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  • Foto del escritorESPACIOH


Actualizado: 25 mar 2021

Por: Álvaro Castillo

Presidente y Fundador de ESPACIOH

Licenciado en Ciencias Políticas-Salve Regina University

Estudiante de Maestría en Seguridad Global y Estudios Estratégicos-Johns Hopkins University

Ismael Zambada García, known as “El Mayo,” has become the most powerful drug warlord in the world by exploiting Mexico´s geography, corrupting its government officials, and replacing the role of the state in key areas across the country. El Mayo is the only drug cartel leader left from the “old guard” that has maintained his illicit operation uninterruptedly for more than four decades. Today the United States and the Mexican Government are still looking for him, however, the forty-year-old search continues to be unsuccessful. As the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, perhaps the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the globe, El Mayo has been able to traffic drugs from Mexico to the United States for years, making billions of dollars, while unraveling a deadly battle with other cartels. El Mayo, whose humble origins started in the State of Sinaloa as a farmer and then as a furniture store employee, was first inducted into drug trafficking by becoming part of the Juarez Cartel between the 1970s-1980s. The extraditions to the US of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán and Damaso “Licenciado” López, left El Mayo the only leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. As a 72-year-old untraceable warlord, El Mayo has held onto power by maintaining a low profile, and permanently hiding from authorities, while keeping a backstage leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel.

For decades, the Sinaloa Cartel has been the most powerful and durable transnational criminal network in the Western Hemisphere. El Mayo “has the longest drug trafficking tenure of today’s traffickers, having been a mainstay in the business for more than 40 years (Ravelo, 2019). To understand how El Mayo became so influential for drug trafficking in the Americas, first, the Sinaloa Cartel and its criminal organization must be analyzed. Since the 1960s, farmers in Sinaloa started to play a major role in drug trafficking, assisting Colombian and Central American criminal organizations. Today, however, the heavily armed Sinaloa Cartel ¨operates in 17 Mexican states, and by some estimates, in as many as 50 countries¨(InSight Crime, 2019). The Jalisco New Generation Cartel is a rising organization that splintered from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008-2010. Its drug warlord, “El Mencho” Oseguera, is posing a direct threat to the Sinaloa Cartel´s dominant position in Mexico´s fight for controlling drug trafficking routes across the nation, as territorial controls are critical to ensure drug supply and profits.

Geography and natural resources are crucial for warlords to secure profits. That is why the Sinaloa Cartel has taken advantage of drug production while maintaining substantial control of heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, and marijuana routes. El Mayo´s modus operandi depends on patrolling the “Golden Triangle,” which is Mexico´s most drug productive region, composed of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa. The state of Sinaloa is a region that has been historically linked to contraband. It is also home to poppy and marijuana production; it is the state where most of the Mexican drug cartels have their origins. Moreover, El Mayo´s alliance with El Chapo Guzman allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to be one of the most stable and best-funded in the entire region. It is a cartel that outsources drug operations with local partners and establishes alliances across the continent. Today “the Sinaloa Cartel has a presence in almost every major city in the Western Hemisphere” (InSight Crime, 2019). The Sinaloa Cartel has expanded its operations by bribing government officials, remaining on the top of the fourteen cartels that today fight for the territorial dominance of Mexico.

Corrupt government officials, both in Mexico and Central America, have been critical for el Mayo’s ascent to power and the longevity of the Sinaloa Cartel´s illicit operations. Recently extradited drug kingpins that have testified in the United States have alleged how the highest government officials in Mexico, such as Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and General Salvador Cienfuegos, were actively colluding with drug trafficking cartels. The success of Mexican drug cartels, such as the Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation, Los Zetas, Juarez, and The Gulf Cartel, rely on infiltrating and corrupting local and national governments across the Americas. American authorities have spent billions to curb drug trafficking for “14 years of military operations — and $3 billion in U.S. anti-narcotics aid” (Sheridan, 2020). Yet, today President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has adopted a conciliatory and permissive stance toward drug cartels, publicly stating that he will not persecute Mexican drug warlords to ensure the security, political, and economic stability of the country and that of thousands of families whose income depends on drug trafficking. This strategy is not proving effective as, during his tenure, Mexico has experienced an historic rise in homicides. However, the President has even shared his vision of potentially granting amnesty to Mexican kingpins that patrol their cities in narco tanks. The strong influence of drug warlords in Mexican and Central American politics has spiked corruption levels in this region, as well as homicide rates.

Warlords emerge as an alternative form of government where state authorities have been replaced by drug cartels, leading the way to a vicious cycle of violence. This is the case of Mexico; “Homicides in the last two years have surged to their highest levels in six decades; 2020 is on track to set another record. Mexico’s murder rate is more than four times that of the United States” (Sheridan, 2020). Warlords and non-state actors emerge among nations prone to corruption, like El Mayo in Mexico, gangs in the Northern Triangle, Laurent Nkunda in the Kivu provinces of Africa, and the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. A variety of challenges emerge within fragile states like these, where warlords are “just one actor within this complex picture of authority and control” (Beswick, 2009, p. 338). In the north and pacific side of Mexico, warlords have replaced government authorities, even collecting taxes where the state has a weak presence. Quite often in these anarchic regions, a diversity of non-state actors and warlords emerges to compete in the same illegal market. This was the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo which was the “epicenter of regional conflict, involving eight African states, a range of rebel groups and causing 4 million deaths from 1998 to 2003” (Beswick, 2009, p.334). Today Mexico is the epicenter of violence and mayhem in the Western Hemisphere. Warlords from across the globe and the criminal organizations they lead have one thing in common, their brutal use of force. This behavior is seen in Mexican cartels through extortion, decapitations, and massacres of rival groups. By 2018, the intrastate wars led by cartels in Mexico left “over 200,000 drug-related killings since 2006” (Gutiérrez-Romero, 2018). That is why five Mexican cities have been categorized “Level 4 for danger — the same as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq” (Sheridan, 2020). Mexican warlord rivalries are destroying the country.

Although El Mayo has avoided imprisonment for decades, today a bleak future awaits him: one that is more inclined to imminent justice instead of impunity. The truth is that “El Mayo has proven himself remarkably adept at evading arrest. His deep connections in government and the local population in Sinaloa have helped him spend over 40 years in the drug trafficking business without ever seeing the inside of a jail cell” (InSight Crime, 2019). However, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel along with other cartels in Mexico, are coming together to put an end to the Sinaloa Cartel. Moreover, El Chapo Guzmán was recently extradited as along with his son. The U.S. is getting closer to the whereabouts of El Mayo; “Authorities have arrested his brother, two sons and a nephew” (InSight Crime, 2019). There are also rumors El Mayo’s health is deteriorating due to diabetes. Furthermore, U.S. government extraditions of major Latin American drug kingpins in recent years have provided crucial information to help dismantle drug trafficking operations. Certainly, the Sinaloa Cartel’s members and El Mayo Zambada, in particular, are one of the DEA’s main targets. Otherwise, El Mayo may become the only major drug warlord to avoid justice.


Beswick, Danielle “The Challenge of Warlordism to Post-Conflict State-Building: The Case of Laurent Nkunda in Eastern Congo” The Round Table Vol. 98, No. 402, June 2009, pp. 333–346.

Gutiérrez-Romero, R. (2018, September 16). Making Bad Economies: The Poverty of Mexican Drug Cartels. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Ismael Zambada García, alias 'El Mayo'. (2020, March 30). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Ravelo, R. (2019, September 16). The Sinaloa Cartel's 'El Mayo,' Mexico's Last True Capo. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Gutiérrez. (2020, July 09). Sinaloa Cartel. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Sheridan, M. (2020, October 29). Violent criminal groups are eroding Mexico's authority and claiming more territory. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

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