Sinaloa Cartel

Victims Unknown
Died Unknown
Date 8 November 1992
Criminal penalty Unknown


The Sinaloa Cartel (Spanish: Cártel de Sinaloa), also known as the CDS, the Guzmán-Loera Organization, the Pacific Cartel, the Federation and the Blood Alliance, is a large international drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime syndicate established in Mexico during the late 1980s as one of a various number of "plazas" operating under a predecessor organization known as the Guadalajara Cartel. It is currently headed by Ismael Zambada García and is based in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa, with operations in many world regions but primarily in the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Baja California, Durango, Sonora, and Chihuahua. It also has a notable presence in a number of other regions in Latin America, such as Colombia; as well as in cities across the U.S. The United States Intelligence Community generally considers the Sinaloa Cartel to be the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere, making it perhaps even more influential and capable than the infamous Medellín Cartel of Colombia was during its prime. It has repeatedly been said to be one of the strongest criminal organizations in the world and indisputably the most powerful in Mexico since at least the late 2000s and early 2010s by various sources including the Los Angeles Times.

The Sinaloa Cartel operates in the "Golden Triangle", the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua. The region is a major producer of Mexican opium and marijuana. Despite trafficking various types of illicit substances, the cartel's operations seem to mostly favor the trade of cocaine and opioids, particularly in a distribution hub like Chicago, where demand for methamphetamine is relatively low. According to the U.S. Attorney General, the Sinaloa Cartel was responsible for importing into the United States and distributing nearly 200 short tons (180 t) of cocaine and large amounts of heroin between 1990 and 2008. Around 2014, a measurable rise in Colombian cocaine production and global consumption began to increase annually up to the present, currently marking a new high-point for global use of the drug. As of 2021, due to the high profit margins of its cocaine trafficking networks, the Sinaloa Cartel is currently the most active Mexican cartel in Colombian territory and partners with the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the neo-paramilitary gang, Clan del Golfo, whom it purportedly helps finance. Both the CDS and CJNG have also recently began to participate directly in cocaine production in Colombia, not only to buy, but also to invest in production directly through other criminal organizations. The cartel however also appears to still have major methamphetamine operations in cities throughout the U.S., such as in San Diego and Atlanta. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center and other sources, within the U.S. the Sinaloa Cartel is primarily involved in the distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, cannabis and MDMA. It is currently the majority supplier of illicit fentanyl to North America, with most, if not all of the cartel’s heroin now also being mixed with fentanyl or related chemical analogues to increase the heroin’s “potency” in a more cost-effective manner. As of 2017 (and likely still today), the Sinaloa Cartel is overall, the most active drug cartel involved in smuggling illicit drugs into the United States and trafficking them throughout the country. As mentioned previously, the organization is currently heavily involved in the manufacture and distribution of fentanyl, much of which consists of making and selling counterfeit “M30” pills designed to look like pharmaceutical-grade oxycodone pills, but which evidently don’t contain any real oxycodone. This has predictably resulted in a surge of accidental overdose deaths in the U.S. The CDS as well as other large Mexican cartels have also set up major marijuana growing operations in the remote forests and deserts of California.

As of 2021, the Sinaloa Cartel remains Mexico's most dominant drug cartel. After the arrest of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the cartel is now headed by Ismael Zambada García (aka El Mayo) and Guzmán's sons, Alfredo Guzmán Salazar, Ovidio Guzmán López and Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar. However, various sources alleged that internal conflicts for the cartel's leadership had recently broken out between the Guzmán and Zambada factions of the organization. The feud between these two sides of the cartel is rumored to have been either initiated or exacerbated by the Battle of Culiacán incident when El Mayo reportedly withheld his men from intervening in the conflict between the cartel and the Mexican National Guard after the capture of El Chapo's son, Ovidio Guzmán. Currently, the "Federation's" main rival appears to be the fast-growing Jalisco New Generation Cartel, with most battles between the two groups occurring in the Mexican regions of Baja California, Zacatecas (now spilling over into Jalisco), Sonora and as of recently; Chiapas, over territory for drug trafficking routes. The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels have reportedly also moved their rivalry to at least five different departments in Colombia according to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. The geographic presence of Mexican cartels in Colombia seems to directly coincide with areas where coca crops are more abundant or with strategic narcotrafficking corridors: the Pacific coast of Nariño, Catatumbo, Bajo Cauca in Antioquia, Norte del Cauca, and Magdalena. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, an autonomous institution under the Colombian Office of the Attorney General; in the first two months of 2021, violent events (augmented by Mexican trafficking groups) displaced more than 11,000 people from their communities within Colombia.

Background (1960s - 1990s)

City of Culiacán, Sinaloa, a historical stronghold.

Avilés criminal organization

Pedro Avilés Pérez was a pioneer drug lord in the Mexican state of Sinaloa in the late 1960s. He is considered to be the first generation of major Mexican drug smugglers of marijuana who marked the birth of large-scale Mexican drug trafficking. He also pioneered the use of aircraft to smuggle drugs to the United States.

Second generation Sinaloan traffickers such as Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Avilés Pérez' nephew Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán would claim they learned all they knew about 'narcotraficantes' while serving in the Avilés organization. Pedro Avilés would eventually die in a shootout with federal police in September of 1978 in Sinaloa.

Guadalajara Cartel

Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who co-founded the Guadalajara Cartel between 1978 and 1980, from then on; controlled much of Mexico's drug-trafficking corridors along the United States border throughout the 1980s, only to be rivaled by the Gulf Cartel which controlled some of eastern Mexico's drug trade. Félix Gallardo divided up his “Federation” by 1987, just two years after the capture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar when the threat from American law enforcement became much more pressing. This division of the organization in the late 1980s led to the cartel essentially being made up of several smaller cartels who controlled their own territories and trafficking corridors with their own bosses. This would make it less likely the whole organization would be brought down all at once. One of these cartels (called plazas at the time) was Sinaloa, with the city of Culiacán acting as its headquarters.

Gallardo was eventually arrested in 1989 and, while incarcerated, he remained one of Mexico's major traffickers, maintaining contact with his organization via mobile phone until he was transferred to a new maximum security prison in the early 1990s. At that point his nephews, the Arellano Félix brothers, left and further solidified the organization which came to be known as the Tijuana Cartel, while the Sinaloa Cartel continued to be run by former lieutenants Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, Juan Jose Esparragoza and Joaquín Guzmán Loera.

El Mayo and the Tijuana Cartel war

During this time, Sinaloa was considered to be at a major disadvantage since they were forced to move much of their drug product through the Tijuana corridor, which often put them directly into conflict with the Arellanos. This eventually led to Ramón Arellano Félix killing two of Guzmán‘s associates thus leading to a full-fledged war between the two organizations. It was around this period in the early 1990s when Guzmán brought in freelance trafficker Ismael Zambada García (a.k.a. El Mayo) particularly due to his exceptional ability to work with and coordinate with other traffickers. Throughout much of the 1990s, Ismael Zambada also helped grow and expand the cartel while Guzmán and Palma were incarcerated. Before getting directly involved with the Sinaloa Cartel, Ismael Zambada García was a fisherman, freelancer and small-time drug trafficker who would sell mere kilograms of marijuana and heroin before eventually becoming acquainted with Mexico’s more elite trafficking circles.

Zambada also helped Amado Carrillo Fuentes expand the Juárez Cartel in the state of Chihuahua and helped incorporate some of the remnants of the Juárez Cartel into the Sinaloa Cartel after Carrillo‘s death in 1997. The war between the Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels was supposedly at its worst from 1992 to the year 2000 with family members of some of the cartel’s leaders living in fear or “everyday like it was their last”, as stated by Zambada’s wife at the time. However, Zambada also used this conflict to his advantage since the Mexican government began to crackdown primarily on the Tijuana Cartel, Mayo used this weakening of his rivals as an opportunity for Sinaloa to step up in the trafficking world. By around the year 2000, Zambada became recognized as one of the biggest and most powerful drug lords in Mexico, having built strong distribution networks from Colombia to the United States. Mayo’s traditional major distribution hubs were allegedly in Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Denver. El Mayo was also reportedly the one who sent a private helicopter for El Chapo after he escaped Puente Grande prison in 2001.

The Sinaloa Cartel was partially splintered in 2008 when the Beltrán-Leyva brothers broke apart from the cartel.


Sinaloa Cartel hierarchy in early 2008

The Sinaloa Cartel used to be known as La Alianza de Sangre ("Blood Alliance"). When Héctor Luis Palma Salazar was arrested on 23 June 1995, by the Mexican Army, his partner Joaquín Guzmán Loera took leadership of the cartel. Guzmán was captured in Guatemala on 9 June 1993, and extradited to Mexico, where he was jailed in a maximum security prison, but on 19 January 2001, Guzmán escaped and resumed his command of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Guzmán has two close associates, Ismael Zambada García and Ignacio Coronel Villareal. Guzman and Zambada became Mexico's top drug kingpins in 2003, after the arrest of their rival Osiel Cárdenas Guillén of the Gulf Cartel. Another close associate, Javier Torres Félix, was arrested and extradited to the U.S. in December 2006. On 29 July 2010, Ignacio Coronel was killed in a shootout with the Mexican military in Zapopan, Jalisco.

Guzmán was captured on 22 February 2014, overnight by American and Mexican authorities. On 11 July 2015, he escaped from the Federal Social Readaption Center No. 1, a maximum-security prison in the State of Mexico, through a tunnel in his prison cell. Guzmán resumed his command of the Sinaloa Cartel, but on 8 January 2016, Guzmán was captured again during a raid on a home in the city of Los Mochis, in Guzmán's home state of Sinaloa. With the arrest of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, Ismael Zambada has assumed most of the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel.

On 24 June 2020, Zambada was revealed to be "sick with diabetes," which reportedly gave El Chapo's sons more influence over the Sinaloa Cartel. This also ended an attempt to recruit former high-ranking Mexican drug lords Rafael and Miguel Caro Quintero as members of the Sinaloa Cartel due to the refusal of El Chapo's sons to grant them leadership status. Under Zambada's leadership, the Sinaloa Cartel had been willing to negotiate potential leadership for the Caro Quintero brothers due to their past histories as bosses in the predecessor organization.

In current times, it is believed that while Guzmán‘s relatives and friends scramble for marginal leadership positions in the organization, the real top leader is still Ismael Zambada whom allegedly mediates power between them and allows them an umbrella of the organization to work under his reign with seemingly, relative autonomy.[citation needed]


The Sinaloa, Cartel has a presence in at least 22 of the 31 Mexican states, with important centers in Mexico City, Tepic, Toluca, Zacatecas, Guadalajara and most of the state of Sinaloa. The cartel is primarily involved in the smuggling and distribution of South American (primarily Colombian) cocaine, Mexican marijuana, methamphetamine and fentanyl, as well as Mexican and Southeast Asian heroin into the United States. However, much of the marijuana that is now cultivated and dealt by the cartel is being illegally grown in remote areas of California within the U.S.


During the 2000s and possibly still today, it is believed that a group known as the Herrera Organization would transport multi-ton quantities of cocaine from South America to Guatemala on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel. From there it is smuggled north to Mexico and later into the U.S. Other shipments of Colombian cocaine are believed to originate from Cali and Medellín drug-trafficking groups, from which the Sinaloa Cartel handles transportation across the U.S. border to distribution cells in Arizona, California, Illinois, Texas, New York City, and Washington state. Since Colombia is still currently the biggest producer of cocaine in the world, the Sinaloa Cartel is currently the most active Mexican cartel operating within Colombia where it helps finance and support several of Colombia's local paramilitary drug-trafficking groups such as the left-wing National Liberation Army, dissidents of FARC and Colombia's current largest drug cartel and right-wing paramilitary group; the Clan del Golfo. The Sinaloa organization also now participates directly in coca cultivation and production in Colombia. Nearly 85% of Colombia's coca is grown within just five departments in the nation. These are likely the same five departments in Colombia in which the CDS and CJNG rivalry has been detected.

Although Colombia, Bolivia and Peru have traditionally been the most notable South American countries in the cocaine trade, in recent times; Venezuela as well as Ecuador have stepped up their involvement in the trade, with the Venezuelan organization Cartel of the Suns poising concern to authorities abroad as well as the increase in the size of recent cocaine seizures in Ecuador. In August of 2021, a single multi-ton cocaine shipment was seized off the coast of Ecuador causing a string of killings in the aftermath. The CDS is said to have a longstanding partnership with one of Ecuador's largest and most powerful criminal groups; The Choneros, which are based in the Pacific coast beach town of Manta, although they get their name from the western city of Chone. Since 2011 they have evolved to become one of the Ecuador's fiercest prison gangs due to the leader being incarcerated for nearly 8 years. This caused most of the organization's activities to be controlled and influenced directly from prison where the gang continued to recruit new members. They reportedly engage in micro-trafficking, contract killing, extortion and contraband smuggling. However, recently smaller gangs have begun to target the Choneros and the organization has also fallen subject to the phenomenon of infighting within the gang and its derivative groups. According to the Washington Post, the Choneros are said to use their connections to rapidly move cocaine from the Colombian border to the port of Guayaquil. Ecuador's purported 2021 "spiral" into increased rates of crime and drug violence supposedly can be traced back to December 28, 2020 when Jorge Luis Zambrano González (alias Rasquiña), leader of the gang was assassinated in a shopping mall cafeteria in Manta. The country's overcrowded prison system and the COVID-19 pandemic has apparently dominated much of the government's attention and focus recently, thus allowing the gang to more easily grow and consolidate power. This growing of the organization as well as the killing of Rasquiña and the increasing importance of Ecuador in the illegal cocaine trade has given way to the recent crime waves in the region.

Opioids (Heroin & Fentanyl)

It also currently deals in the fentanyl trade to a large extent, distributing both raw fentanyl powder as well as counterfeit "M30" pills designed to look like authentic oxycodone but which are in-fact, just pressed with fentanyl or other chemicals. Similarly to methamphetamine, raw fentanyl production and distribution is incredibly profitable. It's cheap to produce since it is entirely synthetic and can be clandestinely manufactured since unlike marijuana, opium/heroin and coca; it requires no farming, cultivation, sunlight or irrigation. Most of the precursors required to synthesize fentanyl and its analogues come from China where it is then processed into fentanyl by criminal organizations in Mexico. The cartel also manufactures and traffics heroin that has been mixed with fentanyl to very cheaply increase its strength. Much of the heroin smuggled, particularly by the Sinaloa Cartel is made in "The Golden Triangle", a region in Mexico overlapping parts of the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua where opium and marijuana have historically been cultivated. Local state and government crackdowns on these farms however has pushed much of the opioid market in the direction of synthetics like fentanyl which can be made far more covertly.


The Sinaloa Cartel as well as other large Mexican cartels have, in recent times; set up large marijuana growing operations in the remote forests and deserts of California where they reportedly have stolen millions of gallons of water for these illegal grows. In the summer of 2021, this apparently lead to Los Angeles County's largest marijuana bust in history.


Although likely not as prolific in methamphetamine cooking as the CJNG, the Sinaloa Cartel still has major methamphetamine operations throughout North America, which includes Mexico itself due to the now ubiquitous use of meth in the country. The current rate of production and sale of methamphetamine in Mexico is also a result of the so-called "new era" of fully-synthetic drug manufacturing and trafficking. Methamphetamine, being another fully-synthetic compound (like fentanyl) also means that it doesn't require farming, cultivation and other related resources like those needed for production of marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Territory and presence

According to the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit in Mexico City, as of 2020 the cartel has palpable territory within the Mexican regions of Sinaloa, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Durango, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Edomex, Mexico City, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Colima, Aguascalientes, Querétaro, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. The Federation however is also known for its international presence and its many transnational criminal operations and partners.


Before his arrest, Vicente Zambada Niebla ("El Vicentillo"), son of Ismael Zambada García ("El Mayo"), played a key role in the Sinaloa Cartel. Vicente Zambada was responsible for coordinating multi-ton cocaine shipments from Central and South American countries, through Mexico, and into the United States for the Sinaloa Cartel. To accomplish this task he used every means available: Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, narco submarines, container ships, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor trailers and automobiles. He was arrested by the Mexican Army on 18 March 2009, and extradited on 18 February 2010, to Chicago to face federal charges. He filed a guilty plea agreement and agreed to cooperate with the government on 8 November 2018.

In the late 1980s, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) believed the Sinaloa Cartel was the largest drug trafficking organization operating in Mexico. By the mid-1990s, according to one court opinion, it was believed to be the size of the Medellín Cartel during its prime. The Sinaloa Cartel was believed to be linked to the Juárez Cartel in a strategic alliance following the partnership of their rivals, the Gulf Cartel and Tijuana Cartel. Following the discovery of a tunnel system used to smuggle drugs across the Mexican/US border, the group has been associated with such means of trafficking.

By 2005, the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, who were formerly aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, had come to dominate drug trafficking across the border with Arizona. By 2006, the Sinaloa Cartel had eliminated all competition across the 528 km of the Arizona border. The Milenio (Michoacán), Jalisco (Guadalajara), Sonora (Sonora), and Colima cartels were now branches of the Sinaloa Cartel. At this time the organization was laundering money at global scale, mainly through British bank HSBC.

In January 2008 the cartel allegedly split into a number of warring factions, which is a major cause of the epidemic of drug violence Mexico has seen in the last year. Murders by the cartel often involve beheadings or bodies dissolved in vats of alkali and are sometimes filmed and posted on the Internet as a warning to rival gangs.

As of 2013, the Sinaloa Cartel continues to dominate the Sonora-Arizona corridor, which extends for nearly 375 miles. It relies on eight "plaza" bosses, leaders of a specific geographic region along the corridor, to coordinate, direct, and support the flow of narcotics north into the United States. Key cities along the corridor include the Mexicali plaza, San Luis Rio Colorado plaza, Sonoyta plaza, Nogales plaza, and the Agua Prieta plaza.

The Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan areas are major trans-shipment and distribution points for the cartel in the US. To coordinate operations in the southeast US, Atlanta has emerged as a major distribution center and accounting hub and the presence of the Sinaloa Cartel there has brought ruthless violence to that area. Chicago continues to be a major Sinaloa distribution point for the Midwest, taking advantage of a strong local demand market and convergence of several major interstate systems that offer distribution throughout the US. The cartel also benefited for a long time of easiness in cash transactions and money laundering through banks with presence both in the US and Mexico like HSBC.

In 2013, the Chicago Crime Commission named Joaquin "Chapo" Guzmán "Public Enemy No. 1" of a city Guzmán has never set foot in. He is the only individual to receive the title since Al Capone. The focal point for Sinaloa in Chicago is the city's "Little Village" neighborhood. From this strategic point, the cartel distributes their product at the wholesale level to dozens of local street gangs, as much as 2 metric tons a month, in a city with over 117,000 documented gang members. The Gangster Disciples are one of the local gangs most actively working with the cartel. The cartel's attempts to control the Chicago drug market have brought them into direct conflict with other Chicago gangs, including the Black P. Stones, Vice Lords, and Black Disciples, resulting in an increase in violence in the city.

The Sinaloa Cartel has operations in the Philippines as a trans-shipment point for drugs smuggled into the United States. Since 2013, the cartel has been operating in the Philippines after a raid on a ranch in Lipa, Batangas, according to a statement by Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) director general Arthur Cacdac, and have entered the country without notice. President Rodrigo Duterte further confirmed the presence of the Sinaloa Cartel in the Philippines, saying that the cartel uses the country as a trans-shipment point for drugs smuggled into the United States. The presence of the cartel in the Philippines has worsened the ongoing war between drug lords, drug cartels and the government in that country.

On 4 July 2019, Juan Ulises Galván Carmona, alias "El Buda", was killed by two hit men in a convenience store in Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state along Mexico's Caribbean coast. El Buda served as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel's drug trafficking activities and shipments from Central and South America.

Arrest and seizures

On 11 May 2008, Alfonso Gutiérrez Loera, cousin of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, and 5 other drug traffickers were arrested after a shootout with Federal Police officers in Culiacan, Sinaloa. Along with the captured suspects, 16 assault rifles, 3 grenades, 102 magazines and 3,543 rounds of ammunition were seized.

On 25 February 2009, the U.S. government announced the arrest of 750 members of the Sinaloa Cartel across the U.S. in Operation Xcellerator. They also announced the seizure of more than $59 million in cash and numerous vehicles, planes, and boats.

In March 2009, the Mexican Government announced the deployment of 1,000 Federal Police officers and 5,000 Mexican Army soldiers to restore order in Ciudad Juárez, which has suffered the highest number of casualties in the country.

On 20 August 2009, the DEA broke up a large Mexican drug operation in Chicago, and uncovered a major distribution network operated by the Flores crew led by twin brothers Margarito and Pedro Flores that operated there. The drug operation allegedly brought 1.5 to 2 tons of cocaine every month to Chicago from Mexico and shipped millions of dollars south of the border. The shipments were mostly bought from the Sinaloa Cartel and at times from the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, and it is assumed that both cartels threatened the Flores crew with violence if they bought from other rival drug organizations.

The Mexican Secretary of National Defense (Sedena) reported the arrest of Jesús Alfredo Salazar Ramírez, alias "El Muñeco" or "El Pelos", who was identified as the current lieutenant of the South Pacific Cartel in the state of Sonora. As stated by Sedena, "El Muñeco" worked as an administrator under Joaquín Guzmán Loera and is believed to be responsible for the death of the activist Nepomuceno Moreno. Jesús Alfredo Salazar Ramírez was arrested on 1 November 2012, in the municipality of Huixquilucan, by military personnel working with the Mexican Attorney General's office (PGR).

"El Muñeco" is considered to be one of the most important lieutenants of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, evident from his control of the planting, production, and trafficking of drugs in Sonora and in the mountains of Chihuahua, which were sent predominantly to the US. He is linked to various homicides, among them the lawyer Rubén Alejandro Cepeda Leos, who was assassinated on 20 December 2011, in the city of Chihuahua, Chihuahua. According to the Sedena he is the assumed assassin of activist Nepomuceno Moreno Núñez, which occurred 28 November 2011. Nepomuceno Moreno was an activist who sought justice for the disappearance of his son and joined the Mexican Indignados Movement, led by the poet Javier Sicilia.

José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa (alias "Chino Antrax") was a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel. He was a leader and founding member of Los Ántrax, an armed squadron formed to protect Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García, founding member of the Sinaloa Cartel. He was arrested on 30 December 2013, at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in the Netherlands, at the petition of the United States of America, and with the help of Interpol, on charges related to drug trafficking.

The Sinaloa cartel's loss of partners in Mexico does not appear to have affected its ability to smuggle drugs from South America to the USA. On the contrary, based on seizure reports, the Sinaloa cartel appears to be the most active smuggler of cocaine. The reports also demonstrated the cartels possess the ability to establish operations in previously unknown areas, such as Central America and South America, even as far south as Peru, Paraguay and Argentina. It also appears to be most active in diversifying its export markets; rather than relying solely on U.S. drug consumption, it has made an effort to supply distributors of drugs in Latin American and European countries.

On 19 December 2013, the Federal Police of Mexico killed Gonzalo "El Macho Prieto" Inzunza in a gun battle in Puerto Penasco, Sonora. Inzunza was believed to be one of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's chief cartel leaders.

In December 2013, three suspected members of the cartel were arrested in Lipa in Batangas province in the Philippines with 84 kilograms of methamphetamine.

In February 2014, "El Chapo" Guzmán was arrested. The capture of the Sinaloa Cartel's "El Chapo" Guzmán ignited a fight over the trial's location. Calls for his extradition to the United States started just hours after his arrest. Guzmán also faces federal indictment in several locations including San Diego, New York, and Texas, among other places.

On 11 July 2015 "El Chapo" escaped from a maximum security prison, which is his second successful jailbreak from a maximum security facility in 14 years.

On 8 January 2016, Guzman was arrested again during a raid on a home in the city of Los Mochis, in Guzman's home state of Sinaloa.

Current alliances

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the Sinaloa Cartel and Gulf Cartel were traditionally considered allies but as of 2021, this alliance has reportedly fizzled out as the two groups now battle each other in the state of Zacatecas with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel now siding with the Gulf to fight against Sinaloa. The CDS is also battling La Linea teamed with the CJNG in Ciudad Juarez.

The Sinaloa Federation has formed alliances with two powerful Chinese Triads, Sun Yee On and the 14K Triad, to acquire the precursor chemicals needed in creating highly-addictive synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, and now, likely fentanyl. Operatives like local gangs pick up the chemicals from dropoff points and ship them to hidden labs. The resulting products are shipped to the United States and many South American countries. The Sinaloa Cartel also reportedly has a major presence in Colombia and has partnered with various paramilitary drug cartels such as the ELN and Clan del Golfo.

Tijuana Airport/Drug Super Tunnels

Image 1: Drug tunnel corridors Tijuana airport/Otay Mesa

In 1989, the Sinaloa Cartel dug its first drug tunnel between a house in Agua Prieta, Sonora to a warehouse located in Douglas, Arizona. The 300 feet (91 m) tunnel was discovered in May 1990. Following the discovery by U.S. Customs and Mexican Federal Police, the Sinaloa Cartel began to focus their smuggling operations towards Tijuana and Otay Mesa, San Diego where it acquired a warehouse in 1992. After the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo and six others at the Guadalajara airport on 24 May 1993, the gunmen boarded a commercial jet. When the jet landed at the Tijuana airport, both police and military units failed to cordon off the aircraft and the gunmen escaped. On 31 May 1993, Mexican federal agents searching for the gunmen found a partially completed 1,500 feet (460 m) tunnel adjacent to the Tijuana airport and crossing under the U.S.-Mexico border to a warehouse on Otay Mesa in San Diego. It was discovered as Mexican and San Diego officials were discussing the creation of a cross-border airport between Tijuana and Otay Mesa which would have undermined the drug tunneling operations in the area (see History of the Cross Border Xpress). The tunnel was described by the DEA in San Diego as the "Taj Mahal" of drug tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border and was linked to Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzmán. It was five times longer than the Agua Prieta-Douglas tunnel and became the first of a series of drug "super tunnels" in Otay Mesa originating in and around the Tijuana airport through the former Ejido Tampico. The "super tunnels" were equipped with power, ventilation and rail tracks to allow the efficient movement of large loads of narcotics across the U.S.-Mexico border. As seen on image 1 Drug tunnel corridors the close proximity of the former Ejido Tampico to the Tijuana airport and U.S.-Mexico border made it an ideal staging area for smuggling operations into the United States.

Image 2: Ejido Tampico comparison between 2000 and 2006

The Mexican government's conflict with the former Ejido Tampico dated back to 1970, when they expropriated 320 hectares (790 acres) of the Ejido Tampico to build a new runway and passenger terminal at the Tijuana airport and agreed to pay the displaced ejidatarios (the communal farmers) $1.4 million pesos ($112,000 U.S. dollars in 1970). When the Mexican government failed to indemnify the ejidatarios for their lost farmland, they reoccupied a 79 hectares (200 acres) portion of the Tijuana airport and threatened armed conflict. As shown by image 2 Ejido Tampico, from 1970 to 2000, the occupied land at the Tijuana airport remained relatively undeveloped. In 1999, the Tijuana airport was privatized and became part of a 12 airport network known as Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacífico (Pacific Airport Group). In an attempt to resolve the dispute and remove the ejidatarios from the privatized Tijuana airport, the Mexican government established a value on the expropriated 320 hectares (790 acres) at $1.2 million pesos ($125,560 U.S. dollars in 1999) while the ejidatarios of the former Ejido Tampico taking into account the increase in property values from 1970 to 1999 and the privatization of the Tijuana airport established a commercial value on their lost land at $2.8 billion pesos ($294 million U.S. dollars). In 2002, Mexican President Vicente Fox, who had promised to resolve the issue, also failed. As shown image 2 Ejido Tampico comparison between 2000 and 2006, the ejidatarios then proceeded to commercially develop the 79 hectares (200 acres) area at the Tijuana airport by leasing buildings and parcels to trucking and storage companies. As shown by image 3 Drug Trafficking Tunnel, in 2006 the unpermitted development allowed the building of a 2,400-foot (730-meter) drug "super tunnel" originating from the former Ejido Tampico and adjacent to the Tijuana airport's runway. As prior drug tunnels, it crossed under the U.S.-Mexico border into a warehouse on Otay Mesa in San Diego with the capacity to move multi-ton loads of narcotics.

Image 3: Drug trafficking tunnel under the U.S.-Mexico border used by the Sinaloa Cartel from the Ejido Tampico

Similar to the "Taj Mahal" of drug tunnels discovered on Otay Mesa in 1993, the 2006 drug "super tunnel" was traced back to the Sinaloa Cartel. With unregulated trucking and warehouse operations, the former Ejido Tampico became a major distribution point for narcotics being moved into the United States. In the ensuing years, drug tunnels moving tons of narcotics were detected in and around the Tijuana airport. The former Ejido Tampico also continued to expand its unpermitted development and more drug tunnels were discovered operating within its boundary to warehouses located on Otay Mesa in San Diego, California. In 2011, at the westerly end of the Tijuana airport a 1,800-foot (550-meter) drug "super tunnel" was discovered dug under the airport's 10/28 runway from a warehouse located 980 feet (300 meters) from Mexico's 12th Military Air Base and 330 feet (100 meters) from a Mexican Federal Police station. As with prior "super tunnels", it was equipped with an elevator and electric rail cars to efficiently ferry narcotics across the U.S.-Mexico border. In December 2016, one month prior Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán Loera's extradition to the U.S., two "super tunnels", one in operation while the other was under construction, were discovered by Mexican agents adjacent to the Tijuana airport/Ejido Tampico and the Otay Mesa border crossing. Both were associated with the Sinaloa Cartel. On 21 June 2017, Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán's "girlfriend" and former legislator of the state of Sinaloa, Lucero Guadalupe Sánchez López, was arrested at the Tijuana airport's Cross Border Xpress by CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) officers as she crossed into the U.S. She was charged with drug conspiracy and money laundering, and had been with Joaquín Guzmán when he escaped capture in 2014.

Allegations of collusion with Mexican federal government forces

In May 2009, the U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) aired multiple reports alleging that the Mexican federal police and military were working in collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel. In particular, the report claimed the government was helping the Sinaloa Cartel to take control of the Juarez Valley area and destroy other cartels, especially the Juarez Cartel. NPR's reporters interviewed dozens of officials and ordinary people for the journalistic investigation. One report quotes a former Juarez police commander who claimed the entire department was working for the Sinaloa Cartel and helping it to fight other groups. He also claimed that the Sinaloa Cartel had bribed the military. Also quoted was a Mexican reporter who claimed hearing numerous times from the public that the military had been involved in murders.[citation needed] Another source in the story was the U.S. trial of Manuel Fierro-Mendez, an ex-Juarez police captain who admitted to working for the Sinaloa Cartel. He claimed that the Sinaloa Cartel influenced the Mexican government and military to gain control of the region. A DEA agent in the same trial alleged that Fierro-Mendez had contacts with a Mexican military officer. The report also alleged, with support from an anthropologist who studies drug trafficking, that data on the low arrest rate of Sinaloa Cartel members (compared to other groups) was evidence of favoritism on the part of the authorities. A Mexican official denied the allegation of favoritism, and a DEA agent and a political scientist also had alternate explanations for the arrest data. Another report detailed numerous indications of corruption and influence that the cartel has within the Mexican government.

Allegations of collusion with the US federal government

In 2012, Newsweek reported about allegations from an anonymous former Sinaloa member turned informant and former DEA agents that alleged that Joaquín Guzmán's legal adviser, Humberto Loya-Castro, had become a key informant for the DEA. Loya-Castro had become an official informant of the DEA in 2005 but was already providing vital information on rival cartels since the 1990s; such intel was instrumental to the takedown of the Tijuana Cartel, the Sinaloa cartel's main rival, as well as the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who led a splinter group from the Sinaloa cartel. Such information ensured Loya-Castro was immune from prosecution while also keeping the DEA concentrated on Sinaloa's rivals and away from their leadership. Such allegations were confirmed by court documents obtained by El Universal during their investigation of collaboration with top officials from the Sinaloa cartel. According to court documents, the DEA had struck agreements with the cartel's leadership that would ensure that they would be immune from extradition and prosecution in the US and would avoid disrupting the cartel's drug operations in exchange for intelligence which could be used against other drug cartels.

Statements from a Mexican diplomat, which were revealed from leaked emails from the Stratfor leak in 2012, appeared to imply the belief amongst Mexican officials that US officials were assisting the Sinaloa cartel's drug smuggling efforts into the US and were protecting the cartel while attacking its rivals in an attempt to lower violence between Mexican drug cartels; this was backed up by information provided by a Mexican foreign agent, codenamed MX1. The allegation that US officials were controlling the drug trade through Mexico was corroborated by the former spokesman of the State of Chihuahua, Guillermo Terrazas Villanueva.

In March 2015, BBC TV programme This World broadcast an episode entitled "Secrets of Mexico's Drug War" which reported on the US government's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Operation Fast and Furious which had allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal buyers acting on behalf of Mexican drug cartel leaders, in particular the Sinaloa Cartel. The BBC also reported on Vicente Zambada Niebla's claims of immunity from prosecution under a deal between the Mexican and US governments and his claims that the Sinaloa Cartel's leaders had provided US federal agents with information about rival Mexican drug gangs. In the same documentary it is shown that the US Justice Department invoked national security reasons to prevent Humberto Loya Castro, the lawyer of the Sinaloa Syndicate, from being summoned as a witness to the trial against Vicente Zambada Niebla.

Battling the Tijuana Cartel

Sinaloa cartel-Tijuana cartel civil conflict
Part of Mexican drug war
War on drugs
Date8 November 1992
Status ongoing
Sinaloa Cartel
Supported by Gulf Cartel
Tijuana Cartel
Supported by Los Zetas
Commanders and leaders
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera
Ismael Zambada Garcia
Brothers Arellano
+20.000 between soldiers and hit men, +500 Narco tanks, +100.000 armored vehicles, 15 helicopters and 1 Narco-submarine +5.000 hit men, +100 Narco tanks and +10.000 armored vehicles
Casualties and losses
in total 636 deaths and thousands of injured, 1 Narco tank destroyed and 1 Narco-submarine sunk

The Sinaloa Cartel has been waging a war against the Tijuana Cartel (Arellano-Félix Organization) over the Tijuana smuggling route to the border city of San Diego, California. The rivalry between the two cartels dates back to the Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo setup of Palma's family. Félix Gallardo, following his imprisonment, bestowed the Guadalajara Cartel to his nephews in the Tijuana Cartel. On 8 November 1992, Palma struck out against the Tijuana Cartel at a disco club in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, where eight Tijuana Cartel members were killed in the shootout, the Arellano-Félix brothers successfully escaping from the location with the assistance of David Barron Corona, a member of the Logan Heights Gang.

In retaliation, the Tijuana Cartel attempted to set up Guzmán at Guadalajara airport on 24 May 1993. In the shootout that followed, six civilians were killed by the hired gunmen from Logan Heights. The dead included Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. The church hierarchy originally believed Posadas was targeted as revenge for his strong stance against the drug trade. However, Mexican officials believe Posadas just happened to be caught in cross fire. The cardinal arrived at the airport in a white Mercury Grand Marquis town car, known to be popular amongst drug barons. Barron had received intelligence that Guzmán would be arriving in a white Mercury Grand Marquis town car. Evidence that runs counter to a mistake theory is that Posadas did not look anything like Guzmán, he was wearing a long black cassock and a large pectoral cross, and he was gunned down from only two feet away.

Recently, it is believed that the Tijuana Cartel, or at least a sizable majority of it, has been either absorbed or forced to ally with the Sinaloa Federation, in part due to a former high-ranking Tijuana member called Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias "El Teo" or "Tres Letras" allying with the Federation.

Edgar Valdez Villarreal

Los Negros have been known to employ gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha to carry out murders and other illegal activities. The group is involved in fighting in the Nuevo Laredo region for control of the drug trafficking corridor. Following the 2003 arrest of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, it is believed the Sinaloa Cartel moved 200 men into the region to battle the Gulf Cartel for control. The Nuevo Laredo region is an important drug trafficking corridor into Laredo, Texas, where as much as 40% of all Mexican exports pass through into the U.S.

Following the 2004 assassination of journalist Roberto Javier Mora García from El Mañana newspaper, much of the local media has been cautious about their reporting of the fighting. The cartels have pressured reporters to send messages and wage a media war. The drug war has spread to various regions of Mexico, such as Guerrero, Mexico City, Michoacán and Tamaulipas.

On 30 August 2010, Villarreal was captured by Mexican Federal Police.

In popular culture

  • The Sinaloa Cartel has in both recent and past times; most often been the primary drug cartel that is associated with Narcoculture in Mexico.
  • The organization has also become the subject of several documentaries, such as Cartel Land, Locked Up Abroad, The Shabu Trap, Clandestino and several others. The cartel is also frequently reported on and mentioned in Vice News articles and documentaries. In December of 2020, part of the cartel’s illicit fentanyl operations were covered by National Geographic’s Mariana van Zeller in a series she hosts called Trafficked.
  • The most well-known leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, has been portrayed in various films and series (such as the Univision series titled El Chapo), books (such as Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man) and music; most notoriously in Narcocorridos but also in American rap & hip hop songs. Many different kinds of merchandise and clothing sold in Mexico (particularly in Sinaloa) come bearing the number or logo “701” which comes from a Forbes listing in 2009 that ranked El Chapo as the 701st richest person in the world. Guzmán was also reportedly a fan of the narconovela known as La Reina del Sur which starred Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. Ms. del Castillo was first approached by Guzmán's lawyers in 2014, after she published an open letter to Guzmán in 2012 in which she expressed her sympathy and requested him to "traffic in love" instead of in drugs; Guzmán reached out again to del Castillo after his 2015 prison escape, and allegedly sought to cooperate with her in making a film about his life. American actor Sean Penn heard about the connection with Ms. del Castillo through a mutual acquaintance, and asked if he might come along to do an interview. Guzmán had a close call in early October 2015, several days after the meeting with Penn and Kate del Castillo. An unnamed Mexican official confirmed that the meeting helped authorities locate Guzmán, with cell phone interceptions and information from American authorities directing Mexican Marines to a ranch near Tamazula, Durango, in the Sierra Madre mountains in western Mexico. The raid on the ranch was met with heavy gunfire and Guzmán was able to flee. The Attorney General of México declared that "El Chapo ran away through a gully and, although he was found by a helicopter, he was with two women and a girl and it was decided not to shoot". The two women were later revealed to be Guzmán's personal chefs, who had traveled with him to multiple safe houses. At one point, Guzmán reportedly carried a child on his arms "obscuring himself as a target".
  • The origins of the Sinaloa Cartel as well as its founding members have also been portrayed in the Netflix crime drama series Narcos: Mexico.
  • The Netflix series Queen of the South depicts fictional events dealing with the Sinaloa Cartel and its interconnections with the US drug smuggling.
  • Bruce Springsteen's song, "Sinaloa Cowboys", appears on his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad. It tells the story of two Mexican brothers who become involved with the Sinaloa Cartel.
  • In the Netflix series Ozark, the Sinaloa Cartel are portrayed as the main rivals of the fictional Navarro cartel in an ongoing war.
  • The Sinaloa Cartel are the main antagonists of 2018 film The Mule, starring Clint Eastwood (See: Leo Sharp). In this film, the cartel is led by Latón (Andy Garcia) and later by Gustavo (Clifton Collins Jr.), Latón's murderer.
  • In Tom Clancy's novel Against All Enemies, the cartel is led by Ernesto "El Matador" Zuñiga, a brutal and powerful Mexican drug lord and rival of Jorge Rojas, the leader of the Juarez Cartel and the main antagonist of Against All Enemies.