Sinaloa Cartel diversifies business and now also traffics in migrants

The tightening of U.S. and Mexican immigration policy has made business difficult, but Manuel is not worried: there may be fewer crossings and more is being spent, but also more is being charged, which means that money continues to flow.

OFAC's list reveals that the Sinaloa Cartel is the organization with the largest presence of partners and companies in Mexico and abroad. Photo: France24
OFAC's list reveals that the Sinaloa Cartel is the organization with the largest presence of partners and companies in Mexico and abroad. Photo: France24

The Sinaloa Cartel is also engaged in trafficking migrants along 600 kilometers of the 3,200 km border between Mexico and the United States, according to testimony from an alleged financial operator of that criminal organization, who said the business brings them profits of about USD 1,000,000 per month (about $20 million Mexican pesos).

In statements to the AP agency, asking to be identified only by the name of Manuel, this middle-aged man who manages the profits obtained from the trafficking of migrants states: "we control the entire border" from Sonora to Arizona. This financial manager also runs a nightclub in the city of Hermosillo, 300 kilometers from the border.

Although he does not explicitly mention it, everyone knows he is an operator for the Sinaloa Cartel. The tightening of U.S.-Mexico immigration policy has resulted in more security forces on the border and "hindered" business, but Manuel is not worried: "There may be fewer crossings and more is spent, but it also charges more, which means the money keeps flowing.

And in a year in which there have been big changes on both sides of the border, there is a combination of new ways with old techniques: higher prices for travel, payments for surrendering to authorities, new "offers", but also the use of traditional routes and bribes to officials in both countries.

The Associate Press collected dozens of testimonies from migrants and some "coyotes" or "polleros" at various points along the routes in Central America and Mexico that show that migrant trafficking is a thriving business that has been able to adapt to new needs.

In the territory that Manuel manages, he says, they earn USD 1,000,000 a month, which represents a small part of a multi-million dollar business that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates at USD 4 billion, while the Mexican government raises the figure to USD 6 billion.

Although the measures initiated by the two countries appear to have discouraged some from emigrating, they have also convinced others that their journey can only be successful at the hands of a professional: "It is a business that will not stop," said Manuel.

But those actions also had another effect: The migrants were once again "in the hands of the mafia," aware that only with help would they reach "the other side," Guillermo Valdés, Mexico's former director of intelligence, told the AP. The National Institute of Migration (INM) claims to have identified 18 such mafia networks operating in nine cities across the country.

The price of the cross began to increase, even surpassing USD 10,000 (about 200,000 Mexican pesos) from Central America. But the star offer of the year in that region was what became known as "the package," which consists of taking an adult and a minor into the hands of the Border Patrol for a cost of between USD 3,000 and 6,000 (between 60,000 and 120,000 Mexican pesos). The hope of the families was that shortly after turning themselves in, they would be able to continue their asylum process on U.S. soil.

The U.S.-Mexico border has an owner

With the exception of a few places, such as official sentry boxes, organized crime controls every kilometer that separates the two countries and decides what, who, when and how it crosses and for how much money in each place, says the AP report.

He adds that management and rules vary according to the dominant cartel, but there is a common denominator: A migrant may be able to bypass the sophisticated traffic network to enter or cross Mexico, although almost never when crossing to the United States.

The "coyotes", who used to be seen as people trusted by migrants, have had to pay the mafias for permits to cross migrants of a certain nationality, for example, or to use a certain pass or change to another one if they are crossing another "commodity", such as drugs, through the first one.

"It's like the hands of the clock," says Manuel. "All the parts have to work for this to work and now you have to fix them all.

The financial operator says that the "company" (the cartel) rents the "plaza" or territory to local gangs so that they can use it and manage what it traffics, and pays the security forces to let them operate.

He gives the example of Nogales, where the "fee" to each corporation "so it doesn't bother" is $25,000 dollars a month (about half a million pesos). He says everyone is paid: local, state, federal police, including the National Guard. The exception is the Army, he says, which chooses to look the other way, although "one way or another they benefit, with a favor or something.

Offers for the crossing vary. On the border where Manuel operates, flexibility is maximum. The cost has to do with the nationality and the modality is chosen: walking seven days through the desert, only three, barely two hours or even a few minutes through the sentry box, the latter being the most expensive option.

"There is the handling of rented visas," explains Manuel about this last modality. "You look for a resemblance" of the migrant with whom the document is rented, pay the lender and wait for the trick to work or for an American agent willing to take a bribe. "There are people who pull (cooperate) and people who don't."

On the U.S. side, security houses also operate from where traffickers, usually citizens or Mexicans with legal visas, distribute people into the country. Sometimes the migrants are used as bait by the traffickers to entertain the border agents, while on the other hand, they pass on to the group that paid the most and wants to get into the United States.

The flow of migrants to the United States continued to decline in November, when there were 5% fewer arrests than in October and 70% fewer than in May, the month with the highest number of arrests of the year, according to data released by the Border Patrol. Both Mexico and the United States are celebrating the success of their policies, but those who make a living from migrant trafficking don't care.

On the U.S. side, "there are points where we have arrangements and others where you have to take your chances. But on this side (the Mexican side) it's nothing you can't solve," says Manuel, the operator of the Sinaloa Cartel.

For him, one key is to maintain control of strategic points, such as Altar, a town of extreme temperatures in the Sonoran desert, where most of its 10,000 inhabitants live directly or indirectly from migrant trafficking. It is also a vital place for drug distribution, concludes Manuel.

Source AP


Since 2007, the U.S. Department of the Treasury began to demonstrate the existence of more than 250 companies established by this organization in Mexican territory and in Latin American and European cities.

The Kingpin Act classified Chapo Guzmán, Mayo Zambada, and Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, El Azul, as the ringleaders.

On May 17 of that year, the agency released the list of the cartel companies established in Sinaloa, which functioned as a front for money laundering. Eight months later, the Cázares Salazar financial network appeared, which includes marketing companies, factories, restaurants, and real estate agencies, among others.

On December 15, 2009, the Treasury Department attributed links with drug trafficking organizations in Central America and Colombia to the cartel.

Earlier that year, in April, the Sinaloa organization was linked to Guatemalan capo Waldemar Lorenzana Lima and three other individuals from his network in that country. And in Colombia, he was linked to the network of Jorge Milton Cifuentes Villa and his companies, which range from foundations to airlines located in that country, Panama, Mexico, the United States, and Spain.

In 2012, the Sinaloa Cartel was blacklisted by Marllory Dadiana Chacón Rossell's organization in Guatemala, whose companies were located in that country and in Panama.

That same year, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the Treasury Department, identified María Alejandrina Salazar Hernández and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar as Chapo's relatives.

OFAC then pointed to the Esparragoza Moreno network; it then linked the Sinaloa Cartel with John Angel Zabaneh and his organization in Belize, and reiterated its closeness to Chacón Rossell and his people in Guatemala. The organizational chart also includes the cell of Rafael Caro Quintero, included on June 12, 2013, whose companies OFAC locates in Mexico.

In the case of the companies, the most recurrent lines of business are cattle ranching and farming, as well as exchange houses, imports, exports and the manufacture of clothing and airlines.

Of the 399 entities published by OFAC, it mentions 228 persons and 171 companies presumably used for money laundering.

According to information from the Department of the Treasury, of the 339 companies and active people, El Mayo, also leader of the cartel, is the one who has more companies and partners at his service, with 62 social purposes, followed by El Azul -who presumably died on November 7, 2014-, with 36. As far as Chapo goes, at least 250 companies are attributed to the latter.

The capos use wives, sons, daughters, brothers, cousins, compadres and friends of their respective families in these signatures. OFAC published full names and photographs of at least 70 people on its famous list.

According to a review by the website Animal Político, of the 146 companies active on OFAC's list, at least 12 have been insured at the request of ministerial and judicial authorities in Mexico. In all cases due to suspicions of having participated in illegal activities.

In the case of Mexico, Sinaloa concentrates 108 people and companies that allegedly launder resources; 34 are located in Jalisco; 32 in Mexico City; 30 in Baja California; 24 in Sonora; and the rest in Chihuahua, Durango, the State of Mexico, Michoacán, Morelos, Nuevo León, Puebla and Quintana Roo.

OFAC's list reveals that the Sinaloa Cartel is the organization with the largest presence of partners and companies in Mexico and abroad, which consolidates it as a strong international money laundering network.

The organization has at least 52 companies and presumed laundering partners in Colombia, 14 in Guatemala, 10 in Honduras, six in Panama, four in Ecuador, two in Belize, one in Venezuela, one in Israel and one in Spain. It recently added companies from Asia.

During the operation to free Ovidio Guzmán López, this wealth was fundamental in moving the "plebada," (folks) especially the youth. Iván Guzmán Salazar and Joaquín Guzmán López allegedly offered 20,000 pesos to each of those who joined Ovidio's rescue.

Source: Proceso


The criminal organization that reigns in Sinaloa, indicated as the one led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, "El Chapo", or Ismael Zambada García, "El Mayo", is not the way it has been tried to be told.

From within the Sinaloa cartel, it is explained that there is no pyramidal structure in this organization. Photo: Zocalo
From within the Sinaloa cartel, it is explained that there is no pyramidal structure in this organization. Photo: Zocalo

From within the organization, explanations are given that there is no pyramidal structure, that is to say, there is no formal leader, not even below these other leaders who act as managers, far from it.

There are, yes, criminal groups that have adapted to territories and forms for the production, commercialization, sale, and profit on illegal drugs with visible heads, but that act independently, not subject to totalitarian leadership.

All these groups act together in situations that put this organization at risk. As an example, the operation to avoid the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán López, son of "El Chapo", was cited.

In Culiacán, almost a month after the so-called "Black Thursday" or "Culiacanazo," the conversation remains valid.

There is still talk of that afternoon when armed groups paralyzed the city to avoid the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán López, son of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, "El Chapo," who on February 12 of this year was convicted in New York for drug trafficking.

The Federal Security Cabinet acknowledged having used a failed operation, with inconsistencies from its origin without, to date, having a person responsible for the disaster in Culiacan, the so-called epicenter of the "Sinaloa Cartel".

On that day, October 17, there were 19 blockades, 14 clashes, hundreds of bullets fired, 13 people killed, including civilian victims, elements of the National Guard and the Army.

There were also threats against family members of soldiers in the 21 de Marzo housing zone and against military personnel at the Cosalá, Badiraguato and San Ignacio bases, according to Luis Crescencio Sandoval, Secretary of Defense, on Oct. 30.

He submitted himself to the army and a city in less than 30 minutes to avoid detention, with a series of violent acts that for Tomás Guevara Martínez, doctor in Social Sciences and professor at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, as well as coordinator of the Laboratory of Psychosocial Studies of Violence, was nothing more than a demonstration of a group of not seeing, nor feeling, overcome.

"I believe that it is not so much Ovid's position or influence, but rather the need to show that they were not willing to do that, as it was an attack against the organization, it seems that's how they looked at it, hence the very violent reaction. It was a coup of power, more than of authority," he says.

"A structure was staggering that is wanting to reposition itself and I think the response was so abrupt, so dramatic and also so violent that I get the impression that it was counterproductive for them. That violent action, the researcher believes, weakened the image created around the charity narrative that had been displayed.

"If the idea was to show the repositioning of the organization, I believe that in the face of society it was the opposite, I believe that society now does not approve of this type of postures, of failed demonstrations of strength," he asserts.

The questions arose after October 17. Who is Ovidio Guzmán and how important is he? Why give greater weight to a figure that, according to the public parameters of the governments of the United States and Mexico, does not appear as a predominant figure, who or who are the leaders of this criminal organization called the Sinaloa Cartel?

Sources consulted by Grupo REFORMA, who requested anonymity, explained that the Cartel is not a single family and not an organization like the governments of Mexico and the United States have wanted to point it out. Instead, they are several families that share the same territory and sometimes do business together.

Thus, under this scheme, the "Cartel" is an organization made up of an accumulation of organizations that coincide in strategies, territory, and products to traffic in an illicit manner. 

"The Cartel is a completely DEA concept," said one source.

The organization is made up of different groups, including those of Ismael Zambada García, the Cázarez Salazar family, the Flores Cacho family, Rafael Caro Quintero's group, the Fuentes Villa family, Juan José Esparragoza Moreno's family, Joaquín Guzmán Loera's children, Héctor Román Angulo's family and Dámaso López Núñez's family, among others.

Of these, names and characters stand out, such as Ismael Zambada García, "El Mayo", and Rafael Caro Quintero, but none of them have been, to date, selected as a maximum leader, explain the informants.

"There are many independent groups that are not accountable to any large group, but rather pay them for the transportation of drugs," the informants explain.

Each of these groups may have different methods of drug distribution, transport, and sales territory, but they have the ability to reach agreements to avoid confrontation or to complete their work.

"For example, if they have a small plane that can carry a thousand kilos, but one group carries 500, then they join with another and each one pays to complete, but it is not that they are the profits for someone, but for each group", it is indicated.

This type of organization, in which different organizations concur, occurs with the rest of the country's criminal organizations, that is, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, among others, which have the same process and composition.

They are groups, most of them small, that reach agreements to rely on illicit businesses or to protect themselves, as happened on October 17 in Culiacán, when different gangs joined together to avoid the detention of Ovidio Guzmán López.

"The Cartel as such is a myth, they are families, they are factions," says an informant.

The narrative has been different: cartels, plaza leaders, hitmen, drug traffickers, hawks or pointers, puchadores (narcomenudistas), criminal cells, financial operators, among other phrases and words that were communicated through official channels as new signifiers.

This discourse is repeated in press releases, films, television series or streaming services and bullfights.

For Oswaldo Zavala, associate professor of Latin American literature at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as author of the book "Los cárteles no existen" ("Malpaso", 2018), this has managed to consolidate a false conception of criminal groups.

"I believe that what we call a cartel is a metaphor used by U.S. authorities to designate a dispersion of groups," he says.

The problem for Zavala is that this discourse is not very verifiable, the data is not consistent, and it attracts disinformation about what these organizations are and how they work.

"You have moments when the DEA says that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is the most powerful cartel in Mexico, then says no, that it is the Sinaloa Cartel, suddenly the figures are totally fantastic," he says.

"Suddenly he says that there is a presence of the Sinaloa Cartel in 51 countries, then 53, then 48 and I have heard figures like the ones (Edgardo) Buscaglia says, that Sinaloa has a presence in 81 countries of the world, then there is inconsistency in the figures that are said by U.S. authorities that are not verifiable".

As an example, he recalled the criminal trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, "El Chapo", who was taken to court in the so-called "Trial of the Century" for being considered the leader of a criminal organization that is described by the U.S. government as the third most powerful in the world.

However, there, in front of U.S. prosecutors, the defense alleged something that could not be fought: the leader was not Guzmán Loera, but Ismael Zambada García. The Attorney General's Office was left without options, because it turned out, for them as well, to be an unverifiable discourse.

The same thing, Zavala continues, happened when an attempt was made to reveal the economic strength of the organization and the ways of working of all the groups that are considered to be the "Sinaloa Cartel".

However, the discourse has been maintained with the purpose, says Zavala, of maintaining the military occupation in the cities and regions of the country where the issue is treated as national security and not public health.

"This language legitimizes the most brutal government actions, such as militarization or the use of freezing bank accounts, subjecting a country like Mexico to examination, and also, of course, the opportunity generated by militarization as a business," he assures.

"Plan Mérida or Plan Colombia was a very juicy business for the U.S. government, not to mention the circulation of arms. This language legitimizes extraordinary budgetary items for agencies such as the DEA, the CIA or the Army".

Zavala states that the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not been able to overcome this language, despite the pacification proposal established by the campaign.

That failure, he says, is in time to overcome, but it implies that all members of his cabinet choose to change the language and strategy to reduce violence and achieve national pacification.

Source: Zocalo