- Mexican authorities arrested Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, earlier this month.
- The younger Guzmán and his brothers have led the Sinaloa cartel to be a major fentanyl supplier to the US.
- The US has demanded action on fentanyl, and Ovidio’s arrest may prompt Mexico to continue a targeted campaign.
Arresting Ovidio Guzmán wasn’t easy. It was never going to be. With El Chapo’s prison escapes and Ovidio’s tumultuous first arrest and release in 2019, keeping the Guzmán family behind bars has been difficult.
This one was no different. Nearly 30 people were killed in Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa, during the operation that ended in his arrest, including 10 soldiers. Dozens of other soldiers were also wounded.
But even if arresting Ovidio was never going to be easy, was it at least worth it?
The meaning of his arrest
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the report on the capture of Ovidio Guzman Lopez on January 6.
Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images
For its public relations value, the timing was ideal. Ovidio Guzmán López is one of the four sons of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” who is seeking to continue their father’s legacy.
Known as the Chapitos, the four have taken over much of the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations and are among the most significant traffickers of fentanyl and methamphetamine to the United States. This rapid success saw them named InSight Crime’s Criminal Winners for 2022.
It was, therefore, perfect that Ovidio’s arrest came a few days before US President Joe Biden came to Mexico, intent on discussing how to reduce the flow of fentanyl across the border.
In 2018, US prosecutors indicted Ovidio and his brother Joaquín on drug conspiracy charges related to trafficking cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. While a Mexican judge has temporarily halted his extradition, it is likely he will eventually face trial in the United States.
Ovidio thus becomes the latest “kingpin” to fall, much like his father before him. But leaving his recognizable name aside, what precise difference will Ovidio’s capture make to the Chapitos, to the Sinaloa Cartel, to fentanyl reaching the United States, and to Mexico’s overall criminal landscape?
What was Ovidio’s role?
Ovidio Guzman Lopez during his arrest on October 17, 2019.
The Chapitos are most often referred to as a group, either by that name or by the Menores (The Minors) and the Juniors. Their name is always in reference to their more famous father as if his accomplishments continued to dwarf their own.
What is known is that Ovidio, his brother Joaquín, and their half-brothers Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar appear to be a tight unit. Ovidio is perhaps the one mentioned most frequently, but this is primarily due to the violence surrounding his arrests in Sinaloa.
Beyond this, little is known about their individual roles within the organization. Field work carried out by InSight Crime in Sinaloa has suggested that Iván Archivaldo, reportedly the more violent of the four, is the overall leader.
Ovidio’s role may have been one of expansion. According to the Justice Department, in 2008, he and Joaquín began to arrange shipments of cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana to be sent into the United States.
He may also have spearheaded efforts to set the Chapitos up in Mexico City. In July 2022, for example, 14 alleged envoys of the Chapitos wearing badges of a cartoon rat were arrested in the capital. This is allegedly a symbol referring to Ovidio, known as “El Ratón” (The Rat).
In the days after Ovidio’s arrest, an intelligence report released by authorities detailed the Chapitos’ operations in the capital’s neighborhood of Tlalpan, according to the Mexican news site La Silla Rota.
However, much of this remains conjecture. In the post-Chapo age, little is known about the roles and whereabouts of top drug traffickers. The Chapitos are no exception. Their rival for control of the Sinaloa Cartel, Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” as well as the head of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG), Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,“ have not been seen or heard from for years.
How will allies and enemies react?
Vehicles torched during a January 5 operation to arrest Ovidio Guzman in Culiacan on January 7.
JUAN CARLOS CRUZ/AFP via Getty Images
The Chapitos have never been gun-shy. In the last couple of years alone, they have mounted targeted operations at rivals within the Sinaloa Cartel and beyond. Their longest-running feud has been with their father’s old partner, El Mayo.
In June 2020, a vast shootout in Sinaloa between cartel members loyal to either side left at least 15 dead. This followed the assassination of a former Sinaloa Cartel lieutenant loyal to El Mayo shortly after his return from prison in the United States.
In 2022, they also intensified a long-running battle against the Caborca Cartel in Sonora following the arrest of that rival group’s founder, Rafael Caro Quintero. Gaining further power in Sonora would help to secure the Chapitos’ control of a vast tract of the US-Mexico border. The Sinaloa Cartel’s nationwide war with the CJNG across Mexico continues to be one of the country’s principal drivers of criminal violence. Despite this unenviable list of enemies, it is not immediately clear what weaknesses Ovidio’s arrest leaves to be exploited.
The reaction to his 2023 arrest shows the instant and brutal capacity with which the Sinaloa Cartel will defend its leaders, even at the sake of their members’ lives. The loyalty that the Chapitos receive is partly a continuation of their father’s legacy but also as a result of their own success. This can be seen online with the Chapiza hashtag.
That support will not be undone by Ovidio’s arrest.
As for the CJNG, its territorial wars will likely continue. It currently has active fronts against the Sinaloa Cartel in Zacatecas and Baja California, both crucial for fentanyl trafficking. But it is highly unlikely that Ovidio’s fall will weaken the grasp of the Chapitos in their core territories enough to merit a fresh challenge.
The flow of fentanyl to the United States
Seized drugs, including fentanyl, stored in a garage under the Mexican attorney general’s office in Tijuana in July 2022
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images
In the weeks before Ovidio’s arrest, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced that 50.6 million fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills and over 4.5 tons of fentanyl powder had been seized in the United States in 2022.
Its press release stated that the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG were responsible for mass-producing most of this fentanyl at “secret factories in Mexico with chemicals largely sourced from China.” Between April 2020 and April 2021, fentanyl was responsible for over 64,000 overdose deaths in the US.
The Chapitos have been at the forefront of this wave of synthetic drugs coming from Mexico. Ovidio’s arrest is unlikely to diminish the amount of precursor chemicals the Chapitos receive, the number of clandestine laboratories they control, or the quantity of fentanyl sent to the border.
However, President Biden has come to Mexico to demand firm action be taken against the fentanyl trade. Buoyed by its success with Ovidio and pushed by the United States, the Mexican government may decide to continue a targeted campaign against the Chapitos.
That could become the biggest threat the sons of El Chapo face.