The fight for control of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s legacy spilled into the open on Thursday after a gun battle between rival Mexican gangs left 16 dead, authorities said.
The 16 men, heavily armed and wearing bulletproof vests, died in a six-hour running shootout near the rural town of Tepuche in northwestern Sinaloa province.
“A van with seven bodies was located” after an initial clash, while nine bodies were discovered following a second exchange, Sinaloa Minister of Security Cristobal Castaneda told reporters.
Castaneda said that Wednesday’s clash near Tepuche, 25km from the capital of Sinaloa, Culiacan, was “part of a struggle between two organized crime gangs in the area.”
Local media reported that the conflict involved members of the Sinaloa cartel — pitching a part of the gang run by the sons of ex-leader Guzman against a faction led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, long considered the group’s No. 2.
The reports pointed to a deep split in what remains one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels, despite El Chapo’s 2016 capture and subsequent extradition to the US, where he is serving a life sentence.
Castaneda said that the rival groups had clashed on eight separate occasions in the area since May 29.
In the aftermath of the shootings, police confiscated 40 high-caliber weapons, 10 grenades, 36,000 rounds of ammunition and 24 vehicles, the official said.
Seven of those who were killed were identified as residents of Tepuche.
A reporter who drove through the town on Thursday found several houses left abandoned by families who had fled the area in fear of escalating violence.
“Most of the people are gone, but we stayed because we have animals here we have to look after,” said a local resident, who gave her name as Modesta.
“However, if the government tell us we have to leave, we’ll leave,” she said.
Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, said that Guzman’s three sons — known as the “Chapitos,” or little Chapos — were engaged in a fight for control of the cartel.
“It’s a matter of inheritance. Since their father founded the Sinaloa cartel, they believe they should manage it,” Vigil told reporters.
After Guzman’s capture, his sons Ivan, Jesus and Ovidio agreed that Zambada would take over in the interim while they “learned the business,” Vigil said. “They only knew how to spend the money, but now they know how the cartel operates and they want to take control, and that’s why these disputes are happening.”
Vigil said that the Chapitos are worried about the future of the cartel if Zambada, a 72-year-old with diabetes, dies and his lieutenants take over.
“The cartel is not yet divided, but it is on that path. Many respect “Mayo” because he is the oldest capo in Mexico, but there is another group that is with the Chapitos because they know that Zambada could die,” Vigil said.
A split in the group would likely aggravate Mexico’s gang violence, because it would bolster the rival Jalisco Nueva Generacion (New Generation) cartel.
“The Jalisco cartel is the bloodiest cartel, the consequences for Mexico would be unimaginable, and with this government I don’t know how it could be faced down,” Vigil said.
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