizations.
Sinaloa Losses to Government Operations
Whether or not El Chapo and his triumvirate partners betrayed Alfredo Beltran Leyva and Coronel to the government, it is still not accurate to maintain that the Sinaloa Federation has not been affected by the campaign to splinter and decapitate the cartels. Besides losing two powerful organizations from its network, the Sinaloa Federation also has lost a number of key individuals, including:
- Ines Coronel Barreras: El Chapo's father-in-law and an important smuggler in Sonora. Arrested with his son in April 2013.
- Jonathan "El Fantasma" Salas Aviles: A key Sinaloa lieutenant and hit man. Arrested in February 2013.
- Jose Angel "El Changel" Coronel Carrasco: A prominent figure in Sinaloa illicit drug production operations in the area known as the Golden Triangle near the borders of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango states. Arrested in January 2013.
- Jesus Alfredo "El Muneco" Salazar Ramirez (El Muneco): A key lieutenant for El Chapo who oversaw production and trafficking of illicit drugs in Sonora and Chihuahua states. Arrested in November 2012.
- Jose Manuel "El M1" Torres Felix: A key lieutenant for El Mayo reportedly in charge of his security team. Killed in a shootout with the Mexican military in October 2012.
- Jose Antonio "El Jaguar" Torres Marrufo: A leader of the Gente Nueva enforcer group. Arrested in February 2012.
- Noel "El Flaco" Salgueiro Nevarez: A leader of the Gente Nueva enforcer group. Arrested in October 2011.
- Jesus Vicente "El Vicentillo" Zambada Niebla: The son of El Mayo. Arrested in March 2009 and extradited to the United States to stand trial.
It is also significant to recognize that this list does not count the personnel lost in confrontations with opposing cartels or arrested in other countries; these are just some of the key Sinaloa members lost to the Mexican government. Again, it is hard to understand how anyone can argue that Sinaloa has not been affected by government operations — or that those arrested or killed were just low-ranking cannon fodder given up to provide an appearance that the government is attacking Sinaloa.
Interestingly, the myth that El Chapo reached an agreement with the government is nearly as old as it is immune to facts. I can clearly recall that when President Felipe Calderon came into power in December 2006, there were whisperings and rumors of some sort of familial link between Calderon and El Chapo and that Calderon and his National Action Party had somehow reached a deal with El Chapo that would protect the Sinaloa Federation from government action. As the partial list above shows, this was not the case. The Calderon administration did go after the Sinaloa Federation, as is Pena Nieto.
That the rumors span two administrations headed by presidents from opposing political parties — and that the myths fly in the face of the facts — highlights the dangers that such narratives pose to analysts. These myths shape the way facts are perceived and memorized — or ignored. In this way, they introduce what is known as cognitive bias into an analysis of a situation or phenomenon. This cognitive bias can then lead the analysis astray — and recent press articles demonstrate that a great deal of cognitive bias is still floating around regarding El Chapo.