Pubdate: Sun, 02 Mar 2014
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Richard Fausset and Richard A. Serrano
Series: Mexico Under Siege


The Likely Successor Has Much in Common With Guzman, but He Shuns the 

MEXICO CITY - With the arrest of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El 
Chapo" Guzman, the leadership of Mexico's largest and most 
sophisticated illegal drug operation has probably transferred to 
Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a 66-yearold former farmer with a knack for 
business - and maintaining a low profile.

But Zambada is likely to discover, much as Guzman did, that 
inheriting the throne of top capo comes with a series of 
complications worthy of a Shakespearean king.

Like his predecessor, Zambada is a country boy made good who hails 
from the badlands of Sinaloa, the traditional heart of Mexican 
drug-smuggling culture. Though he has enjoyed less publicity than 
Guzman, he has long been considered a high-level target for U.S. and 
Mexican authorities, who have managed to nab a number of his family 
members and close associates in recent years. Now that pressure is 
likely to increase substantially.

As long as Zambada remains free, however, close observers of the 
Mexican drug world will be analyzing the little that is known about 
his style in an effort to divine the future for his global drug 
empire. They will also be attuned to Zambada's personal history - 
particularly his longtime business alliance with Guzman. The current 
state of that partnership could be the difference between a smooth 
succession within the Sinaloa cartel and a bloody fracturing of what 
has long been a looseknit and volatile confederation of killers, 
smugglers and outlaws.

A U.S. federal law enforcement official said Friday that American 
authorities were watching Mexico closely, expecting that Guzman would 
be handing the reins of the Sinaloa cartel to his "most trusted" confederate.

"But the question is: Does he want it?" said the official, speaking 
confidentially because there is a pending criminal case against 
Zambada. "Does he want to become the lightning rod by becoming the 
head of the cartel? If he does that, he knows the U.S. and Mexico 
will come after him like an avenging wind.

"But he's probably got no choice. Chapo, through his lawyers, will 
send a message to El Mayo that he has to take over the cartel, simply 
because he's the only guy there for a smooth transition."

In a 2010 interview with the weekly Mexican newsmagazine Proceso, 
Zambada, whose nickname is a diminutive often given to boys named 
Ismael in Sinaloa, said that he and Guzman "are friends, compadres," 
who "talk on the phone regularly." The two men do seem to have much 
in common. They are of roughly the same generation (Guzman, officials 
say, is either 56 or 59), grew up poor in rural Sinaloa, and both 
sport cowboy-style mustaches.

Both men have also spent decades in the drug business, the reason the 
U.S. government issued individual rewards of up to $5 million for 
information leading to their capture. Zambada is said to have begun 
at age 16 - "since before Christ resurrected Lazarus," Michael S. 
Vigil, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's former chief of 
international operations, said in an interview Friday.

Early on, Vigil said, Zambada worked the Mexicali area, lording over 
the region against rival drug smugglers. "He killed several 
individuals that were trying to take over that plaza," Vigil said.

Eventually, Zambada and Guzman formed a bond. In 1989, they were said 
to be among the emerging cartel leaders who were granted control of 
key geographical sectors of Mexico by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a 
powerful capo of the era known as "El Padrino," or the Godfather. At 
the time, Felix was seeking to disaggregate the drug trade's 
leadership, making it more difficult to police.

According to federal grand jury indictments filed in 2008 and 2012 
against Zambada, Guzman and others, the two men came to control two 
distinct and powerful factions in the Sinaloa cartel. Prosecutors 
said they continued their alliance in order to more effectively 
coordinate massive shipments of cocaine and heroin to U.S. markets, 
employ squads of assassins and threaten violence against buyers in 
the U.S. who dared to consider doing business with the competition.

In Mexico, there were rules, but Guzman, in particular, was happy to 
break them. On the website of the Mexican newsmagazine Nexos last 
week, Guillermo Valdes Castellanos, the former director of the 
Mexican government's Center for Investigation and National Security, 
said that the 1989 meeting with El Padrino established dues that 
regional drug chiefs would have to pay to move through another's territory.

Guzman frequently ignored these territories in his quest for 
expansion - one reason why Mexico saw so many battles break out in 
key nodes on the drug route, including Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo. Now, 
Valdes argues, it is Zambada who will have to decide whether to 
continue with the same adversarial approach.

"Everything indicates that El Mayo Zambada will stay at the front of 
the organization. What's less clear is whether, with the detention of 
Guzman Loera, his business model will come to an end," Valdes wrote, 
referring to Guzman by his full surname.

Little is known about Zambada's management style. Writer Malcolm 
Beith, in his 2010 book, "The Last Narco," credited him with a 
sophisticated business acumen, saying he was careful not to flood the 
U.S. market with drugs and thus drive down street prices.

One U.S. law enforcement official Friday described Guzman as "the 
muscle" at the top of the Sinaloa organization and Zambada as all the 
rest. "He is everything," said the official, who asked to be unnamed 
because of the pending criminal charges. "The brains. The logistics. 
Security. Everything.

"He's very respected in the Sinaloa cartel and even among their 
rivals. They respect him because he is one of the old drug 
traffickers in Mexico, and he's also very feared because, like Chapo, 
he will exert violence. Not in a wholesale manner. He's a little more 
surgical. Because he knows it's bad for business."

The Zambada faction and what remains of Guzman's faction may still be 
close. But there is also a possibility that one may have betrayed the 
other, a not-uncommon occurrence in the Mexican drug world. A few 
days before Guzman's Feb. 22 arrest, Mexican authorities had carried 
out operations that led to the arrest of a number of Zambada's 
closest associates.

Two of Zambada's sons are in U.S. federal custody, awaiting trial on 
drug trafficking charges. One of them, Jesus Vicente Zambada, has 
argued in court documents that he should be immune from prosecution 
because he was cooperating with U.S. officials.

The U.S. law enforcement official who spoke of the potential 
"avenging wind" said he doubted that either Guzman or the Zambadas 
rolled over, saying that the relationship between the two clans was 
too strong, and that revenge could be extracted on an informant, even 
in prison.

That will do little to stem speculation in and outside Mexico.

"We're like ships on the water, watching the bodies floating to the 
surface," said David Shirk, a global fellow at the Wilson Center's 
Mexico Institute. "We have no idea what's going on below."

Zambada's 2010 interview with Proceso was a rare moment when he 
stepped into the spotlight. Zambada himself requested the interview 
and posed for a picture with the writer. He ended up on the cover, in 
an eggplant-colored Izod shirt and a hunting cap, looking defiant and 
a little paunchy.

In the story, Zambada bragged of his extensive knowledge of the 
Mexican backcountry, where he often hides from authorities. He has 
never been apprehended, in marked contrast with Guzman, who was 
arrested in 1993, and then made a high-profile escape from a Mexican 
federal prison in 2001. The jailbreak made him as famous as any soap 
opera star.

After his escape, Guzman was known for making occasional f lashy 
appearances at crowded restaurants. That is not the case with 
Zambada, which may make him tougher to track. Vigil, the ex-DEA 
official, said that Zambada may also have had plastic surgery to 
alter his appearance.

"'El Mayo' Zambada lives in his natural environment, which is the 
sierra.... That's his home," said Gustavo Fondevilla, a security 
specialist at Mexico City's Center for Research and Teaching in 
Economics. "It's not the traditional model of the narco we're used to 
- - visible, with high levels of consumption."

Nor is he likely to surrender. In the Proceso interview, Zambada was 
asked whether he would commit suicide if he was ever caught.

"I want to think," he responded, "that yes, I would kill myself."

Fausset reported from Mexico City and Serrano from Washington. 
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom