Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman’s sensationalized public examination since November of 2018 has diffused the relevance of key historical figures in Mexican drug trafficking. For instance, Rafael Caro Quintero, who is at large in Mexico despite the DEA’s $5 million reward or Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the founding leader of the Guadalajara Cartel in its heyday.
Best described as “old school” leaders, these two traffickers have remained under the radar for decades. Their continuing participation in criminal activities, however, underlines the present-day complexity of the Mexican drug business and its relationship to U.S. affairs.
Despite Rafael Caro Quintero’s public apologies and assurances that he is no longer involved in trafficking, Quintero’s current relationship to organized crime is partly understood through the fact that el Chapo never quite legitimized his role as a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel but was rather perceived as Quintero’s pupil, a kind of “gopher” or someone responsible for mundane tasks assigned by a boss.
After Quintero and Felix Gallardo were arrested, in 1985 and 1989, Guzman intended to become a central figure in the Sinaloa Cartel, to no avail. Partly due his relationship with Héctor Luis “el Güero” Palma, el Chapo fell into a dispute with Felix Gallardo’s nephews, the Arellano-Felix brothers of the Tijuana Cartel, who ordered the kidnapping and murder of Palma’s wife and children.
Their rivalry, however, was principally fueled by the Arellano-Felix’s disapproval of Guzman’s aspirations to leadership. El Chapo —or “the short one”— was simply never seen as an authority figure. His reputation was mostly constructed through media attention in the U.S. and Mexico after he escaped from prison, along with a tendency for publicity that revealed his pursuit to be recognized as a boss.
In 2016, for example, the CJNG actually kidnapped el Chapo’s son only to release him days later. The incident publicly exposed the irrelevance of his leadership and the danger of taking the construction of his fame through the media face value. It served as a subtle reminder about who is really “in charge”.
The fact is that Caro Quintero and Felix Gallardo continued to run cartel operations while in prison for years after their arrest. El Chapo’s notoriety functioned perfectly as a mechanism to take attention away from their activities and those of other traditional top-ranking drug dealers. For Ismael “el Mayo” Zambada from the Sinaloa Cartel it was a particularly ideal situation.
His son Vicente Zambada Niebla couldn’t have said it better: when asked what his father does for a living in a Brooklyn courtroom, where el Chapo’s trial began taking place since November of last year, he simply answered that “my dad is the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader”. For years el Mayo Zambada has kept a low profile and is yet to be arrested.
It thus becomes evident that criminals like el Chapo have a superficial function, at best. The past leaders of Mexican drug trafficking heydays such as Rafael Caro Quintero and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo continue to exercise power. Their diffused role as bosses facilitates their continued involvement in organized crime through a complex web of money laundering and capital reinvestment via legitimate business structures.
It is not necessary for those key figures to aspire a frontal competition or outright war, for instance, against the currently known leaders of the CJNG cartel, or others. Such a move could not only prove deadly but it would be outright unnecessary, for their participation as transportation and laundering overseers is much more comfortable yet equally profitable.
While Caro Quintero is still involved with a fleet of ships that serve as a means to transport illicit substances northwards, Felix Gallardo, on the other hand, continues to appear as a shareholder in numerous registered businesses in Mexico.
Mexican organized crime is no longer limited to substance trafficking but has expanded into other criminal endeavors such as petroleum theft, kidnappings and extortions. Consequently, drug cartels and past leaders such as Caro Quintero and Felix Gallardo are involved in money laundering and various service industries that operate through licit and illicit business structures as well as international barriers, both within and across U.S. and Mexico.