On February 22, 2014, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, was captured in his beachside house in Mazatlan by Mexican Marines. It was the culmination of a 13-year manhunt for the drug lord, and was praised as a major coup. A “big strike,”according to former Mexican President Calderon. El Chapo was the most wanted of all of Mexico’s organized crime leaders.
El Chapo’s capture was only one of several high-profile arrests conducted by Mexican authorities in 2014. The heads of the Juarez Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Organization were also taken down. Hopes were high that with the leadership taken down, the end of “Celebrity Capos,” that Mexican authorities could get down to the business of fighting crime instead of searching for cartel HVTs. But the situation wasn’t that simple, and has become even less so, made public by the “Missing 43” in September.
The fact is, cartels have been moving away from a hierarchical structure for some time. Even Sinaloa has been fracturing in recent years, as the Beltran Leyva Organization was once Sinaloa’s armed wing, much like Los Zetas was once the Gulf Cartel’s. The cartel structure in Mexico has gone from five major organizations in the late ’90s to over 80 in 2012. The fragmentation has continued ever since. Guerreros Unidos, the group responsible for killing the 43 Normalistas in Iguala (along with many others who haven’t made it to the front page), was once part of the Beltran Leyva organization.
The model that appears to be emerging is of a scattered, cellular structure (though there is still plenty of violence happening as several of these cells clash over “plazas,” or trafficking routes). This makes it harder for authorities to wipe out the problem, as the cells are discreet entities of their own, sometimes working together or against each other as the situation dictates. There is no hierarchy to roll up. Much like the jihadists in the Middle East, the cartels have become a hydra. Cut off one head, two more grow back.