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How El Chapo’s sons built a fentanyl empire poisoning America

Collectively known as Los Chapitos, the four siblings were once mocked by adversaries as entitled princelings more concerned with flashing their wealth than the grubby work of moving tons of cocaine into the US.

13 minute read
A general view shows an improvised armoured vehicle used by the drug cartel with an image of the Punisher and a mouse, referring to the drug gang leader Ovidio Guzman's nickname 'El Raton' the son of jailed kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, in Jesus Maria, Mexico Jan 7. Photo: Reuters
A general view shows an improvised armoured vehicle used by the drug cartel with an image of the Punisher and a mouse, referring to the drug gang leader Ovidio Guzman's nickname 'El Raton' the son of jailed kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, in Jesus Maria, Mexico Jan 7. Photo: Reuters

In January 2017, days after Mexico extradited the notorious drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the US, local cops in his home state of Sinaloa fell under attack.

Some were shot dead in broad daylight. Others vanished and were never found. In all, 13 police officers died or disappeared in the months that followed.

That spree was the start of a shift in tactics within Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel, according to four intelligence and security officials, one that signaled the arrival of a new force inside one of Mexico’s most powerful drug syndicates: the kingpin’s four sons.

Collectively known as Los Chapitos, or “the little Chapos,” the four siblings were once mocked by adversaries as entitled princelings more concerned with flashing their wealth on Instagram than the grubby work of moving tons of cocaine into the US. Yet the brothers have resuscitated a drug empire teetering after their father was locked behind US bars and diversified the business by embracing a new line of synthetic drugs.

Their early bet on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, helped supercharge an opioid epidemic that has placed them squarely in the crosshairs of American anti-narcotics agents.

Last month, US authorities laid out extensive new charges against the brothers in indictments filed in multiple jurisdictions, and upped bounties for two of the siblings to US$10 million (about RM44.5 million) apiece, cementing their status as some of the world’s most powerful and wanted drug lords. US officials portrayed them as the face of a highly addictive poison that’s killing nearly 200 Americans daily.

“The Chapitos pioneered the manufacture and trafficking of the deadliest drug our country has ever faced,” Anne Milgram, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief, said at an April 14 press conference in Washington. “They inherited a global drug empire and made it more ruthless, more violent and more deadly.”

On Tuesday, the US Treasury Department sanctioned one of the brothers, Joaquín Jr, for his role in the Los Chapitos fentanyl network, alleging that he is involved in the management of "super labs.” His three siblings had been sanctioned previously for purported trafficking.

Los Chapitos, for the first time ever, released a public letter last week denying claims that they traffic fentanyl and rebutting allegations made by US officials in 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,” the brothers said in the letter. Mexico’s Milenio news channel aired its contents on May 3, along with an interview of Guzmán family lawyer José Refugio Rodríguez, who provided the broadcaster with the document.

Denying that they head the Sinaloa Cartel, the brothers said drug traffickers and the media have exploited their father’s fame to implicate them in crimes of which they are innocent.

El Chapo is serving a life sentence in a “Supermax” prison in Colorado. Mariel Colón Miro, Guzmán’s US-based attorney, said her client was unable to comment due to restrictions barring him from speaking to the media.

The four brothers, two born to El Chapo’s first wife, the others to another, range in age from 33 to 40, according to the US Department of Justice. Headed by Iván, El Chapo’s oldest son, the siblings have emerged as key figures in the Sinaloa Cartel, US and Mexican anti-narcotics officials said. While the syndicate is a loose confederation of trafficking factions that cooperate on logistics and security, the Guzmáns’ bloc is a pillar of the organisation, the officials said, and Los Chapitos have quickly consolidated power within it.

To chronicle the rise of this new generation of “Narco Juniors,” as children of established traffickers are known in Mexico, Reuters spoke with four Sinaloa Cartel operatives and visited a house where gang members assembled pills stuffed with methamphetamine, another cash cow. The news agency also interviewed dozens of sources, including law enforcement, intelligence and government officials in Mexico and the US, as well as local residents who’ve witnessed the changing of the guard.

The rapid ascendancy of Los Chapitos, many details of which are told here for the first time, shows how authorities may have underestimated the former party boys.

A 2019 showdown with Mexico’s Army in Culiacán, Sinaloa’s capital, already has cemented their place in narco lore. Soldiers captured Ovidio, the youngest of the four siblings, then quickly released him on the orders of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after cartel foot soldiers fought troops in shootouts that killed 14 people, including several bystanders.

“This new generation is more violent,” said one retired Mexican police officer in Sinaloa. “Before, they would interrogate and then kill you. Now they kill and ask questions later.”

Within the cartel, the brothers have battled elders opposed to them assuming their father’s mantle, including El Chapo’s former right-hand man Dámaso López, according to US and Mexican security sources.

But these young guns have also built a reputation as sharp businessmen. They’ve helped transform Mexico from a transit country for Chinese-produced fentanyl into a major production hub, half a dozen US officials and DEA sources said. To do that, they said, Los Chapitos built a network of clandestine laboratories across Sinaloa and ramped up smuggling of precursor chemicals from China

The earnings have been astronomical. The cartel can turn US$800 worth of precursor chemicals into fentanyl pills or powder that reap profits as high as US$640,000, according to one of the April indictments, which was filed in the Southern District of New York. That cash, US prosecutors say, has bankrolled a war chest used by the brothers to bribe politicians and cops, and finance an ever-growing army of sicarios, or hit men, to protect their interests.

The impact on US streets has been devastating. One American dies from a fentanyl overdose almost every eight minutes, US Deputy Attorney General Lisa O Monaco said at the Washington press conference. US overdose deaths, the lion’s share due to fentanyl, surged to nearly 107,000 in 2021.

Los Chapitos’ ascent, US and Mexican officials say, has coincided with a decision by López Obrador to turn away from the aggressive anti-narcotics policies of his predecessors.

After assuming office in December 2018, López Obrador restructured Mexico’s security forces, eliminating teams that were once at the forefront of probing cartel activity, US and Mexico security sources said. They say the president also curbed security cooperation with the United States and largely eschewed the so-called kingpin strategy that led previous administrations to arrest El Chapo and other high-profile traffickers.

Instead, the president has vowed to concentrate on social programs to tackle crime and violence at a grassroots level, a policy dubbed “abrazos, no balazos” or “hugs, not bullets.”

Mexico’s presidency did not respond to a request for comment about López Obrador’s crime fighting approach. He has repeatedly touted his strategy on multiple visits to Sinaloa. “Nothing can be solved with the use of force. You can’t put out fire with fire,” Lopez Obrador told residents in 2019. His supporters note that murders nationwide have stabilised since he took power.

The president’s critics say the number of homicides – above 30,000 a year – is still extremely high, and the production and smuggling of drugs into the US have increased.

Mexico’s Army did ultimately apprehend Ovidio Guzmán earlier this year by sending hundreds of troops to raid one of his homes in rural Sinaloa. He’s now in a maximum-security lockup near Mexico City. But that arrest had more to do with the Army trying to restore its battered prestige rather than a shift in López Obrador’s thinking, four US and Mexican officials said.

Ovidio’s lawyer and López Obrador’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The Army did not comment about its motive for the arrest.

US-Mexico security ties have frayed. López Obrador called the recent US indictments against the four younger Guzmáns an “abusive, arrogant interference that should not be accepted under any circumstances.” The Mexican leader said the case was built by DEA agents operating in Mexico, which he has deemed a violation of sovereignty.

While he has not booted the agency from the country, DEA operations have been hobbled on his watch. Mexico in 2021 disbanded an elite police unit that worked closely with the DEA for a quarter of a century; amended a national security law to make it harder for foreign agents to operate inside Mexico; and slow-walked visa approvals for DEA agents, CNN reported.

Those measures were widely viewed as retaliation for the 2020 arrest of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges, a move that angered López Obrador. US prosecutors later dropped the charges, pointing to sensitive foreign policy considerations.

The Justice Department declined to comment. The DEA did not respond to a request for comment. Rafael Heredia Rubio, a lawyer representing Cienfuegos, said he was not authorized to comment. Cienfuegos’ attorneys previously had denied that he was involved in drug trafficking.

Ferraris and pet tigers

Born into one of Mexico’s most storied outlaw families, Guzmán’s five sons – Edgar, Iván, Jesús Alfredo, Joaquín Jr and Ovidio – grew up in luxury once unimaginable to their father, a semi-literate farm worker from Sinaloa’s mountains before becoming the head of a drug empire. (El Chapo fathered more than a dozen children, according to local media, not all of whom are reputed to be involved in drug trafficking.)

Minor social media celebrities, they flaunted their pet tigers, Ferraris and a golden AK-47 on Instagram and Twitter. Those accounts were never verified by those platforms, but a social media analyst familiar with cartel communications and two security sources told Reuters they believed the accounts were authentic.

Early on, “the general perception was that Los Chapitos were spoiled brats,” said Mike Vigil, former head of DEA’s international operations.

After El Chapo’s escape from a maximum-security prison in 2001, reportedly in a laundry trolley, the brothers took a hands-on approach to the family business, security sources said.

Edgar blazed a trail for his brothers by building his own contacts and doing his own deals, the sources said. But he was killed in 2008 in Culiacán in a hail of bullets amid infighting between warring factions of the Sinaloa Cartel.

His four surviving brothers filled the void, US and Mexican security sources said.

Starting in 2009 with Jesús Alfredo, the brothers all have been indicted by US authorities multiple times for alleged offenses including money laundering, possession of machine guns and trafficking of fentanyl, heroin and cocaine. The US State Department in 2021 put US$5 million bounties on their heads, a figure recently doubled for Iván and Jesús Alfredo, while the DEA set up [email protected] to encourage snitches to rat them out. The agency in April placed Iván on the list of its 10 Most Wanted Fugitives, joining Jesús Alfredo and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a Sinaloa Cartel legend and El Chapo’s alleged former business partner.

Washington has taken note of Los Chapitos’ entrepreneurial flair. The State Department in its 2021 bounty notices said Ovidio and Joaquín Jr began smuggling chemicals from Argentina in 2008 to launch experiments in Mexico on how to produce methamphetamine.

As they built their own crew, the brothers purportedly discarded the shibboleth that Sinaloa kingpins should only sell drugs to foreigners. Los Chapitos placed pushers on street corners in Culiacán, according to cartel members and Mexican media reports.

In what would prove another consequential move, Ovidio in 2014 began to tinker with manufacturing fentanyl in Mexico, according to one of the indictments unsealed last month.

That same year, the brothers faced another major test: Their father was nabbed again, this time by Mexican marines working with the DEA. The sons helped El Chapo stage yet another audacious escape in July 2015 by organising the construction of a mile-long tunnel to his Mexican prison cell, according to testimony that would emerge later at the elder Guzmán’s 2019 drug trafficking trial in New York.

Following the tunnel caper, Mexican authorities recaptured El Chapo in January 2016. He tapped his sons to head his portion of the trafficking empire, triggering a power struggle with López, who had run the business during the boss’s previous incarceration, according to 2017 Mexican military intelligence documents viewed by Reuters.

Los Chapitos and their posse squeezed López’s crew by crimping his finances. Near a Sinaloan dam where both groups filched water to feed their clandestine drug labs, the brothers cut off López’s access to this critical resource, crippling his manufacturing capability while keeping the taps open for themselves, according to three serving Mexican marines who spoke with Reuters.

“Los Chapitos had an advantage as they kept the production of drugs. They had money to pay sicarios, buy arms,” said one of the men, who had worked with the elite Navy unit that helped capture El Chapo in 2016.

The feud escalated into all-out war following Guzmán’s 2017 extradition to the US. El Chapo’s sons targeted the 13 Sinaloan police officers for execution because they were on López’s payroll, according to prosecutors and former cops in Sinaloa, as well as military officials and intelligence documents reviewed by Reuters.

Police in Sinaloa did not respond to claims that the targeted officers were in league with López.

One of the US indictments unsealed last month details other grisly violence allegedly meted out by Los Chapitos. Their henchmen allegedly kidnapped two officials from the federal attorney general’s office in early 2017, torturing one by inserting a corkscrew into his muscles, ripping it out, then “placing hot chiles into his open wounds and nose.”

Iván finished off the victims with gunshots, with Jesús Alfredo pitching in to shoot one in the face, according to the indictment, which said the two brothers also killed some enemies by feeding them alive to the pet tigers they kept at their ranches.

The brothers, in their public letter, denied killing or torturing the officials or feeding people to tigers.

“A tiger may kill a person, but eat him? We do not have nor did we have tigers,” the letter stated.

Los Chapitos prevailed in their struggle with López, who was arrested in Mexico City in 2017 by the Mexican military and subsequently extradited to the US. A star prosecution witness in El Chapo’s 2019 trial, López got his own life sentence for drug trafficking reduced. In 2021, his name disappeared from the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ public registry of inmates, fueling media speculation that he entered witness protection. López, through his lawyer, declined to comment.

On their turf in Culiacán, meanwhile, the brothers quickly solidified their grip on the local drugs market, a local trafficker told Reuters.

Jesús, an independent operator in Culiacán who ships fentanyl and heroin to the US with the help of the syndicate, said gunmen working for Los Chapitos told street dealers they had to purchase product from their cartel faction exclusively and pay protection money. He said several friends and family members who were slow to comply were kidnapped and beaten.

Los Chapitos made it clear that “now the market belongs to them,” Jesús said.

Showing who's boss

On Dec 1, 2018, López Obrador took office after winning Mexico’s presidency in a landslide. Within months, members of UNOPES, the Navy’s elite special forces unit that had pursued El Chapo and other traffickers, were ordered by superiors to leave Sinaloa and shut down their temporary bases there, according to the three marines and three ex-DEA officials.

The president’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

In October 2019 came the Mexican Army’s first capture of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán. Recalling that day, two Sinaloa Cartel members told Reuters that, within minutes, encrypted radios carried by fellow gunmen began to buzz with the news: “The boss has fallen! The boss has fallen!”

Hundreds of gang fighters armed with military-grade weapons rushed to the scene, firing on government troops and barricading key city streets to trap them. They also kidnapped eight soldiers and surrounded military housing where wives and children of Mexican soldiers lived, Mexican officials said.

With the pop-pop-pop of gunfire echoing in the background, encircled Mexican troops put Ovidio on the phone with his brother Iván in an attempt to get Los Chapitos to call off their gunmen. “Tell them to stand down… I don’t want chaos,” Ovidio said in video footage released by Mexico’s government.

“Hell no, we are coming to rescue you,” Iván responded, according to Sinaloan newspaper Ríodoce.

Hours later, with Culiacán resembling a war zone and scenes of pandemonium being broadcast across the globe, López Obrador ordered the army to free Ovidio.

The day of terror shocked Sinaloans, whose relationship with the cartel is complex. El Chapo had the reputation of being ruthless to those who crossed him. But locals say he provided jobs, handouts and security by punishing hoodlums preying on poor communities.

“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,” said Adrian López, publisher of the Sinaloan Noroeste newspaper.

For the brothers, it was a turning point. Mexico’s military and its president had bowed to them in front of the entire world. “It showed who has power,” a cartel member said.

Still, they set out to burnish their public image. One such charm offensive took place in December 2020 in San Diego, a village about 60km south of Culiacán that is home to several high-ranking cartel sicarios, a resident told Reuters. There Los Chapitos staged a music concert and raffle, whose prizes included new cars, washing machines and refrigerators, all bearing stickers emblazoned with El Chapo’s initials – JGL for Joaquín Guzmán Loera – that person and two other locals said.

A fourth declined to answer questions, saying “I don’t want them to disappear me.”

During Covid-19 lockdowns, the brothers doled out food parcels and built an outdoor school in rural Sinaloa, and they have maintained the tradition of punishing common hoodlums, Sinaloa residents and cartel members said.

Taking control

But like their father, Los Chapitos are at heart violent businessmen with a drive for manufacturing and moving drugs, security officials and cartel members said.

A gang soldier calling himself Güero, a silver pistol tucked into his waistband, last year gave Reuters a tour of a cartel safe house on the edge of Culiacán. There, two young men in white surgical gloves sat at a brown lacquered table carefully stuffing white powder into transparent capsules – methamphetamine samples for a new client looking to ship in bulk to the US, Güero said.

As fentanyl and meth production have soared, US seizures have likewise skyrocketed. Interdictions of fentanyl alone on the US-Mexico border hit 6,397kg in the fiscal year ending Sept 30, 2022, up more than 400% since 2019, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Inside Mexico, meanwhile, the Army had a grudge to settle.

In early January of this year, the Army told López Obrador it planned to mount a top-secret operation to recapture Ovidio, according to a then-senior government official with direct knowledge of the events. The president approved the mission but was not informed of the date and time, the source said.

Mexico’s Army and the presidency did not respond to requests for comment about the official’s account.

As hundreds of soldiers encircled Ovidio’s rural Sinaloan compound in the pre-dawn assault, a helicopter strafed targets from the air, video of the incident showed.

Cartel gunmen went on a rampage again, setting cars on fire, blocking roads and forcing Culiacán’s airport to shut by shooting at passenger jets. The violence left 29 people dead, including 10 armed forces personnel. But the sicarios were too late – a military chopper had already whisked Ovidio out of Sinaloa.

Despite that blow to the Sinaloa Cartel, fentanyl keeps flowing north. In February and March, US border agents seized a combined 2,326kg of fentanyl in two of the biggest monthly hauls ever.

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