By Jamie Dettmer
It is becoming increasingly perilous to be a narco-junior and Mexican authorities appear determined to emphasize the dangers by targeting the sons, nephews and cousins of cartel bosses.
The latest strike against narco-juniors came in Tijuana on April 25 when Mexican soldiers in a joint operation with the border city’s municipal police detained two nephews of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, a top Sinaloa cartel leader and the closest confidant of the crime organization’s boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Authorities identified the two El Mayo nephews as Omar Ismael Zambada, aged 23, and Sergio Rodolfo Cazares Zambada, aged 28. The former is the son of Jesus Reynaldo Zambada Garcia, alias “El Rey”, who was extradited to the United States on trafficking charges earlier in April. Cazares is the son of Agueda Zambada Garcia, a sister of Jesus and El Mayo.
A few days before the Zambada nephews were arrested along with two of their bodyguards U.S. federal authorities unveiled a major indictment of Guzman and “El Mayo”. The United States is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to arrest of each of the Sinaloa cartel’s top two leaders.
Mexican officials say targeting alleged narco-juniors like the Zambada nephews is becoming a key part of President Felipe Calderon’s strategy against drug-trafficking organizations and the families that run them. Officials from the Mexican Attorney General’s Office briefed journalists in the wake of the arrests, saying that going after narco-juniors is “part of the offensive against drug kingpins.”
“You could say it amounts to a form of psychological warfare,” says newspaper columnist Jose Carreño.
He adds: “When a narco-junior gets arrested it can be emotionally draining for the crime family. But it is not gratuitous. Many of the youngsters play major roles in cartel operations.”
El Mayo’s nephews were captured as they were driving on Avenida Revolucion in downtown Tijuana in a Dodge Avenger. The drugs were in 13 packages. A PGR spokesman said no shots were fired and the detainees “were transferred by the military to the Morelos barracks in Tijuana and then were delivered to the Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (OFDI) in Mexico City.”
On May 1, a federal judge ordered that El Mayo’s two nephews be held for 40 days while a federal investigation seeks to discover the level of their involvement in cartel operations.
Neither of the nephews has been especially high profile in public or socially.
The public image of nacro-juniors is one thing, the reality another. Previous generations of narco-juniors have been flashy and willing to flaunt their wealth and were less educated compared to the current crop of narco-juniors, who have attended private schools and graduated often from top universities in Mexico and overseas.
“It isn’t that they won’t get their hands dirty – some of the narco-juniors go over to the operational side and others they will veer more to the money-laundering and asset management side,” says security expert Alberto Islas, who served in the Zedillo administration. “But they are disciplined and talented and in another environment they could well be top corporate executives and even CEOs.”
He adds: “They don’t flaunt who they are.”
And since the Mexican authorities made it clear with a series of arrests of narco-juniors in 2009 that they are focusing on the heirs of the cartels as much as the bosses, the scions of cartel capos have become more circumspect about how they live and play.
Mexican cartels have always been family affairs, with sons following fathers into the business. Los Zetas is the exception.
“Unlike the most traditional drug cartels in Mexico, which tend to be centered on the family, the organization base of the Zetas is a meritocracy and recruits move up to leadership positions,” says José Luis Valdés-Ugalde, a professor at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
But other cartels – the Sinaloa Federation, the Juarez cartel as well as the Arellano Felix group in Tijuana and the Beltran-Leyva cartel – are all close-knit organizations at their top levels and revolve around family with sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews involved in some capacity or other in the family business.
The Sinaloa Federation led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán has included at various times at leadership levels all four of his brothers as well as his five sons.
In 2009 federal authorities nabbed three narco-juniors. The first to be arrested was Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada, the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, considered a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel, who was seized on March 9 before dawn at his home in the elite Mexico City neighborhood of Lomas del Pedregal.
For the Mexican public the arrest came as a shock – not only had someone high up in the Sinaloa cartel been arrested but also Vicente Zambada didn’t fit the public image of a narco-junior. At the press conference after his arrest where he was paraded before the cameras the clean-cut 33-year-old narco-junior appeared the epitome of an urban professional dressed in a black blazer and dark blue jeans and well-coiffed hair.
Not quite the figure associated with running logistics for a cartel and, according to Gen. Luis Arturo Oliver, the Mexican Defense Department’s deputy chief of operations, a man having the authority within the cartel to order assassinations of rivals and government officials.
As with other narco-juniors, Zambada was apparently expected to rise through the ranks but was on what in the corporate world would be called a fast-track executive program. According to the Mexican indictment he began by supervising the unloading of cocaine from ships off the Mexican coast and verifying quantities coming from Colombia before being promoted to the top ranks.
The second surprise for the narco-juniors came on March 24 2009 when federal authorities captured Hector Huerta, who authorities said oversaw the flow of drugs through the northern city of Monterrey for the Beltran-Leyva cartel. He was detained in a Monterrey suburb, along with four men identified as his bodyguards. Soldiers also seized assault rifles and four grenades. He was arrested at a luxury car dealership he ran in a Monterrey suburb.
And then a third surprise on April 2 when police grabbed Vicente Carrillo Leyva as he exercised in a city park. Carrillo Leyva inherited a top position in the Juarez cartel from his father Amado Carrillo Fuentes, considered Mexico’s No. 1 drug trafficker when he died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery.
Prosecutors said the then 32-year-old Carrillo Leyva was second only to his uncle Vicente Carrillo Fuentes in the cartel. Again this narco-junior came across as an established urban professional: he was paraded at the press conference to announce his arrest in the running clothes he was wearing when seized by police – a white Abercrombie & Fitch jogging suit set off with trendy dark-framed glasses.
Carrillo Leyva had been educated in Europe and is fluent in French and English. At the time of his arrest a Mexican City newspaper quoted a neighbor as saying: “The young man went out running in the morning and his wife was very nice. They didn’t have loud parties or anything.”
Narco-juniors not only have to look over their shoulders for law-enforcement. As inter-cartel rivalry has become more savage, they have also to look out for rivals. One of the most dramatic slayings of a narco-junior came on May 8 2008 when gunmen from a rival cartel gunned down El Chapo’s then 22-year-old son Edgar Guzman Lopez as he walked to his car from a shopping mall with bodyguards in Culiacan.
Police investigators collected subsequently more than 500 shell-cases from the scene. At the time of his slaying, Edgar was studying business administration at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa and was himself a family man with a two-year-old from a common-law wife, Frida Munoz Roman.
A popular narco-corrido entitled El Hijo de La Tuna written from the viewpoint of El Chapo following the killing of his son and sung by Roberto Tapia has the opening lines: “My sons are my sources of happiness as well as my sadness. Edgar I will miss you.”