Days after the infamous drug trafficker Joaqun "El Chapo" Guzmán was extradited from Mexico to the United States in January 2017, local police in Sinaloa, where he was born, came under attack.
Some fell victims of daylight shootings. Some disappeared and were never located. In total, 13 police officers perished or vanished during the ensuing months.
According to four intelligence and security sources, that rampage marked the beginning of a change in strategy within Guzmán's Sinaloa Cartel and the entry of the kingpin's four sons, a new force inside one of Mexico's most potent drug syndicates.
The four brothers, who are collectively referred to as Los Chapitos or "the little Chapos," have faced mockery in the past for being spoiled princelings who are more interested in flaunting their money on Instagram than doing the dirty labor of smuggling loads of cocaine into the United States. However, after their father was imprisoned in the United States, the brothers revived a drug empire that was on the verge of collapse and expanded the business by embracing a new line of synthetic narcotics.
They placed an early wager on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin, which contributed to the acceleration of the opioid epidemic and put them squarely in the sights of American anti-narcotics agencies.
The brothers' status as some of the most powerful and sought-after drug traffickers in the world was cemented last month when U.S. officials announced substantial new charges against them in indictments that were filed in many jurisdictions and increased bounty amounts for two of the siblings to $10 million each. They were depicted by American officials as the face of a highly addictive drug that kills about 200 Americans every day.
The U.S. government official Anne Milgram claimed that "The Chapitos pioneered the manufacture and trafficking of the deadliest drug our country has ever faced." Chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), speaking during a press conference in Washington on April 14. "They inherited a global drug empire and made it more ruthless, more violent and more deadly."
Last Monday, Los Chapitos issued a public statement for the first time ever disputing claims that they sell fentanyl and refuting allegations made by American officials during the Washington press conference.
"We have never produced, manufactured or marketed fentanyl or any of its derivatives. We are victims of persecution and they made us a scapegoat." On May 3, the information was published on Mexico's Milenio television station along with an interview with José Refugio Rodrguez, the attorney for the Guzmán family who gave the broadcaster access to the document.
The brothers denied leading the Sinaloa Cartel and said that drug dealers and the media had used their father's notoriety to falsely accuse them of crimes they had not committed.
El Chapo is incarcerated in a Colorado "Supermax" prison for the rest of his life. Guzmán's American lawyer, Mariel Colón Miro, stated that because to restrictions preventing him from communicating to the media, her client was unable to comment.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the four brothers, two of whom were born to El Chapo's first wife and the others to a second, range in age from 33 to 40. The siblings, who are led by El Chapo's eldest son Iván, have become important players in the Sinaloa Cartel, according to Mexican and American anti-drug officials. The Guzmáns' bloc is a pillar of the syndicate, which the officials described as a loose confederation of trafficking factions that collaborate on logistics and security, and Los Chapitos have swiftly entrenched dominance inside it.
Reuters spoke with four Sinaloa Cartel operators and visited a residence where gang members made pills loaded with methamphetamine, another lucrative drug, to document the development of this new generation of "Narco Juniors," as the offspring of established traffickers are known in Mexico.
The news organization also spoke with a large number of individuals, including local neighbors who saw the changing of the guard as well as law enforcement, intelligence, and government officials from Mexico and the United States.
Authorities may have underestimated the former party boys based on Los Chapitos' quick rise; many of its facts are revealed here for the first time.
The capital of Sinaloa, Culiacán, will see a clash with the Mexican Army in 2019 that has firmly established their place in narcolore. On instructions from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, soldiers swiftly released Ovidio, the youngest of the four siblings, after shootouts involving cartel foot soldiers and soldiers resulted in the deaths of 14 individuals, including numerous bystanders.
One veteran Mexican police officer in Sinaloa observed, "This new generation is more violent. Before, they would interrogate and then kill you. Now they kill and ask questions later."
According to U.S. and Mexican security officials, the brothers have fought within the cartel against elders who did not want them to take on their father's role, including El Chapo's former right-hand man Dámaso López.
However, these young guns have established a reputation for being astute businessmen. According to a half dozen U.S. officials and DEA sources, they have assisted in transforming Mexico from a country used as a transit for Chinese-produced fentanyl into a significant hub for manufacture. They said that Los Chapitos did this by expanding the smuggling of precursor chemicals from China and setting up a network of covert laboratories throughout Sinaloa.
The profits have been enormous. One of the April indictments, which was issued in the Southern District of New York, claims that the cartel may convert $800 worth of precursor chemicals into fentanyl pills or powder that generate revenues of up to $640,000. U.S. authorities allege that the money was used to fund a war chest that the brothers used to bribe law enforcement officials and politicians, as well as to pay for an ever-expanding force of sicarios, or hit men, to defend their interests.
Devastating effects have been seen on American streets. Nearly every eight minutes, an American dies from a fentanyl overdose, according to the U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco. Nearly 107,000 overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2021, with fentanyl being the primary cause.
According to U.S. and Mexican officials, the rise of Los Chapitos coincides with López Obrador's decision to abandon the harsh anti-drug initiatives of his predecessors.
After taking office in December 2018, López Obrador reorganized Mexico's security forces, eliminating teams that had previously led the investigation into cartel activity, according to security sources in the United States and Mexico. According to them, the president also reduced security collaboration with the US and generally abandoned the so-called "kingpin strategy" that allowed earlier administrations to apprehend El Chapo and other well-known traffickers.
The president has promised to focus on social initiatives to combat crime and violence at the local level, a strategy known as "abrazos, no balazos" or "hugs, not bullets."
In response to a request for comment regarding López Obrador's strategy for combating crime, the Mexican presidency remained silent. On numerous trips to Sinaloa, he consistently praised his plan. "Nothing can be solved with the use of force. You can’t put out fire with fire," Lopez Obrador said to the populace in 2019.
His supporters point out that since he came into power, homicide rates have stabilized nationwide.
Critics of the president claim that there are still far too many homicides each year (more than 30,000), and that more drugs are being produced and smuggled into the country.
Ovidio Guzmán was eventually captured by the Mexican Army earlier this year after hundreds of soldiers raided one of his residences in rural Sinaloa. He is now detained in a high-security facility outside of Mexico City. However, four U.S. and Mexican sources claimed that arrest was more a result of the Army's efforts to rebuild its damaged reputation than it was a reflection of a change in López Obrador's views.
Requests for comment from Ovidio's attorney and López Obrador's office went unanswered. Regarding the reason for the arrest, the Army made no comments.
Security ties between the United States and Mexico have deteriorated. The four younger Guzmáns were recently indicted by the United States, which López Obrador described as an "abusive, arrogant interference that should not be accepted under any circumstances." The Mexican leader said the case was developed by DEA agents working in Mexico, which he has termed a breach of sovereignty.
Although he hasn't expelled the DEA from the nation, DEA operations have suffered under his administration. According to CNN, Mexico abolished an elite police unit that had collaborated with the DEA for 25 years, changed a national security law to make it more difficult for foreign agents to operate there, and took its time approving visas for DEA personnel.
These actions were largely perceived as payback for the arrest of Salvador Cienfuegos, a former Mexican defense minister, in Los Angeles in 2020 on suspicion of drug trafficking, which enraged López Obrador. Later, U.S. prosecutors dismissed the charges, citing delicate foreign policy issues.
Justice Department officials opted not to comment. A request for response from the DEA was not answered. Cienfuegos' attorney Rafael Heredia Rubio claimed he was not permitted to comment. Attorneys for Cienfuegos had previously refuted allegations that he was a narcotics trafficker.
Pet tigers and Ferraris
Guzmán's five kids, Edgar, Iván, Jess Alfredo, Joaqun Jr., and Ovidio, were raised in luxury that their father, a semi-literate farm worker from Sinaloa's mountains before becoming the leader of a drug empire, could never have imagined. They were born into one of Mexico's most legendary outlaw families. (Local media reports that El Chapo fathered more than a dozen kids, not all of whom are rumored to be involved in drug trafficking.)
They were minor online celebrities who flaunted their Ferraris, pet tigers, and golden AK-47s on Twitter and Instagram. The platforms never validated the accounts, but two security sources and a social media analyst with experience in cartel communications told Reuters they thought the accounts were real.
Early on, according to Mike Vigil, a former director of the DEA's foreign operations, "the general perception was that Los Chapitos were spoiled brats."
Security sources claimed that after El Chapo's alleged use of a laundry cart to escape from a maximum-security facility in 2001, the brothers took a hands-on approach to the family business.
According to the sources, Edgar paved the way for his brothers by making his own connections and closing his own agreements. However, he was assassinated in Culiacan in 2008 during fighting between rival Sinaloa Cartel units.
Security sources in the United States and Mexico indicated that his four surviving brothers filled the hole.
The brothers have all been charged many times by American authorities, beginning with Jess Alfredo in 2009, for alleged crimes such as money laundering, owning machine guns, and trafficking fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine. In 2021, the U.S. State Department placed $5 million ($2 million for Iván and Jess Alfredo) bounty on their heads, and the DEA established up ChapitosTips@dea.gov to entice informants to blow the whistle on them. Iván was added to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list in April, joining Jess Alfredo and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a renown member of the Sinaloa Cartel and accused former business associate of El Chapo.
Washington has seen Los Chapitos' flair for entrepreneurship. According to the State Department's 2021 bounty announcements, Ovidio and Joaqun Jr. started transporting chemicals from Argentina in 2008 to start methamphetamine production tests in Mexico.
The brothers allegedly abandoned the adage that Sinaloa drug lords should only deal with foreigners as they assembled their own team. According to reports from cartel members and Mexican media, Los Chapitos put pushers on the corners of streets in Culiacán.
According to one of the indictments published last month, Ovidio started experimenting with the production of fentanyl in Mexico in 2014, a move that would prove to be another significant one.
The brothers faced yet another significant challenge that same year when their father was once more apprehended, this time by Mexican marines working with the DEA. According to testimony that would subsequently surface at the senior Guzmán's 2019 drug trafficking trial in New York, the sons organized the building of a mile-long tunnel to his Mexican prison cell in July 2015, aiding El Chapo in staging yet another daring escape.
El Chapo was apprehended by Mexican authorities in January 2016 after the tunnel heist. According to 2017 Mexican military intelligence documents seen by Reuters, the boss appointed his kids to lead his piece of the trafficking empire, setting off a power battle with López, who had managed the operation during the boss's prior detention.
By restricting his finances, Los Chapitos and their group put pressure on López's team. According to three serving Mexican marines who spoke with Reuters, the brothers cut off López's access to this vital resource near a Sinaloan dam where both groups stole water to feed their covert drug labs, crippling his manufacturing capacity while keeping the taps open for themselves.
"Los Chapitos had an advantage as they kept the production of drugs. They had money to pay sicarios, buy arms," claimed one of the men, who had served with the special Navy squad that assisted in the 2016 capture of El Chapo
Following Guzmán's transfer to the US in 2017, the conflict erupted into a full-scale war. According to prosecutors, former Sinaloan police officers, military officials, and intelligence records examined by Reuters, El Chapo's sons specifically targeted the 13 Sinaloan police officers for execution because they were employed by Lopez.
Claims that the targeted cops were working with Lopez went unanswered by the police in Sinaloa.
Another horrific act of violence allegedly committed by Los Chapitos is described in one of the US charges that were revealed last month. In the beginning of 2017, their goons are accused of kidnapping two employees of the federal attorney general's office and torturing one of them by forcing a corkscrew into his muscles, ripping it out, and then "placing hot chiles into his open wounds and nose."
According to the accusation, the two brothers also killed some adversaries by feeding them alive to the pet tigers they kept at their ranches. Iván finished off the victims with gunfire, while Jess Alfredo assisted by shooting one in the face.
The brothers denied torturing or killing the officials or feeding individuals to tigers in their open letter.
"A tiger may kill a person, but eat him?" The letter said, "We do not have nor did we have tigers."
López was captured by the Mexican military in Mexico City in 2017 and later transported to the US, although Los Chapitos prevailed in their conflict with him. López was a key witness for the prosecution in El Chapo's 2019 trial, and he helped decrease his own life sentence for drug trafficking. His name vanished from the Federal Bureau of Prisons' official list of inmates in 2021, which fueled media rumors that he went into witness protection. Through his attorney, López opted not to respond.
Meanwhile, the brothers immediately tightened their control over the local drug market in Culiacán, a local trafficker told Reuters.
According to Jesus, a local independent operator who uses the syndicate to transport fentanyl and heroin from Culiacan to the United States, gunmen affiliated with Los Chapitos told street dealers they had to buy their cartel faction's goods solely and pay protection money. He claimed that a number of his friends and family members who took their time to comply were abducted and beaten.
"Now the market belongs to them," Jess stated of Los Chapitos, who made it apparent.
López Obrador became president of Mexico on December 1 after winning the election by a wide margin. According to the three marines and three ex-DEA officers, UNOPES, the Navy's elite special forces unit that had hunted down El Chapo and other traffickers, received orders from superiors to leave Sinaloa and close down their temporary outposts there within months.
An inquiry for comment was not answered by the president's office.
The first capture of Ovidio Guzmán by the Mexican Army occurred in Culiacán in October 2019. Two Sinaloa Cartel members recalled that day and told Reuters that minutes afterwards, other gunmen's encrypted radios started to vibrate with the news that "The boss has fallen! The boss has fallen!”
Invading the area with military-grade weapons, hundreds of gang warriors opened fire on government personnel while blocking off important city streets to trap them. According to Mexican officials, they also kidnapped eight soldiers and surrounded military housing where Mexican soldier wives and kids lived.
Encircled Mexican troops put Ovidio on the phone with his brother Iván in an effort to get Los Chapitos to stop firing while the pop-pop-pop of gunfire echoed in the background. In a video that the Mexican government made public, Ovidio is heard saying, "Tell them to stand down. I don't want chaos."
According to the Sinaloan daily Rodoce, Iván said, "Hell no, we are coming to rescue you."
López Obrador gave the order to release Ovidio hours later, when Culiacán resembled a war zone and scenes of chaos were being aired throughout the world.
The intricate relationships Sinaloans have with the cartel stunned them on the day of terror. El Chapo was known for being brutal to those who dared to cross him. Locals, meanwhile, claim that by punishing hoodlums preying on underprivileged neighborhoods, he offered security, jobs, and handouts.
According to Adrian López, owner of the Sinaloan Noroeste newspaper, "It was the first time we saw the Sinaloa Cartel use their armed power to generate...chaos and fear to try to achieve their goals."
It represented a turning point for the brothers. In front of everyone on earth, Mexico's president and military had prostrated before them. "It showed who has power," a cartel member remarked.
They nevertheless set out to improve their reputation. A resident of San Diego, a hamlet around 60 kilometers south of Culiacán where numerous high-ranking cartel sicarios dwell, told Reuters that one such charm offensive took place in December 2020. That person and two other locals claimed that Los Chapitos held a concert and raffle there, with prizes including new automobiles, washing machines, and refrigerators, all of which bore stickers showing El Chapo's initials, JGL for Joaqun Guzmán Loera.
Another person refused to answer questions: "I don't want them to disappear me."
In rural Sinaloa during COVID-19 lockdowns, the brothers distributed food boxes, constructed an outdoor school, and continued the practice of executing common hoodlums, according to locals and cartel members.
However, like their father, Los Chapitos are fundamentally aggressive businesspeople with a passion for producing and transporting drugs, according to law enforcement authorities and cartel members.
Last year, Reuters was given a tour of a cartel safe house on the outskirts of Culiacán by a gang member going by the name of Güero, who had a silver revolver concealed in his waistband. Two young males were meticulously putting white powder into clear capsules while seated at a brown lacquered table while wearing white surgical gloves, Güero reported. They were preparing methamphetamine samples for a new client who wanted to export the drug to the United States in large quantities.
Meth and fentanyl production has increased dramatically, and so have seizures in the United States. In the fiscal year ended September 30, 2022, the amount of fentanyl interdicted at the border between the United States and Mexico increased by more than 400% to 14,104 pounds (6,397 kilograms). data from Customs and Border Protection.
The Army, meanwhile, had a score to settle inside of Mexico.
According to a senior government official who was present at the time and had firsthand knowledge of the events, the Army informed López Obrador of its plans to undertake a top-secret operation to seize Ovidio in early January of this year. According to the source, the president authorized the mission but was not made aware of the day and time.
Requests for comment regarding the official's account were not met with any response from the Mexican Army or the presidency.
A helicopter strafed targets from the air as hundreds of soldiers surrounded Ovidio's rural Sinaloan complex during the early-morning assault, according to video of the incident.
Once more, cartel thugs went on the rampage, firing at passenger jets, setting cars on fire, obstructing traffic, and forcing the closure of Culiacan's airport. 29 individuals were killed in the conflict, including 10 members of the armed forces. The sicarios, however, arrived too late; Ovidio had already been flown out of Sinaloa by a military helicopter.
Fentanyl continues to move north despite that setback for the Sinaloa Cartel. U.S. border agents made two of the largest monthly hauls ever in February and March, seizing a combined 5,130 pounds (2,326 kilograms) of fentanyl.
By fLEXI tEAM