On the 5th of January, Mexican authorities captured Ovidio Guzman, son of infamous drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Ovidio is said to be a key figure in Los Chapitos, a group headed by El Chapo’s sons within the wider drug trafficking network called the Sinaloa Cartel. The aftermath of the arrest looked like chaos as the arrest provoked a violent response from members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Videos were spread across social media of roadblocks put in place by cartel members, vehicles set on fire, and planes shot at at the local airport. Mexico’s Defence Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval stated on Friday that 29 people have been killed in the violence surrounding the events, 10 military personnel and 19 individuals linked to organised crime. Sandoval went on to say no civilians have been killed.
Violent backlash is often seen after the arrest of influential narcos. Yet, there is a key similarity between the recent days and what is now known as ‘Culiacanazo.’ This is not Ovidio’s first time being arrested, in 2019 he was arrested, and chaos also swept the streets of Sinaloa then. Hundreds of armed cartel members took to the streets of Culiacan, the capital of the state and place of arrest, taking military members hostage and attacking buildings. The violence forced Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to order his forces to release Ovidio and stop the violence. Culiacanazo has since been seen as a moment of huge weakness for AMLO. AMLO was already regarded as weak at confronting cartels due to his election promise of ‘hugs not bullets’ which looked to deal with the root issues causing the drug trade, conflict, and violence, as opposed to engaging in more violence with the cartels.
However, the fundamental difference between now and Culiacanazo is the protest and violence after the arrest have failed. Ovidio was transferred via helicopter out of the house he was arrested in, into a high-security prison. Ovidio now awaits his future in the Altiplano maximum security federal prison, with the possibility of extradition looming. His father El Chapo was extradited to the US in 2017 where he now serves a life sentence. The US seeks to extradite Ovidio, but a federal judge has reportedly suspended that possibility as of yet. The arrest of Ovidio will be seen as a huge success for AMLO in terms of his ability to be tough on cartels. Mexico’s Defence Minister Sandoval said the arrest came after 6 months of military and intelligence preparation and coordination.
The arrest also comes at a key moment. AMLO is set to host US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a North America Summit. Joe Biden is keen to talk about the flow of fentanyl, which killed over 100,000 Americans in 2021, from Mexico into the US. Whether the timing of the arrest is a coincidence or not it will regardless demonstrate AMLO’s seriousness in tackling the illicit drug flow to Biden.
The question remains, will this arrest have any real effect? The role of Ovidio is widely speculated about. He is one of four brothers who took a large part of the control of the Sinaloa Cartel after their father, El Chapo, was arrested in 2016. The four brothers now operate under the name Los Chapitos and are said to control a large faction of the Sinaloa drug trafficking group.
Regarding Ovidio’s arrest, there are two areas of change that could occur. Firstly, is the drug trade as a whole. Interestingly former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Chief Mike Vigil had one of the best analyses of this. In an interview Vigil stated, “it’s a victory” but “the impact on the Sinaloa Cartel and the transport of drugs to the United States, of fentanyl, will have no impact.” This is, according to Vigil, because Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada still controls the majority of the Sinaloa Cartel. It can also be seen that ‘kingpins’ and the removal of them have little effect on the drug trade. Analyst Alejandro Hope wrote in El Universal “the arrest of a drug lord, however colorful it may be, does not fundamentally alter the patterns of drug trafficking.” The drug trade will continue with or without Ovidio’s involvement. Any victory regarding the drug trade, then, will be symbolic not material for AMLO.
The second area of speculation concerns power struggles with and amongst cartels. Some believe this could weaken Los Chapitos and strengthen the other strongest faction within the Sinaloa trafficking group which is headed by El Mayo. The group, and the Sinaloa Cartel as a whole, is also in conflict with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) a powerful trafficking group that has a presence across much of Mexico. Many believe Ovidio is not the most important brother heading Los Chapitos, that role falls to Iván Archivaldo, however, the loss of a senior figure could shift the power dynamics in favour of El Mayo within the Sinaloa Cartel. The effect on the larger conflict with CJNG is likely to be little as the conflict is wider than just Ovidio’s role within the Sinaloa group. However, if Ovidio’s arrest causes large destabilisation within the Sinaloa Cartel this could benefit CJNG.