Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman spends 23 hours a day in a lonely prison cell in the Rocky Mountains.
The notorious Sinaloa Cartel kingpin is locked away at America’s most secure prison, ADX Florence, in Colorado, after being found guilty of a slew of drug, racketeering and murder charges on Feb. 12, 2019.
It is unlikely the pint-sized pusher — believed to be the biggest drug trafficker on the planet — will ever see a glimmer of sunlight in his life sentence.
But, as the past two weeks have proven, the 65-year-old master criminal’s influence — or ethos — hasn’t waned in his native Mexico, where Sinaloa remains the dominant criminal organization.
And renewed bloodshed in the violence-soaked country has sparked more fear.
The trigger was the arrest of his son Ovidio “El Bebe” Guzman on Jan. 5. Ovidio isn’t necessarily considered catch-of-the-day material by cops or the cartel, but still …
“He’s important because family is the driving force behind the Sinaloa Cartel. Bloodlines are important,” security expert Alejandro Hope told Vice recently.
“But was he the most important member of his cartel? I don’t think so. Will this change the structure of the cartel? I’m skeptical. Does this have a significant effect on drug flows? Most likely not.”
The blowback was fast and brutal, with the Canadian government ordering citizens living and vacationing in affected parts of the country to shelter in place.
In the city of Jesus Maria in Sinaloa state on the Gulf of California where Ovidio was arrested, more than 100 people have reportedly disappeared. Residents say the number is higher.
According to reports, in addition to the missing people, at least 10 soldiers have been killed along with 19 suspected cartel members. Most of the dead were a result of a wild shootout between the army and cartel triggermen.
Fox News reports that the army came armed with .50-calibre machine guns and Blackhawk helicopters. For their part, cartel thugs abducted local nurses to use as hostages and patch up their wounded.
While Mexican officials say there were no civilian casualties, locals tell a different tale. Dozens of young men and women — largely between the ages of 12 and 35 — have disappeared.
And they’re blaming the army, not the narcos.
During a recent protest, one man told reporters: “The children are afraid of seeing soldiers; we don’t want soldiers in the town.”
The government acknowledged the missing, but claimed they are waiting to receive formal complaints before investigating.
The most recent explosion in violence is just the latest in a long, agonizing struggle that has cost countless lives and billions upon billions of dollars. Huge swaths of the nation remain under the iron hand of Sinaloa and its rivals.
In most instances, aside from stray bullets, the cartels leave the country’s millions of tourists alone. Increasingly, though, gunplay has moved from the hinterland to packed resorts like Cancun.
As for Ovidio Guzman, Mexican media reports that the reluctant narco has been tied to clandestine fentanyl labs and trafficking the deadly drug in his home country and points beyond.
When Ovidio Guzman was arrested in 2019, a similar backlash by cartel gunmen prompted President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to release “El Bebe,” according to the Washington Post.
His brothers remain the Sinaloa Cartel’s big hitters.
“El Bebe had the bad luck of being arrested in a very public way in 2019, but his voice does not have much weight in the organization,” one Sinaloa Cartel member told Vice. “He didn’t even want to enter the organization, but he was forced to by [his brother] Ivan, who is the one giving orders.”
The cartel member added: “He was more like a posh kid from Culiacan. He wasn’t belligerent. He is a quiet kid, very easygoing. But he knew the power his organization had and how protected he was by his brothers.”
The latest Mexican upheaval — and warnings from the Canadian government — doesn’t appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of winter-wracked Canucks seeking relief under the broiling sun.
Every winter, a handful of Canadians are attacked or murdered in the sunny destination. Seldom have Canadians been in the bullseye of gun-wielding narcos because tourism remains the country’s biggest industry.
“Even the drug cartels realize that it is in their best interests not to target tourists,” Cathy Scott, chief explorations officer of Departures Travel, told the Victoria Times-Colonist.
Steve Matthews, of London, Ont., and vacationing in Mazatlan, where the violence has been among the worst, told CBC News he’s taking things in stride.
“I think that people here for a week are scared, but people that stay here for a while and know Mexico understands that it’s a part of everyday life, and these kinds of things happen once in a while,” Matthews said.
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