Month: March 2014

BOONDOCK SAINT

Originally published at www.latimes.com:

In life, Mexican cartel boss was revered as a saint

With the killing of Knights Templar founder Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, Mexico’s war on drug cartels gains some credibility. But effects on the overall violence are unclear.

 

By Richard Fausset
March 10, 2014, 9:37 p.m.

 

 

MEXICO CITY — If nothing else, the slaying of cartel boss Nazario Moreno Gonzalez by Mexican soldiers may have burst the bubble of mysticism that had made him one of the stranger figures to emerge in the country’s drug war.

Moreno, whose nicknames included “El Mas Loco” (“The Craziest”), was a founder of Michoacan state’s La Familia drug cartel and its offshoot, the Knights Templar — groups that have moved massive amounts of methamphetamine and other drugs north to the United States.

In Mexico, the groups have run extensive extortion rackets, corrupted dozens of local governments and engaged in blood-drenched warfare with federal troops and rival drug gangs, all the while spouting Moreno’s mix of evangelical Christianity, self-help advice and the writings of Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran.

Moreno fancied himself a protector of his people and an enforcer of rules. Among other things, he forbade the use or sale of methamphetamine on his home turf, insisting that it only be shipped to the U.S. As cracked as that moral code was, it could feel like something to cling to in an often lawless land, and it made Moreno a kind of legend.

Although it’s unclear whether his death in Sunday morning’s shootout will help quell the violence in western Mexico, it is likely to help President Enrique Peña Nieto sell the argument that his administration is fighting a smarter and more sophisticated drug war than that of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

When Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, there was a fear that he might go soft on the cartels in an attempt to calm the violence. But now, two mythic drug lords have been felled in a matter of weeks. A joint U.S.-Mexico operation nabbed Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Feb. 22.

Jorge Chabat, a professor at Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching, said that at the very least, the elimination of the two capos shows that “there is a part of the Mexican state that is indeed effective and is capable of functioning.”

It was the bumbling of the federal government that helped turn Moreno into a folk saint in the first place. In December 2010, Mexican authorities claimed they had killed Moreno in a shootout. They hadn’t, and soon Moreno was making appearances all over Michoacan, his spiritual powers growing in the eyes of campesinos who began praying to him and setting up shrines in his honor.

One printed invocation dug up this week by Reforma, the Mexico City newspaper, went:

Blessed light of night

Defender of the sick

St. Nazario, saint of ours

I always entrust myself to you.

Mexican authorities say Moreno was finally gunned down — for real, this time — by federal troops in a rural Michoacan municipality Sunday. His body was recovered and his fingerprints checked against a government database.

The effect Moreno’s slaying will have on the cartel-related unrest that has gripped Michoacan, and become a major source of embarrassment for the government, remains to be seen.

Last year, “self-defense” militias sprang up in the rural state and threatened to confront Moreno’s Knights Templar directly, given the lack of government action. Outside the village of Buenavista Tomatlan, the vigilantes trashed a shrine to Moreno.

In January, Peña Nieto sent a massive deployment of troops and federal police to avert a conflagration between the two groups. Since then, those troops and police have been rounding up suspected cartel members, often acting on tips from cooperating vigilantes.

The heightened presence appears to have led to the realization that Moreno was still alive: Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia, head of the National Public Security System, said the government was first tipped off to the possibility Feb. 7 when authorities patrolling the area arrested a man carrying drugs and weapons who told them he worked in “direct service” to Moreno — one in a chain of clues that eventually led them to the capo’s door.

The encounter suggests that Moreno was acting as more than a spiritual leader for the group. If so, his death could deal an operational blow to the Templars.

At the same time, the federal government said it has recently reestablished its control over the port of Lazaro Cardenas, on Michoacan’s Pacific coast. The Templars long exerted a strong influence at the port, controlling the importation of drugs and methamphetamine precursors and shipping out minerals the cartel extracted from illegal mines — all major sources of income. On March 3, the government announced that it had seized 119,000 tons of illegally mined iron at the port that the cartel had been hoping to ship to China.

 

Other Knights Templar leaders have also been targeted.

 

Late last month, troops killed a local cartel leader named Francisco Galeana, also known as “El Pantera.” A few days later, the government announced the capture of Luis Alfredo Aguilera Esquivel, a cartel member and son of Servando Gomez Martinez, a.k.a. “La Tuta,” the man presumed to be the leader of the cartel’s day-to-day operations.

Then, on Friday, authorities arrested 15 people on suspicion of extortion and kidnapping, including cartel leader Abraham Zamora Zamudio, also known as “El 69.” The self-defense groups have applauded these law enforcement victories, which could serve to break up the cartel and lead the vigilantes to return to their homes and farms.

The vigilante groups have created problems too.

The federal government had to send troops and federal police Monday to the town of La Ruana, near Buenavista Tomatlan, to prevent an altercation between two quarreling self-defense factions, according to a radio news report.

Chabat, the professor, warned that Moreno’s death may not make a big difference in the effort to fix Michoacan. He noted that a number of other leaders remain at large.

In many places, the drug gangs have made deep inroads into the local power structure. In the nearby state of Guerrero last month, the head of the chamber of commerce in the state capital, Chilpancingo, accused the mayor of being in league with crime gangs and of trying to assassinate him — allegations the mayor strenuously denied.

The real change in Mexico, Chabat said, will come not from counting scalps but from solving the long-term problems that enable drug cartels to flourish.

Local governments will need to be armored against corruption. Local law enforcement agencies will need to be strengthened to fight off local crime bosses. And gains in education and living standards must be made so that a bloodthirsty drug dealer is not revered as a saint.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

 

 

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PYTHONESQUE

APphoto_Mexico Drug War

Originally published at www.latimes.com:

Drug kingpin is really dead this time, Mexican officials say

By Richard Fausset
March 9, 2014, 7:41 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — You only die twice — or so it seemed for Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, leader of Mexico’s notorious Knights Templar drug cartel.

In December 2010, Mexican officials believed that they had killed Moreno, known alternately as “El Chayo” and “El Mas Loco” (“The Craziest”), in a shootout in the troubled state of Michoacan. His body was not recovered, however, and many locals doubted the story.

Since then, western Mexico has been rife with rumors that the charismatic leader had been seen. He has earned a cultlike following for preaching a cracked version of evangelical Christianity to go along with his cartel’s extensive extortion and drug-running rackets.

On Sunday, the federal government again announced that it had killed Moreno, this time in a Sunday morning shootout in Michoacan. And this time, officials said, they have a body, and the fingerprints, to prove it.

In a news conference, Monte Alejandro Rubido, the executive secretary of Mexico’s National Public Security System, said the Mexican military tried to arrest Moreno on Sunday morning in the municipality of Tumbiscatio but had to fire upon him after they were attacked.

Rubido said federal authorities had been receiving “constant reports” from locals that Moreno was, in fact, still alive.

Afterward, Tomas Zeron, an official with the federal attorney general’s office, showed fingerprints and thumbprints from a body that was recovered, projecting them alongside what they said were matching prints on file with the Mexican military. Zeron said the government had “100%” identified the body as Moreno’s.

The killing of Moreno — if he is really dead this time — is another high-profile victory in the drug war for the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December 2012 promising to fight the cartels in a smarter and more efficient manner.

On Feb. 22, Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most-wanted criminals, was apprehended in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlan in a joint Mexican-U.S. operation.

Although the takedown of these crime bosses may deal a short-term operational blow to their respective criminal networks, it remains unclear whether the Peña Nieto government has devised an effective long-term strategy to reduce the power of the cartels inside Mexican territory.

The Knights Templar have created one of the most pressing conundrums for Peña Nieto in his short time in office. In January, the administration had to send a massive surge of troops and federal police to Michoacan territory controlled by the cartel after an uprising of vigilante “self-defense” groups who were threatening to take on the drug group and potentially spark a regional conflagration.

The self-defense groups have since been integrated into a preexisting, federally controlled rural defense corps, and in some cases are working alongside troops and federal police in an effort to break the Templars’ control.

The Knights Templar, a spin-off of the La Familia drug cartel, has adopted some of the original group’s quasi-religious trappings, as well as rhetoric in which its members cast themselves as true protectors of the people.

Some residents of western Mexico readily bought into the mythology, constructing religious shrines to Moreno. But the day-to-day operation of the Knights Templar appears to have fallen to a former schoolteacher named Servando “La Tuta” Gomez Martinez, who remains at large.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Photo:  A man holds a sign in Spanish that says, “Nazario will always live in our hearts” — referring to drug cartel leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez — during a 2010 demonstration in Mexico after the government announced Gonzalez was killed. But the cartel leader’s body was not found at that time. (Primera Plana / December 12, 2010, via LA Times)

TIED UP

Close vote in El Salvador

Originally published at www.latimes.com:

El Salvador’s presidential election too close to call

In the runoff, conservative candidate Norman Quijano trails leftist Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren by less than 0.2 percentage points.

By Richard Fausset
March 9, 2014, 10:22 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — El Salvador’s presidential runoff was so close Sunday night that election officials declined to name a winner until a final count Monday.

Adding to the confusion of the evening, left- and right-wing parties each declared victory, while conservative candidate Norman Quijano, who was trailing by just a few thousand votes, alleged in a blistering speech that the count was fraudulent.

With nearly 3 million votes tallied — more than 99% of the total — Quijano, of the right-wing Arena party, was trailing Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who was a leftist guerrilla during the country’s civil war, by 4,403 votes, according to the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Quijano had 49.93% of the votes, while Sanchez had 50.07%.

In the early evening, the head of the electoral tribunal, Eugenio Chicas, said the vote was so close that a winner would not be declared until Monday, according to local news reports.

Shortly thereafter, Quijano, a former mayor of San Salvador, the nation’s capital, went before hundreds of supporters there and denounced the tribunal’s decision to delay the count. Quijano argued that his party had won and that the tribunal had been “bought and corrupted” by the leftist party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. The Salvadoran armed forces, he said, “were watching out for this fraud.”

Such fiery rhetoric is likely to raise alarm in a country that was engulfed in a civil war from 1979 to 1992, when the FMLN was an armed guerrilla group. As the tight election shows, the country remains deeply divided over the best way to lift a large chunk of the population from enduring poverty and to solve increasingly dire problems of gang violence and transnational drug shipments.

Medardo Gonzalez, a congressman from the FMLN, said Sunday that the vote showed that “the Salvadoran people decided to give the majority of the vote to Salvador Sanchez Ceren,” according to the newspaper El Diario de Hoy.

Sanchez Ceren won the first electoral round with 49% of the vote in a three-way race; he was forced into a runoff because he did not receive more than 50%.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Photo: A woman holds her child after voting in El Salvador’s presidential runoff election at a polling station in San Salvador, the capital. (Inti Ocon / AFP/Getty Images / March 10, 2014, via LA Times)

SLIMMING

Mexican regulator deals blow to dominant TV, telephone firms

Orignally published at www.latimes.com:

Mexican regulator deals blow to dominant TV, telephone firms

TV giant Televisa and telephone firm America Movil, which is controlled by Carlos Slim, are ordered to share their network infrastructure with competitors.

By Richard Fausset
March 8, 2014

MEXICO CITY — A Mexican regulatory agency has ordered the massive companies that dominate this nation’s telephone and broadcast television sectors to share their network infrastructure with competitors, a move that could seriously alter Mexico’s telecommunications landscape in the months and years to come.

The rulings by the Federal Telecommunications Institute appeared to be a “step in the right direction” for the Mexican economy, said George W. Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the College of William and Mary.

Concentrated media ownership and weak regulations have resulted in high prices, low infrastructure investment and some of the lowest cellphone, landline and broadband subscriber rates among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a study published by the group in 2012.

“You can’t really expect to attract major investors if you’ve got an extremely convoluted telecommunications system,” Grayson said. “It’s just part of being in the modern world.”

The separate rulings were issued against TV network giant Televisa and America Movil — the company controlled by billionaire Carlos Slim and whose subsidiaries, Telmex and Telcel, dominate the fixed-line and mobile telephone markets, respectively. Televisa commands about 70% of Mexican broadcast TV viewership, and Telmex and Telcel each represent more than 70% of their respective sectors.

The reforms to Televisa could have a serious effect on national politics. The network’s news programs have long been accused of exhibiting a bias in favor of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. When Peña Nieto was elected president in 2012, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, alleging, among other things, that the network’s pro-Peña coverage had fundamentally corrupted the democratic process.

Peña Nieto and the PRI supported the telecommunications reform law last year, perhaps as a way to show that they did not owe Televisa any favors.

Whether or not Televisa produced biased news coverage, it indisputably wields enormous power, attracting 70% of Mexico’s broadcast television viewers, a reality that the telecommunications institute appears eager to shatter. The agency also announced Friday that it had set in motion plans for the creation of two new national broadcast TV networks to compete with Televisa.

In addition, the agency banned Televisa from acquiring exclusive broadcast rights to programs with “unique characteristics that in the past have generated high levels of national or regional audiences,” including the Olympic Games and soccer playoffs, according to a statement that Televisa filed Friday with the Mexican stock market.

Purificacion Carpinteyro, a federal congresswoman for the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, said that Televisa will now be forced to share the TV towers it has strategically located on hilltops across Mexico with competing companies that might want to broadcast new kinds of content. That, she said, could create new opportunities for independent Mexican production companies. In addition, she said, the new rules may also widen the spectrum of political content available to TV viewers.

“Televisa has been ruling the conscience of the Mexican population ever since the 1970s, when TV sets became more prevalent,” she said, adding that many voters prefer here not to read newspapers or seek out the news from other media. “So Televisa is pretty much a Big Brother telling them what to think, and about how to act, what is beautiful and what is ugly.”

Televisa has the right to challenge the decision, but the regulator’s decisions would remain in effect while the courts decide the case, financial analyst Jose Yuste said in a radio interview Friday.

Times staff writers Meg James, and Cecilia Sanchez of the Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Photo: Tycoon Carlos Slim controls America Movil, whose subsidiaries Telmex and Telcel dominate Mexico’s fixed-line and mobile telephone markets, respectively. (Jeremy Piper, Associated Press / February 24, 2010, via LA Times.)

LA MOTA

mexico-marijuana-high

 

I was on Southern California NPR affiliate 89.3 KPCC-FM this morning discussing new legislative proposals to liberalize marijuana laws in Mexico on the program “Take Two.” I’ll post the link to the archived audio as it becomes available on their site. For now, here’s the description of the segment from the “Take Two” staff. In my conversation, I emphasized how tough it will be for these efforts to pass given the continuing public opposition to the idea of legalization.

IT’S JUST TALK

L.A. and Mexico City mayors meet

Originally published at www.latimes.com:

In Mexico, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Spanish goes far

Eric Garcetti puts his Spanish to use on a trade mission. A Mexican reporter says the mayor’s Spanish is pretty good, albeit ‘lacking a few words.’

 

By Richard Fausset
March 4, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — When historians write about 21st century Los Angeles, they’ll probably observe that Eric Garcetti was the second Spanish-speaking L.A. mayor in a row to make an official visit to the Mexican capital.

They may also note how trips such as his trade mission this week reflected the increasingly intimate cultural and economic ties between Los Angeles and its sister megalopolis to the south.

But some of the subtleties of the experience may be lost to posterity if it is not also noted that Garcetti, like his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, speaks a version of the language that, for lack of a more scientific term, might be called Funky American Business Spanish.

Villaraigosa and Garcetti have Latino roots, but both had to learn much of their Spanish in school, on the stump or on the job. As a result, they speak a serviceable but far from perfect Spanish, a shortcoming each has acknowledged with humility and admirable good humor. During a 2009 visit to Mexico City, Villaraigosa referred to himself, self-deprecatingly, as “el pochito” — “pocho” being slang for an Americanized Mexican who may not speak Spanish well.

On Tuesday, Garcetti, whose paternal grandfather was born in Mexico, referred to his language skills as “good community meeting Spanish,” much of which, he said, was refined while he was representing L.A.’s heavily Spanish-speaking 13th City Council District.

It so happened that the Mexican press corps, fascinated by the new L.A. mayor with Mexican roots and an Italian name, was just as eager as his hometown constituents to chat him up.

“Yesterday I think I did 15 individual interviews” in Spanish, Garcetti said in an interview Tuesday morning. “At the end of the day, your head kind of hurts. But the next day, you’re speaking it again, and it hurts a little less.”

Garcetti’s Spanish probably served him well Tuesday afternoon in a closed-door meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was criticized by some during his 2012 campaign for speaking limited English.

At a news conference Monday at the Industrial Club of Mexico, the mayor ably fielded questions in Spanish, holding forth on the two cities’ shared challenges and his mixed Jewish-Latino heritage. His answers were also peppered with the kinds of little mistakes that his 11th-grade Spanish teacher at the private school now known as Harvard-Westlake, where he began studying the language, would have marked, lightly, in red pen.

At one point, he appeared to have invented a word: “agrecimiento,” to mean “acuerdo,” or “agreement.” Moments later, he stuck the English word “between” in the middle of a Spanish sentence. Later, making a reference to the “social fabric,” Garcetti said what sounded like the “fabrica social” (in Spanish, “el tejido social“), which could be translated as “the social manufacturing plant.”

If Garcetti had been speaking French on a diplomatic mission to Paris, he might have been harangued — or even hanged — for his errors. But Mexicans tend not to be such purists, and they have built up decades of tolerance for visitors from El Norte mangling their mother tongue.

“There’s no gotcha involved here,” Gil Cedillo, an L.A. City Councilman who is traveling with the mayor on the four-day trip, said in an interview Tuesday.

Cedillo should know: Though he grew up in Boyle Heights with Spanish-speaking parents, he said he started speaking the language seriously only after 1998, when he was elected to the California State Assembly and promised local Spanish-speaking media that he’d improve. Soon after, he said, he went to Cuernavaca for a two-week Spanish immersion crash course.

His parents, like many Latino parents at the time, saw the widespread prejudice against Spanish speakers and decided it best that their son assimilate.

“I know I’m limited,” he said. “I know my grammar is not correct. But I know people here appreciate the effort.”

After tossing a few questions at Garcetti in Spanish on Monday, Isaac Ajzen, a reporter for diariojudio.com, a website for Mexico’s Jewish community, said that Garcetti, despite an American accent, had acquitted himself well.

Garcetti’s Spanish “is pretty good, it’s pretty fluid,” Ajzen said. “Obviously, he’s lacking a few words.”

Cedillo has a theory about Mexicans’ high tolerance for wonky Spanish: “I think Mexicans appreciate the value of their relationship with the United States more than we do ours with Mexico.”

But for Los Angeles politicians, at least, acknowledging the importance of Mexico, and its language, has become increasingly de rigueur, for political and economic reasons.

Garcetti deployed Spanish often during last year’s mayoral race, emphasizing his Mexican heritage even as some well-known local Latino leaders rallied behind his opponent and at least one of them questioned Garcetti’s Latino roots. The strategy probably helped him carry most of the heavily Latino neighborhoods on L.A.’s Eastside in the May election.

Currying favor with Mexico on the business front also makes good sense. According to Garcetti’s office, Mexico is the L.A. metropolitan area’s second-largest export market, with trade between Los Angeles and the Mexican capital alone amounting to $2.2 billion in 2010. And the largest number of foreign tourists to L.A. are from Mexico.

The mayor, who arrived in Mexico City on Sunday, was joined by a group of L.A. city officials, whose $95,000 travel costs were picked up by Los Angeles World Airports and the Port of Los Angeles, according to the mayor’s office. A number of area business leaders came along and paid their own way.

They were hoping to expand flights and cruise-ship traffic between L.A. and Mexico, create new opportunities in construction, retail and green energy businesses, and let Mexicans to know about the planned “Harry Potter” and “Despicable Me” attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood.

On Monday, Garcetti visited the National Autonomous University of Mexico, celebrating its plans to partner with Cal State Northridge in creating a new Center for Mexico and Latin American Studies at the California school. On Wednesday, he was scheduled to inaugurate a new exchange program between Loyola Marymount University and the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

Garcetti spoke at a news conference about the importance of “cultural fluency” in the new global economy. “Mas y mas, este es una oportunidad de cruzar las fronteras,” he said — more and more, this is an opportunity to cross borders — “directamente, y, um, ah…”

“Say it in English,” Ajzen suggested in English, with a chuckle.

“OK, I’ll say it in English,” Garcetti said. “You can cross the borders literally and conceptually.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Photo: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, meets with his Mexico City counterpart, Miguel Angel Mancera. Garcetti used his “good community meeting Spanish” in interviews with the Mexican press corps. (Federal District Government / March 3, 2014, via LA Times)

MEET THE NEW BOSS

Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada

Originally published at www.latimes.com:

After ‘El Chapo’ arrest, focus turns to next Sinaloa drug boss

Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, who is believed to now control Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, comes from the same countryside as Joaquin Guzman. But he keeps a lower profile, which may make him harder to catch.

 

By Richard Fausset and Richard A. Serrano
March 2, 2014, 8:00 a.m.

 

 

MEXICO CITY — With the arrest of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the leadership of Mexico’s largest and most sophisticated illegal drug operation has probably transferred to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a 66-year-old former farmer with a knack for business — and maintaining a low profile.

But Zambada is likely to discover, much as Guzman did, that inheriting the throne of top capo comes with a series of complications worthy of a Shakespearean king.

Like his predecessor, Zambada is a country boy made good who hails from the badlands of Sinaloa, the traditional heart of Mexican drug-smuggling culture. Though he has enjoyed less publicity than Guzman, he has long been considered a high-level target for U.S. and Mexican authorities, who have managed to nab a number of his family members and close associates in recent years. Now that pressure is likely to increase substantially.

As long as Zambada remains free, however, close observers of the Mexican drug world will be analyzing the little that is known about his style in an effort to divine the future for his global drug empire. They will also be attuned to Zambada’s personal history — particularly his longtime business alliance with Guzman. The current state of that partnership could be the difference between a smooth succession within the Sinaloa cartel and a bloody fracturing of what has long been a loose-knit and volatile confederation of killers, smugglers and outlaws.

A U.S. federal law enforcement official said Friday that American authorities were watching Mexico closely, expecting that Guzman would be handing the reins of the Sinaloa cartel to his “most trusted” confederate.

“But the question is: Does he want it?” said the official, speaking confidentially because there is a pending criminal case against Zambada. “Does he want to become the lightning rod by becoming the head of the cartel? If he does that, he knows the U.S. and Mexico will come after him like an avenging wind.

“But he’s probably got no choice. Chapo, through his lawyers, will send a message to El Mayo that he has to take over the cartel, simply because he’s the only guy there for a smooth transition.”

In a 2010 interview with the weekly Mexican newsmagazine Proceso, Zambada, whose nickname is a diminutive often given to boys named Ismael in Sinaloa, said that he and Guzman “are friends, compadres,” who “talk on the phone regularly.” The two men do seem to have much in common. They are of roughly the same generation (Guzman, officials say, is either 56 or 59), grew up poor in rural Sinaloa, and both sport cowboy-style mustaches.

Both men have also spent decades in the drug business, the reason the U.S. government issued individual rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to their capture. Zambada is said to have begun at age 16 — “since before Christ resurrected Lazarus,” Michael S. Vigil, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s former chief of international operations, said in an interview Friday.

Early on, Vigil said, Zambada worked the Mexicali area, lording over the region against rival drug smugglers. “He killed several individuals that were trying to take over that plaza,” Vigil said.

Eventually, Zambada and Guzman formed a bond. In 1989, they were said to be among the emerging cartel leaders who were granted control of key geographical sectors of Mexico by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a powerful capo of the era known as “El Padrino,” or the Godfather. At the time, Felix was seeking to disaggregate the drug trade’s leadership, making it more difficult to police.

According to federal grand jury indictments filed in 2008 and 2012 against Zambada, Guzman and others, the two men came to control two distinct and powerful factions in the Sinaloa cartel. Prosecutors said they continued their alliance in order to more effectively coordinate massive shipments of cocaine and heroin to U.S. markets, employ squads of assassins and threaten violence against buyers in the United States who dared to consider doing business with the competition.

In Mexico, there were rules, but Guzman, in particular, was happy to break them. On the website of the Mexican newsmagazine Nexos last week, Guillermo Valdes Castellanos, the former director of the Mexican government’s Center for Investigation and National Security, said that the 1989 meeting with El Padrino established dues that regional drug chiefs would have to pay to move through another’s territory.

Guzman frequently ignored these territories in his quest for expansion — one reason why Mexico saw so many battles break out in key nodes on the drug route, including Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo. Now, Valdes argues, it is Zambada who will have to decide whether to continue with the same adversarial approach.

“Everything indicates that El Mayo Zambada will stay at the front of the organization. What’s less clear is whether, with the detention of Guzman Loera, his business model will come to an end,” Valdes wrote, referring to Guzman by his full surname.

Little is known about Zambada’s management style. Writer Malcolm Beith, in his 2010 book, “The Last Narco,” credited him with a sophisticated business acumen, saying he was careful not to flood the U.S. market with drugs and thus drive down street prices.

One U.S. law enforcement official Friday described Guzman as “the muscle” at the top of the Sinaloa organization and Zambada as all the rest. “He is everything,” said the official, who asked to be unnamed because of the pending criminal charges. “The brains. The logistics. Security. Everything.

“He’s very respected in the Sinaloa cartel and even among their rivals. They respect him because he is one of the old drug traffickers in Mexico, and he’s also very feared because, like Chapo, he will exert violence. Not in a wholesale manner. He’s a little more surgical. Because he knows it’s bad for business.”

The Zambada faction and what remains of Guzman’s faction may still be close. But there is also a possibility that one may have betrayed the other, a not-uncommon occurrence in the Mexican drug world. A few days before Guzman’s Feb. 22 arrest, Mexican authorities had carried out operations that led to the arrest of a number of Zambada’s closest associates.

Two of Zambada’s sons are in U.S. federal custody, awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges. One of them, Jesus Vicente Zambada, has argued in court documents that he should be immune from prosecution because he was cooperating with U.S. officials.

The U.S. law enforcement official who spoke of the potential “avenging wind” said he doubted that either Guzman or the Zambadas rolled over, arguing that the relationship between the two clans was too strong, and that revenge could be extracted on an informant, even within prison walls.

That will do little to stem speculation in and outside Mexico.

“We’re like ships on the water, watching the bodies floating to the surface,” said David Shirk, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “We have no idea what’s going on below.”

Zambada’s 2010 interview with Proceso was a rare moment when he stepped into the spotlight. Zambada himself requested the interview and posed for a picture with the writer. He ended up on the cover, in an eggplant-colored Izod shirt and a hunting cap, looking defiant and a little paunchy.

In the story, Zambada bragged of his extensive knowledge of the Mexican backcountry, where he often hides from authorities. He has never been apprehended, in marked contrast with Guzman, who was arrested in 1993, and then made a high-profile escape from a Mexican federal prison in 2001. The jailbreak made him as famous as any soap opera star.

After his escape, Guzman was known for making occasional flashy appearances at crowded restaurants. That is not the case with Zambada, which may make him tougher to track. Vigil, the ex-DEA official, said that Zambada may also have had plastic surgery to alter his appearance.

“‘El Mayo’ Zambada lives in his natural environment, which is the sierra…. That’s his home,” said Gustavo Fondevilla, a security specialist at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. “It’s not the traditional model of the narco we’re used to — visible, with high levels of consumption.”

Nor is he likely to surrender. In the Proceso interview, Zambada was asked whether he would commit suicide if he was ever caught.

“I want to think,” he responded, “that yes, I would kill myself.”

Fausset reported from Mexico City and Serrano from Washington. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

[Photo: Journalist Julio Scherer Garcia, left, appears with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada on the cover of a 2010 edition of the newsmagazine Proceso. Zambada is believed to have succeeded Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as boss of the Sinaloa drug cartel. (Proceso / March 1, 2014, via LA Times.]

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